The bananeros, banana farmers, in the Piura region of northern Peru have had another kick in the teeth. Often hit by misfortune, the 2012 flooding of their plantations was unprecedented. Their livelihoods were at risk which led one of their buyers, Discovery Organics in Vancouver, to initiate a fundraising campaign for them.
Now they have a different problem – disease. It’s estimated that the region’s producers will face a 45% reduction in their exports this year.
The news in timely. Throughout this year, 2014, the Fairtrade Foundation (UK fairtrade advocacy) have campaigned long and hard to push major supermarkets to supply 100% fairtrade bananas. They personalised this campaign – “Stick With Foncho”. Their efforts are to push major UK supermarkets to switch to 100% fairtrade bananas. Now at year’s end, the pressure is on Asda (owned by Walmart) and Tesco to make the switch.
This is important. Banana farmers (bananeros) have it difficult at the best of times. Hired workers on conventional plantations (such as those owned by Dole and Chiquita) have it worse.
It’s easy to ignore the people behind what we eat. Plenty of people ‘eat local’ but how can you do that with bananas? But I found for myself when I visited these farmers that they have it worse than most. Fairtrade can give these producers a little lifeline. It may be modest, but it helps.
Bananas bear the brunt of cheap agriculture and supermarket price wars. And at this time of year as we’re encouraged to think of others, support fairtrade if you can. Let your local supermarket know too.
Santiago carefully picks his way through the scattered cacao beans laid out on the table, making selections with a trained eye and placing them in a customised folding tray in front of him. The tray has placeholders for the beans and he fills it row by row. But this is not a tray for display. After it is filled, he folds the tray over, sealing the beans in place. The tray is designed to check the quality of the cacao beans, and it comes with its own built-in guillotine blade. A quick swipe downwards from Santiago and the beans have been sliced in half. He opens the tray to expose the newly-decapitated beans and examines their insides.
Checking the bean quality is an intricate process and this is just one part. The final check is a taste test, but to get to that part requires another few steps. Santiago claims to look after ‘tourism’-related activities but he’s clearly steeped in cacao knowledge. Dressed in a CEPICAFE t-shirt and light waistcoat, he walks me through the process. From the same batch of beans we took some of the ones that had survived the guillotine and placed them in a mini roaster, separate from the ones that roast the coffee. After roasting the shells need to come off and the beans ground up. Grinding is non-technical – hand power is used. Out of that come the cacao nibs. However, the next stage uses white cylindrical tubs with numerous wires and plastic protruding skywards. Looking more like they should be in a hospital, these tubs turn the nibs into cacao liquor. Then it’s poured into small tasting trays and placed in the fridge until Santiago is ready to taste test.
The day before visiting CEPICAFE, the co-op that Santiago works for, I arrived in Piura, northern Peru, on an overnight bus from southern Ecuador. After several weeks in the cooler mountains I was now in the hot, parched flatlands of Piura.
Piura is the main town of the Piura region and was my base for a few days, offering an opportunity to visit a couple of different fair trade co-ops. In common with Ecuador and Colombia, my first sense of Peru was a mix of the relatively affluent and modern (gated houses, a private leisure club, cafes and hotels) together with the more chaotic hustle that characterised the markets, dusty streets and unfinished or rundown buildings of poorer areas. There is a very pleasant central square, an upmarket hotel facing onto it, and it even had a vegetarian restaurant.
It was hard to believe that Piura, a dusty, hot low-lying town, could be home to a coffee co-operative. But because it is the largest town in the region, it works well as a central base for coffee and cacao producers who live in the interior. This particular co-operative, CEPICAFE (coffee producers of central Piura) is large and has a diverse range of products – coffee, cacao, panela (sugar) and fruit juices and jams.
The co-op office is located just outside of the town centre and I arrived unannounced on a hot, sunny morning. Again, I wasn’t sure what might happen – and neither were they – but after an uncertain few minutes I was given the ok for a tour.
This co-op is particularly unique, given its office (and warehouse) location, size and its products. Most producers live quite a distance away up in the high hills but this location in Piura is a step forward. They have a modern operation here and my first glimpse of it was with a young lad called Ivan, who showed all the equipment they use to make batches of fruit pulp for jams and juice. Alas it was out of season so I didn’t get to see the operation running.
The main emphasis of the co-op is in cacao and coffee. It wasn’t coffee harvest season either, so when I first saw the massive warehouse it looked noticeably empty. Only four years old, it was the largest facility I’d seen on my trip; at harvest time they process a huge amount of coffee.
But when it’s not coffee season there is the cacao. The hub of the action, and the fun, is in the quality lab. The lab is at the upstairs in the warehouse and is used for coffee and cacao tasting; today it was cacao.
