A new meaning to riding ‘shotgun’: COPROCAEL, La Encarnacion, Honduras

The COPROCAEL co-op was another one I’d mis-located, thinking it was in the town of Ocotepeque. It was actually miles away, but I did get the province right… I’d already contacted Nelson Guererra to say I was on the co-op’s doorstep, and had to backtrack when I found out. We exchanged several emails, and the frustration I felt at his stuttered, mis-spelt replies left me wondering if it was worth the hassle. But this was all part of Nelson’s character, and this backtracking on my part led to an interesting few days……

Firstly, when I told him where I was staying in Ocotopeque, he turned up at my hotel, though I was out. Telling him I was moving on to Santa Rosa and would miss the chance for a visit, he said no problem – he lives in Santa Rosa!

More back and forth later, and in Santa Rosa we made vague plans to meet up. Vague because I could hardly follow his email threads. But I didn’t expect him to turn up at my hotel again unannounced, waiting for me to go with him to the co-op. It was a 2-hour drive away (for a normal person; Nelson does it in 90 minutes). Luckily I had planned to spend time with Nelson that day, whatever he had in store.

A few minutes later we were away. Nelson lives in Santa Rosa and commutes to the co-op every day. Which means he doesn’t take his time on the road. 30 km of the drive is on dirt roads, but that doesn’t bother Nelson. Accompanying us in the back of the pick-up was Tony, a fairly unassuming, straightforward guy. We chatted briefly. He said he works with Nelson. During the day whilst at the co-op, Tony didn’t seem to do much, so I wondered just what kind of work he did. It wasn’t until we were leaving when Tony was fiddling around with his handgun in the back of his jeans that I realised what his job probably was. Guessing that he is some kind of bodyguard for Nelson, he didn’t look the part, but maybe that’s why he does what he does. I never did learn from Nelson whether he’d had any trouble in the past.

Nelson continued to surprise me. He had three phones with him and was rarely off any one of them, even when driving. He was always busy talking to someone or other during the visit, and has a quick smile and remarkable energy. Only slightly older than me, he’s the founder of the co-op, and all the various trials and tribulations that the co-op has been through don’t seem to have shown their mark on his personality. He comes across as a happy, giving and enthusiastic bloke. He went out of his way to make sure I could see the co-op and was generous with his time and in getting others to show me around. I even got a souvenier hat to go along with my experience of the day. Nelson used to live near the co-op, but his extended family lives in Santa Rosa, so he moved there four years ago. He was philosophical about having to commute every day.

As for the co-op itself, it’s a great example of Fair Trade in action, and this is in large part due to the efforts of Nelson himself. Nelson started the co-op around 11 years ago, at the height of the coffee ‘crisis’. They have had certifications only for the last three years (Fair Trade, UTZ and organic). The co-op now has 200 producers, generating around 6m lb of green coffee for export. They sell to roasters in the US (including Green Mountain Coffee and Cooperative Coffees), Europe and South Korea.

Nelson told me that it’s been hard for the producers to see the benefits of Fair Trade up to now, but he is a firm believer in it. Coffee prices recently have been relatively high, and it is in times like this when it is more difficult to see the benefits of Fair Trade. For a typical small farmer, a high price means they are more tempted to ‘cash in’ right at harvest time, because they can get paid straightaway. This is not the norm in Fair Trade, when payments to producers are typically given at specific times of the year, so the farmer can struggle financially for a period of time. This co-op is unique because it does pay its producers at harvest time. Nelson realised they must do this to stop farmers selling outside of the co-op, but it’s very difficult to do. It leaves the co-op itself at a financial risk, particularly if market prices change, because the co-op has to wait several more months to receive its own payment.

Because of this constant juggle of finances for the co-op, Nelson would really like the ‘Northern’ buyers to pay up-front, alleviating the risk for the co-op. He would also prefer to have longer than single-year contracts with buyers, but he said a number of them come back year after year. He would also like the co-op to be 100% organic but realises how difficult this is for some producers.

Some of the benefits Nelson has seen for the co-op have been investments in a commercial coffee dryer (completed the previous year), medical help for producers, access to credit, and giving education and technical training for the producers. The co-op is growing each year.

