Fair Trade cacao, Panama: COCABO

“I’ve seen it all”, says Elma, in an accent that was both startling yet familiar. “In my 25 years here, I’ve seen the ups and downs. There are good years and bad years”, she says in Spanish, with a distinctly Caribbean lilt. I’d forgotten that I was right on the Caribbean coast. Elma, a tall, indomitable lady with a hearty laugh and friendly manner, was happy to give me an insight into the COCABO co-op.

A one-hour sweaty, undulating bicycle ride from Changuinola, the dusty town I was staying in, led me to Almirante, where COCABO is located. Almirante’s prime motive for existence seems to be its port. Squashed  together are the tourists and the traders; the traders look like they won. Tourists do their best to pass through quickly on their way to the idyllic islands of Bocas del Toro.

Ignoring the constant shouts from tourist touts I asked for directions to the co-op. Port smells (fish and diesel) filled the air and people (potentially smelling of fish and diesel as well) filled the streets, and a few minutes later, skirting the town and its shabby surroundings, I located the COCABO sign. Situated across the road from a container storage site, it was in keeping with the rest of Almirante – neither a glamorous nor picturesque location.

COCABO is predominantly a cacao co-op, though also trades coffee (which is grown in the highlands and comes here already dried) and bananas. The COCABO site contains a small office and warehouse for storing and checking the cacao to be exported overseas.

The office itself was peopled with friendly and helpful workers, right down to the lady who graciously gave me a sugar-fuelled cup of coffee. It had been brewed with the sugar built-in. A great time-saving yet unnecessary exercise.

Elma is in charge here and her presence was striking. Not only is she large, a loud speaker, and funny, but being a female “in charge” is unusual in itself. I’d almost always been introduced to men who were managing affairs at the co-ops I’d visited. Elma was an exception, no question.

Jose Howell, quiet and deliberate, showed me around the warehouse. The bright, laden, 50 kg bags of cacao beans, with their dominant Fair Trade logo, gave me a smile. Oved Millar, enthusiastic and sturdy, demonstrated the cacao quality checker, a kind of enclosed guillotine that cuts the beans placed inside it, allowing him to check the quality more easily by viewing the inside of several beans at once.

This season’s production has been average, but cacao prices on the world market have fallen, so the producers will receive less. Fair Trade helps by giving producers a minimum price and also providing a “social premium” that is invested directly back into the community of the co-op members. Typically, the cacao is separated into 1st and 2nd grade quality, but this year the co-op has mixed them together in order to get a better price. Mixing the cacao together gives a more consistent, higher quality.This year there is not much price difference between grades, and some buyers will pay the same price for both.

Not all farms are certified organic or Fair Trade. Elma is frustrated about it, but realises that for some farmers it is too much work. Another problem that many farmers in the co-op face is being surrounded by conventional banana plantations. The amount of chemicals and pesticides used in their production and the way they are applied (usually by helicopter or airplane) means that some farmers in neighbouring farms are at a high risk of having their products ‘contaminated’.

Elma told me that the price of cacao (paid to the farmer) was around $1.04 / lb*. Any price lower than $1 / lb would make it unprofitable for the producer. Even with Fair Trade, most producers only eke out a living. She would like to see a higher minimum price in order to make a real difference in the farmers’ lives. And she is yet to be convinced by the sustained benefits of Fair Trade. Some buyers make additional donations to the co-op (e.g. a Swiss buyer gives them $10,000 each year) though most pay solely the Fair Trade price. Caustic and funny, her quarter-century with the co-op has given her a philosophical view, even as we shook our heads at the irony of Panamanians eating chocolate made from cacao that comes from other countries. There are good years and bad years, and the producers somehow carry on.

COCABO have nice bags for their cacao
Elma at the COCABO office. Funny, open and caustic, she had a lot to say
A cacao grower takes a siesta. It’s tiring work, after all

Elma invited me back the following day in order to visit the farm of a producer. I declined, and though I didn’t know it at the time, I had a plane to catch…

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Co-op Statistics: COCABO (Cooperativa de Servicios Multiples Cacao Bocatoreña)

Size: 1,400 producers. Hope to increase to 2,000 in future. Typical production area 3 hectares. Typical co-op production 1-1.2m lbs / year.

Age: 60 years – the oldest co-op I visited on my travels, and the oldest co-op in Panama.

