A little over a year ago now, I was sipping some of my last experiences from the cup of Central America.
I was a little shaky when I flew into Guatemala in September 2004, because of unrest created by the pending presidential election, but by the time I reached Panama, four months later, I was reluctant to return to the 50-below temperatures of the Yukon for many reasons.
I had comfortably worn in my travelling shoes, had learned and struggled through the landscape of the Spanish language, in the jungles I could identify different species of toucans without my binoculars, and, most importantly, I could tell the good coffee from the bad simply by smelling the bean.
One of the reasons I chose to travel through Latin America was to learn, firsthand, all the political, social, economic and environmental ingredients that go into a single cup of coffee.
It was through the non-corporate coffee roasting business Bean North in my home of Whitehorse that I learned of a unique opportunity with CECOCAFEN in northern Nicaragua.
CECOCAFEN, the Organization of Northern Coffee Co-operatives, is a fair trade organization made up of 1,900 small-scale coffee farmers from nine grassroots co-operatives in Nicaragua.
I spent a week on one of the co-operative farms to try and understand life in a small coffee growing community so that I could help spread fair trade awareness. In the past, I have always tried to support fair trade coffee; now I will not settle for anything less.
The golden light of late afternoon blanketed my surroundings upon arriving at the dusty roadside bus stop where I met my young guide for the week, 17-year old Francesca.
She is one of the youth guides from the Danilo Gutierrez Coffee Co-operative who acts as a translator between the land, the locals and the visitors, as well as an advocate for fair trade coffee.
After introductions at the bus stop, we talked and walked along the forested pathway up to the farm, and on the way passed a few small houses with small children running about, freely roaming chickens, laundry fluttering in the gentle breeze, the aroma of mealtime, and two men laying the frame for a new house.
Francesca’s home, a small open-air cement structure with an earthen floor, is shared with her sister and her family. Her parents live in a similar dwelling across the path.
Beautiful flowering poinsettias grow at the entrance gate to the house, which is encircled by wild primary forest, and of course, coffee plants.
As I unpacked my things and settled in, the family of seven generously helped me, and watched with perplexity as I set my mosquito net up over the bed.
The next day, Francesca and the three other youth guides in the community took me to the neighbouring co-operative farm of La Pita. I was the “experimental tourist” for them to try out their guiding skills on.
The whole process of coffee production was explained to me, from seed to the final sorting stage; I was also introduced to some of the farmers. When I asked one farmer how fair trade affects his life, he said, and I paraphrase:
“The importance of fair trade is the collaboration it provides among farmers through the co-operative. This farm would have disappeared five years ago because of the low world prices and low production of coffee during the crisis.
“I have also seen with my own eyes how the quality of our operation has improved. For example, we have an ecologically sound beneficio now.”
(Beneficios are the infrastructure through which coffee cherries are processed on the farm, and management of the water used in this process is integral to an environmentally sound coffee operation.)
All CECOCAFEN member farms are sheltered in being co-operative members. The co-operative negotiates good prices in the sale of the member’s coffees, which results in a fair distribution of the benefits of the coffee trade.
Fair trade also means a better quality of life for people; this I heard time and time again from the farmers themselves.
Programs are developed to improve housing, schools and local roads. On my farm, a teacher is brought in from the nearby village of San Ramon so the kids can attend school right on site.
Education scholarships are offered to the children of members, and are repaid through work in the co-operative, such as helping the co-operative in the organic certification process. There is also a solidarity savings and loan program that more than 320 women participate in.
Additionally, the farms here are mostly self-sustainable. People grow their own corn, beans, fruit, squash, and chickens — only rice, sugar, oil, and soap need to be bought in the markets.
Many people use natural medicines here, and oxen and carts are used to transport sacs of coffee.
I never got the chance to experience life on a non-co-operative farm, colloquially known as “hacienda,” but know that they are sometimes unable to provide year-round employment, and there are no benefit programs.
Furthermore, people are sometimes molested, poorly fed, and stealing isn’t uncommon. Workers get a wage and that’s about it.
After petroleum, coffee is the most heavily traded commodity in the world — and after tobacco, it is the most chemically treated crop in the world.
Close to one half of CECOCAFEN farmers are certified organic, and shade-grown coffee, which reduces the amount of chemical input, is promoted on all farms.
Reducing or avoiding the use of chemicals improves the flavour and quality of the coffee, is better for the health of farmers, the water supply, and the environment in general.
In the Yukon, I work as a wildlife biologist, and while picking coffee cherries in the forested plantation, I was interested in identifying the familiar and foreign birds that surrounded me — warblers, toucans, orioles, tanagers, flycatchers, sparrows, jays, and hummingbirds to name a few.
Many birds that breed in the boreal forests of Canada during summer spend their winters in Mexico, Central or South America.
When I actually recognized some of the bird species I see in Canada, using the shade-grown coffee plantation, I was reminded of the importance of supporting sustainable land-use practices both near and far away from home.
Small-scale coffee farmers face many challenges today. In countries such as Vietnam, Brazil and Costa Rica, machines are used to harvest coffee, so production is more rapid.
Though 100 per cent of coffee produced by co-operative farms is fair trade, 50 per cent is imperfect from harvest of unripened cherries, improper drying, insect infestation, etc., and must be sold as such (yes, this is what you’re getting if you are not buying high-quality coffee).
Furthermore, there is currently an oversupply of fair trade coffee in world markets, so in addition to the reduced income from sale of imperfect coffee, a portion of the good stuff must be sold at normal market prices.
The importance of supporting fairly traded coffee is spreading around the world, and programs to create local Central American markets for fair trade coffee are now underway.
Local people have a lot of power here, and they have already achieved a great deal to improve their own quality of life.
In an interview with Co-operativa Danilo Gutierrez president Emelda Raya, hope was expressed for developing an ecotourism project here.
She said they have beautiful surroundings, the farm is accessible to visitors (close to the main road), and they have three young people with guiding skills.
Francesca and her guide companions will be responsible for promoting the lifestyle of a co-operative to future visitors, and educating them on the importance of supporting fair trade coffee.
Emelda is right, the coffee co-operative community here is beautiful and very much alive with potential to ease the many challenges that coffee farmers face today.
People in the Yukon and around the world also have the ability to ease these challenges by choosing to buy fairly traded coffee.