While at the co-op I met several people. I had a great time with Dany, the catador (cupper), roasting and tasting the local coffee; Eduardo, the co-op president, who is a farmer himself and keeps a gun very close to his side except when was showing it off to Nelson; Mixael, the quiet bookkeeper (I’m not stereotyping…honest); and Oscar, a farmer, who went to school with Nelson and recently came back from spending nine years working low-paid jobs in the US. His farm is conventional as he says organic is too much work.

Nelson has put in a huge effort to get the co-op where it is today, and it looked impressive to me. The COPROCAEL co-op is also an investor in Cafe Honor, a new cafe I had been to the previous day in Santa Rosa. But this posting is long enough! More about that in my next blog…

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COCAFELOL, Honduras: random Fair Trade stop on the road

Breezing into Honduras from El Salvador I fell into the trap, yet again, of confusing provinces and towns. My stay in Nuevo Ocotepeque, my Fair Trade ‘base’, just across the Honduran border, did not turn out as I hoped. I was in the right province, but my intended Fair Trade visits were too far out of reach from the town. Plan B then…Nuevo Ocotepeque had nothing to distract me, despite trying hard – the circus was in town – so I decided to head to Santa Rosa the following day. It turned out to be one of my toughest rides of the trip.

I started with a long climb – a good three hours uphill. I was a wee bit nervous about cycling in Honduras having heard the odd story or two, and knowing the capital, Tegucigalpa, to be a little dodgy. So when a bloke stopped halfway up the hill and offered to give me a lift I wondered whether I’d found a very generous soul or a dodgy geezer. I wasn’t tempted, even though the climb was hard, I wanted to get up that hill all by my own effort. Declining as nicely as I could, I don’t think he understood my motivation. Eventually he moved on but stopped a little further up the road, putting me on edge. I passed him and waved. A few minutes later he did the same, to my huge relief. Looking back, I wasn’t sure whether he was more concerned about my safety or the fact I was crazy for cycling up this long mountain pass.

Weather conditions changed significantly at the top as I was greeted with strong winds, fog and the coldest temperatures I’d experienced in a while, but my long descent gave way to more sun and heat. It was near the bottom of this, in La Labor, whizzing past a sight to my left that made me brake in earnest. I couldn’t pass up this opportunity!

The co-operative has well-adorned walls, showing their Fair Trade credentials

It was the colourful wall display of COCAFELOL, a Fair Trade coffee co-operative. It was too good to miss, so I parked up with Edna, chatted to the security guard, and got myself a chance to look around the facility. I figured an hour here would still give me enough time to complete the ride in good order…

Sipping a welcome cup of coffee, I waited in reception for Renan, a young lad who works on the co-op’s certifications. They have quite a collection – Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance and “UTZ”, and organic. The different certifications cater for the different growers in the co-op and the different buyers of the coffee. Producers have one of the three social/environmental certifications (Fair Trade has the highest number) but organic certification is only with a few producers. Although the co-op encourages organic production, the standards are strict to obtain and many producers are put off by the investment needed.

The co-op has over 300 producers and in total produces more than 2.5m lbs of green coffee. All the ‘premium’ quality is exported to foreign markets; the ‘second’ quality is used for domestic markets. AMPROCAL, a women’s co-operative, is a separate co-op affiliated with COCAFELOL who create the roasted and ground coffee products for the Honduran market.

COCAFELOL is an ambitious co-op, as I could tell just from their wall graphics out front. As well as quite modern processing equipment they have instituted a bio-ethanol operation for powering the equipment and it was the first time I saw the drying ‘greenhouses’. These help produce ‘micro-lot’ coffee that is typically produced in small quantities and can fetch higher prices when sold. In common with many other co-ops, they produce organic compost, including worms, that they sell back to the producers. The producers have access to credit via the co-op.

I got a quick tour and would have liked a little longer. Not only was it lunchtime, but I had a lot of riding still to do that day. I figured I was behind schedule but thought I’d still be ok for time. I trusted my map, I trusted Google Maps…

It all worked out in the end, though I rolled into Santa Rosa at the latest time of day I’d ever arrived, right around dusk. The climbing was particularly tough getting into the town, and the state of the roads and traffic didn’t help. I should have learned some Spanish swear words for that climb…

But there’s a great feeling to finish a day like that and my bonus Fair Trade visit really made my day. Unpredictable in so many ways, it encapsulated the good and bad of bike touring in strange places, and the bizarre things that can happen along the way.

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