Very high quality cacao is produced within the co-op. According to Santiago Paz Lopez, the co-op Manager, “we have some of the best cacao in the world”. calls it the gold of Piura, such is its quality and value. One of their varieties of cacao won 1st in a national competition. Earlier in the day that I was there one of CEPICAFE’s US clients visited – a well-known fair trade chocolate producer who have exacting quality requirements.
The warehouse was on the other side of town, so I accompanied Martin there on a tuk-tuk ride from the office. He explained to me that the co-op handles a range of different standards of coffee. Most carry an organic standard as well as one or more fair trade certifications (e.g. FLO, CLAC). Martin had been with the co-op for 12 years and as we wandered around the warehouse he was happy to talk to me for a while about the co-op. However, because my visit was outside of coffee harvest season, the warehouse had an air of slumber about it, except for when we arrived at the quality lab, which was crowded and alive with activity.
Back in the lab, I watched intently as Santiago and his team put the cacao through its paces. As well as conducting the ‘guillotine’ test the cacao needs to be given clearly it’s most important test – tasting. Who could refuse?
Santiago was ready to give the liquor a try. The chilled liquor was softened (in the microwave) and after a few seconds he handed me a little tasting spoon and I dived into the softened cacao. We tasted two varities and I was surprised how easy it was to notice the difference. Despite that, I had to make sure and I was keen to repeat the process…several times.
-created in 1995, current Piura office opened in 2001
-approx 6,700 producers, all smallholders (1-2 hectares or less)
-four different cacao varieties, including one called cacao (gran) blanco and chulucanas, both highly valued
-producers live in the Amazonas, Tumbes, Cajamarca and Piura regions
-100% fair trade, 95% organic
-well-known clients include Equal Exchange, Theo chocolate, GEPA and Ethiquable
A couple of things from the UK reminded me of my visit to the banana farmers in Piura, northern Peru. The first was seeing how areas of the south of England experienced some pretty awful floods throughout the course of this winter, so bad that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, got his Cobra committee together at one point to tackle the problem (or be seen to be tackling it) and even suggested that “no expense will be spared” to help clean up the affected areas and help prevent this from happening in future.
I’m sure much of the money the Government will end up spending on the clean up would have gone a long way to preventing this thing in the first place if proper land management practices had been implemented. Invoking Sarah Palin, Cameron could no doubt spur us to “dig baby, dig” to dredge numerous rivers. This won’t work either.
The second thing is we’re coming to the end of Fairtrade Fortnight and the focus has been to encourage people to learn about the problem of cheap bananas and switch to buying fairtrade if possible.
Banana producers and labourers generally have long had a hard time of it. If you work on a banana plantation, you’re likely to be susceptible to poor wages, long hours, poor working conditions, exposure to various pesticides and be vulnerable to losing your job should you wish to complain. Those farmers who do own their own land potentially have it a little better, though many who produce convential bananas also have to contend with receiving a meagre income, being at the mercy of the multinationals who dictate the prices paid to them.
The farmers I met in Piura belonged to fairtrade co-ops. They were able to overcome many of these problems by the means of receiving higher prices, payments towards community projects, better environmental management and working conditions, among many other things.
However, they are still just as vulnerable to the weather. When I visited, many of them had seen their small plots of land be drowned by floodwaters. The banana plants, stuck in standing water for so long, were dying and would have to be replaced in many cases, causing additional expense with the loss of income from a much smaller harvest.
For these Peruvian farmers however, there was no Prime Minister or President appearing on television to tell the country that no expense would be spared to clean up the area and put the farmers back to where they were. Without fairtrade prices these farmers would have been in even more trouble (Discovery Organics, a Vancouver-based produce importer and distributor, also donated money [also the ongoing fundraiser Pennies For Peru]).
No doubt the UK people affected by floods will have a hard time getting their properties back in shape. There may even be some long-term effects to deal with. I’ll leave aside the hardship of ‘lower property prices’ that will worry them into the wee small hours. For the banana farmers of northern Peru, they have some bigger issues to consider. Is their livelihood destroyed? Will they have to leave the land they own and move away, breaking important community and social links in their neighbourhoods? There were many problems ahead.
So when you’re next looking for bananas in your local shop, look for fairtrade. If they’re not available, try to shop elsewhere. Stick With Foncho, as the campaign goes. Stick with fairtrade.
“We can save some parcels,” says one of the BOS banana growers we met, “but we have to throw away most of the trees. We hope the rain won’t come back so that we can begin this work in April [we visited in late March]. But we need assistance and can’t do anything without government help.” Unfortunately, government assistance is a remote proposition. “We will have to throw away the trees because the flood water has been there so long that the tree roots are saturated and the trees will not grow any more.”