Production: cacao (90% Fair Trade). Fair Trade certified since 2005. Organic bananas for Panama and Costa Rica markets.

*Fair Trade minimum price is $2 / kg (conventional) and $2.30 / kg (organic) with $0.20 / kg in addition, as the “social premium”

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A sprint through Fair Trade – catching up on some visits

I thought I was blogging at a good pace, like my cycling (ok, almost). But it seems to have veered off a little and I’m trying to catch up. I can measure the difference between where my blog is at and where I am at, in countries…so having just taken care of Nicaragua, I realise I’m four countries behind now. Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and Ecuador.

Not wishing to take until 2013 to get my blog all up to date, I’m going to give a quick rundown of some of my last visits, just to give an idea of where I’ve been recently. Later I’ll return to these places to provide a few more details.

  • Costa Rica: CoopeAgri & APPTA

I had two visits in Costa Rica. One was to a coffee co-operative (CoopeAgri) and the other a cacao co-op (APPTA). Both are certified Fair Trade. CoopeAgri is located about three hours’ south of San Jose, the capital. The co-op forms a major part of the town and surrounding communities and has existed for 50 years. They produce coffee and sugar, and operate many other ventures within the town, including local banking, a petrol station, hardware stores and a new cafe. Uniquely, the town, San Isidro de El General (also known as Perez Zeleton) is an official “Fair Trade Town”. I found it a successful co-op and is a great example of how a co-op can be a positive influence within a community.

At the CoopeAgri beneficio. This is outside the coffee lab. There is a huge coffee processing facility and offices here too
The new CoopeAgri coffee shop in San Isidro centre

APPTA is located in the remote northeast of Costa Rica, right by the Caribbean coast. It’s a cacao exporter, and the producers also grow bananas and other fruit and vegetables for local and national markets. I visited their hot and humid cacao processing facility & office, just outside the town of Bribri. They export Fair Trade cacao and also have a nursery for cultivating fruit and vegetables for local and national markets. Bananas are also a major part of their operation. The highlight, without doubt, was tasting some fresh cacao pulp right off the tree. It’s completely different to what we think about cacao – citrus flavour, sweet and so refreshing.

The APPTA nursery. Plants here are cultivated within the coop and also sold to members.
Fermenting cacao. To get from the sweet, lovely citrus to the sweet, lovely cacao smells, you have to put up with a few days of pretty unpleasant-smelling fermentation
At APPTA I got to chew on fresh cacao. Citrusy, sweet and delicious
  • Panama: COCABO (Cacao)

COCABO is a Fair Trade cacao co-operative that has existed for 60 years. It’s the oldest co-op in Panama. Located in Almirante, in the remote northwest corner of Panama, it’s a Fair Trade co-op that exports organic cacao and also cultivates bananas for sale within Panama. I met various people, including the indomitable Elma, who’s worked there for more than 25 years. She’s seen it all, and felt ambivalent about the benefits of Fair Trade. I was surprised at her philosophical attitude, and her humour outweighed her negativity over some aspects of Fair Trade, such as the minimum price and how much help the Fair Trade social premium provides.

COCABO have nice bags for their cacao
Elma at the COCABO office. Funny, open and caustic, she had a lot to say
A cacao grower takes a siesta. It's tiring work dealing with this heat..
  • Colombia: Fruandes (dried fruit), Jaime Marin (coffee), Factoria Quinoa (quinoa), Fondo Paez (coffee)

Fruandes (Frutos de los Andes) has a processing office in Bogota. Actually I couldn’t tell what it was originally, but I was told that it was probably a house. Hidden within, tardis-like, seemed like a secret hive of fruit, delicious aromas of mango and some very very busy people in white coats. The mango harvest was late this year so it was a mad scramble to get the mangos dried, packed and shipped out. I arrived on the day they were shipping a lorry-load to Vancouver. Chaotic was understating it, but it was all being done in good spirits.

Up to our ears in mangos, the aroma was heavenly. But it's not easy work, chopping and slicing
After the chopping comes the drying, sorting and packing. Et voila!
The improvised loading system. Ugly, but it worked
You don't have to like mangos to work here, but it definitely helps if you do

Also in Bogota, in a tiny office out of the centre is where Factoria Quinoa is located. Luis Avella is the man behind it. He was more than busy; I barely got to speak to him over a hurried lunch. He’s an entrepreneur who came out of academia to start up his company. He has written and lectured about Fair Trade for many years, but felt the best way to help people was to start up his own company. Factoria Quinoa sources quinoa from small growers in southern Colombia. The company focus is on quinoa as a health food, so they make quinoa ‘powder’ as well as quinoa grain.

