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…