The BOS (Bananeros Organicos Solidarios) banana co-op was one of three banana co-ops we visited that day. All three have been seriously affected by improbable rains and flooding that the area received. We were in northern Peru, in the lowland desert a short distance north of Piura. The area typically receives only 50 mm of rain per year, but in February this year three times that amount fell in a couple of days. Combined with the huge amount of rainfall that the mountain areas received meant a double blow. The rivers burst their banks and flooded many of the lowland areas.
My travels coincided with a visit to the area by a few people I knew from Canada, and I was excited to be able to join them for a day as we toured three different Fair Trade banana co-ops. From Vancouver were Randy Hooper, owner of Discovery Organics (that imports organic, Fair Trade bananas from co-ops in this area); David Wilson from Choices Markets (buys these bananas from Discovery Organics); and Sean McHugh from Fair Trade Vancouver. Also accompanying us were Jim and Sophie from the Peru office of Fairtrasa, the company that has helped many producers in central and south America to convert to Fair Trade and buys their produce to sell in Europe and North America.
Once it became clear to Randy Hooper that producers were so severely affected (this included mango growers as well, located a little further south) he initiated an emergency fundraiser. The trip he made was to present some of the funds raised to these groups and show solidarity, support and to tell them that their customers are concerned about the farmers’ livelihoods. This would never happen with those in a conventional trade situation.
From all the donations received, $10,000 was given to BOS. That is crucial for the co-op to help those most in need, but it is a drop in the bucket compared to what they probably require. Randy estimates $500,000 would be necessary to get the co-op back on its feet properly. We toured some of the affected parcels and met a few of the growers who had lost their entire crop. They told us their situation with dignity and without an obvious sense of the calamity they face, but I could see the hurt in the eyes of many of them. For the older growers, they accept that nature throws them situations like this, that it is part of farming, however difficult it can be. They are experienced enough to know that nature can be pleasant or harsh. But to know that their buyers are concerned for them makes a huge difference. Randy is a rare example of a person who genuinely cares about the people he buys from. Very rare. Fair Trade tries to build relationships like this, and though it is difficult, it is a step towards giving those at the bottom of the ladder a step up, a helping hand, rather than constantly pushing them back down into the muddy earth.
Earlier in the day we visited two other co-ops. Our first visit was to Santa Clara. It is a wind-blown little village that sits just above the floodplain. Down below from the village, a sea of green. The village itself was a collection of brown and yellow desert dust. We packed into a little community hall and the presentations began. One thing I’ve noticed is how in these kind of situations everyone likes to speak up and have their say, and usually they take a long time to say it! We were pressed for time, so no chance to visit the affected areas. However, the presentations were well received – and so was the donation to the co-op of $5,000. $1,000 is for the village school and $4,000 towards a new warehouse.
After a hurried group photo we were off again, to visit AP BOSMAM. We were treated to a ‘shortened’ slideshow presentation, though even that had us wilting in the heat of the afternoon as we sat sweating and struggling to pay attention. Again, Randy and David did their presentations. As well as giving everyone a large printed photo of the Choices Markets management team, he presented each group with a soccer ball (Fair Trade of course). The previous day that had resulted in an impromptu 20-minute game of football. A donation was given to this co-op of $5,000.
One of the projects that AP BOSMAM has been heavily involved in is to help a local school. We took a visit there, where children of all ages, dressed in bright yellow, acted as though a giant sugar fairy had sprinkled them all with excitement. It was bedlam as the strange white people wandered around the school grounds. BOSMAM had recently been able to use Fair Trade social premiums to improve facilities at the school, whether through a new volleyball court or new desks and chairs for the classrooms. We were ushered into one classroom where the children were expecting us. Ahead of our visit they had made various flags that they now began waving as we entered. In a boisterous but well-behaved manner, they showed off their flags of Canada, USA, Peru,,,and Cuba. They quickly quietened down when the presentation started and did not make attempts to hide their boredom. Outside the classroom, many other children squeezed themselves in the doorway or at windows to get a glimpse of the gringos in their midst.
One day, three Fair Trade banana co-ops. All of them have suffered lately because of disastrous, extreme weather and yet they will struggle on, much as they have always done. However, in some cases, if a situation becomes too severe, farmers will abandon their plots and migrate to the cities to try to find work, typically with little success.
Even for farmers who managed to salvage some of their crop, their bananas have suffered. Quality has been affected and prices subsequently fell. I saw many sorry-looking bananas for sale in local markets in Piura, the largest city in the area. For one “nuevo sole”, approximately 40 cents, I was able to buy 10 bananas.
At BOS, Randy told the gathered farmers that we will return to Vancouver and do what we can to help them by publicising their situation, but stressed that there were no guarantees. The farmer spoke again. “We are thankful to Randy for coming here and showing his support and trying to help us. We will grow more bananas, we will come back.”