One of the highlights of my trip was spending a couple of days in Jardin. It’s a very small town south of the city of Medellin. Tucked in amongst the surrounding Andes mountains, it is a refreshing, tranquil spot to relax in. The beautiful town square had me wanting to just sit there and drink coffee all day, much as some of the locals undoubtedly do.

Jaime at his finca, high above Jardin. We also had his labourer and an inspector from National Coffee Federation
Jaime at the casa of the finca, with a nice mural of his farm on one side of the building
Jaime with his daughter Veronica on the balcony of their home in Jardin

On my way south, a little distance from the city of Cali (home of salsa, apparently), is the coffee co-op Fondo Paez. I visited their newly-acquired office (a house, really) in the town of Santander de Quilichao. They are an indigenous co-operative of “Nasa” people with around 460 growers who live up in the surrounding highlands. It was basic stuff, almost no furniture, plastic chairs, a dot-matrix printer whirring in the background…Celio, one of the co-op directors chatted to me throughout. It was obvious to me that they have a tough life, but he said Fair Trade has helped give the co-op some better opportunities, such as the office where I met them.

At Fondo Paez I met Celio (left) and Salvador (President). It is an indigenous co-operative in the highlands of southern Colombia
Celio showed me some old photos from previous visitors to the co-op
The Fondo Paez staff at the office. They have their own coffee for within Colombia that uses an indigenous name
  • Ecuador: Nevado Roses (roses), CADO (alcohol!), COPROBICH (quinoa), Pachacuti (panama hats), FAPECAFES (coffee)

Ecuador is a rich treasure of many many things. I got lucky to have such a diverse experience with my Fair Trade visits. I got to learn about three completely new Fair Trade products, roses, alcohol and hats, and also got a closer look at Fair Trade quinoa. My visit to Ecuador was rounded off with a coffee visit.

The roses I saw were amazing, fantastic quality long-stem roses. John Nevado is a comitted Fair Trade producer, but he has many reservations about the process. Who wouldn’t like Fair Trade alcohol?? CADO is an alcohol producer, though at the moment the alcohol they produce is for cosmetics. They have plans to make alcoholic drinks, so let’s hope the BC Liquor Board gets its act together one day to allow us to bring more Fair Trade booze to sell in Vancouver. COPROBICH is a quinoa co-op in the heart of the country and I got a better idea of how it’s produced and even got to see my first quinoa plant! Further south, near Cuenca, is the co-op AMTA. They supply directly to the UK company Pachacuti, a Fair Trade hat company. It’s a group of less than a dozen women that make panama hats (and many other styles too). The region is a large producer of hats, and this was a unique chance to see Fair Trade here. I rounded off my Ecuador trip with a visit to a coffee co-op and I felt right at home again amongst the coffee bushes. Ecuador is not a major coffee producer but FAPECAFES is a large producer association (1700 growers) in the Loja region, close to the Peruvian border.

Nevado roses....amazing flowers here. Huge stems, beautiful colours
Hard at work cutting and packing the flowers
It's cold work too, the workers are all geared up to cope with the 5C temperatures in the packing area
Fair Trade roses: they look pretty good in a vase
In Riobamba I spent time at the quinoa co-op, COPROBICH. Avelino, the President, is in the middle
With COPROBICH I got to see my first ever quinoa plants. They're hardy buggers, growing at altitudes where almost nothing else will
Being a quinoa farmer is not easy, but great care is taken in the process. We met these producers by the roadside, sieving quinoa grains
Fair Trade hat-making. Maria sewing labels
Once the hats are made in a basic shape, the edges need to be trimmed. The ladies here tend to switch around in the different work activities
The women (and their children) eat lunch together every day, and I was lucky to be invited for lunch too
At the FEPECAFES office in Loja, southern Ecuador
I met Martin at FAPECAFES, who was a great help arranging my visit to see some producers
One of the producers at home; the whole operation is here, hand-done - depulping, washing and drying. The drying beds are in the background
Here's the coffee washing. The bloke on the left, our taxi driver, luckily didn't get involved
Then we visited another producer. This bare patch has newly-planted yucca. The coffee was growing all around us