Trips: Bill’s Central American Adventures

Written by Cafe Campesino on Feb 1, 2003 in NEWSLETTER, Trips |
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According to our Delta pilot, this was the coldest day to hit Atlanta’s Hartsfield Airport since 1996. It was so cold that the “tug” wouldn’t start — so we sat at the gate. Then we received the disturbing news that the plane’s engines wouldn’t start. What a way to begin a 16 day whirlwind visit to the coffee lands of Central America and Mexico. I guess they managed to locate the jumper cables because we finally left the ground an hour behind schedule — first stop sunny Costa Rica.

Three hours later, after thumbing through my Berlitz “Spanish for Business” and watching “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” during our uneventful flight, I waited patiently for my green duffle bag. The good news: I had remembered to pack my toothbrush in my carry-on bag. The bad news: everything else was in the missing green duffle bag. So I filed the report — what else can you do? — and headed for the offices of COOCAFE.

Sébastian Lafaye is the export manager for COOCAFE and he and Larry, a fellow member of Cooperative Coffees, were patiently waiting for me in the office. We hopped in the car and headed out to visit the producer cooperative, Llano Bonito, in the fabled Tarrazu region of Costa Rica. Due to my late plane and bag delays, we were late heading out of town and arrived at the coffee processing mill after dark. Turns out this was just fine, because at Llano Bonito most of the wet processing is done in the evening. An ancient Toyota truck was unloading just as we arrived. The plant manager, Edwin Azarado, and the coop’s president, Francisco Abarca, greeted us and showed us around the impressive processing facility. Unlike many cooperatives that we have visited, Llano Bonito receives all of the coffee from members in the cherry form — right off the tree. When farmers deliver their coffee, they receive a credit based on volume rather than weight. Also unlike all of our other partner cooperatives, Llano Bonito is not involved in organic production. After the plant tour, be headed into town for a late night dinner and most of our conversation revolved around the organic issue.

Larry and I asked the farmers to explain why they were so resistant to organic conversion and the response was disheartening but typical. Primary objections: (1) if they quit using chemical fertilizers on their current plants, the production volume would drastically fall and (2) the transition to organics takes three year and during this period they would not receive the premium price that organic certified coffee receives. So they concluded that we were asking them to consider lowering their production and waiting three years to get an offsetting price premium. They, to a certain extent, were right. Once a farmer has converted to technified, chemical-dependent coffee, it is hard to economically justify a switch back to organics. The critical problem is the 3-year transition period. Once the plants have adjusted to organic fertilizer yields do rise and the coffee earns the farmer a much higher price. We concluded the meeting by offering to search for additional funding that might provide a financial bridge for this period.

Sebastian gallantly drove us back to the city that night, delivering us to the hotel long after midnight. The next day, we toured COOCAFE’s dry processing mill and the cupping room, where we slurped and spit to our heart’s delight. An evening at the local karaoke bar, morning breakfast by the pool, and we left the comforts of Costa Rica behind by climbing on the Tica bus bound for Nicaragua — with, thank goodness, the green duffle bag.

Someone somewhere told me that this bus ride took four hours. I guess they meant to say it took four movies — that’s right — we were subjected to four feature-length Ramboesque movies on our way to Managua, Nicaragua. We were quite please to find Monika and Helen waiting for us at the bus station when we finally arrived. A midnight snack of rice and beans and cerveza was just what we needed after that bus ride.

Next stop on the coop tour was the impressive facilities of CECOCAFEN in Matagalpa. I had heard from many sources that this cooperative was a model of organization – and we were not disappointed. As we wandered about the drying patios at CECOCAFEN’s dry processing facility, we couldn’t help but notice the small piles of coffee, segregated from one another by lines of rocks. Each pile had a small red plastic bag on it that was attached to a steel spike. This was unique and Pedro Haslem, the manager, explained that each lot of coffee delivered by a farmer is first tested and graded for quality, then dried separately in these small piles. The card inside the red bag stated the farmer’s name, the lot number, quantity delivered and date. This level of detail astounded me. We then toured the warehouse that contained impressive sorting equipment and ended with a long conveyor belt where over 50 women hand picked inferior beans as a last step in the quality process. The plant manager, Hamilton Rivera, mentioned that these women made just as much money as the men we had seen spreading coffee of the patios and carrying bags around the warehouse. He also stated that the cooperative had discussed purchasing machinery to replace the women’s work, but the members voted to keep the handpicking process in place because it provided jobs that were desperately needed.

The next day, we headed up into the mountains behind Matagalpa and visited the small community cooperative La Esperanza. Twenty-six farmers formed this group in 1991 and 5 years ago they affiliated with CECOCAFEN. Fernando Villaveyna invited us to take a twenty-minute walk out to his eight-acre farm, where he grows bananas, oranges, corn, beans and a variety of flowers alongside the coffee. He was literally born on this land. He shared that this land was his father’s land his mother gave birth to him while out picking coffee.

The day trip to La Esperanza ended with a touching feast of chicken soup and fresh produce sponsored by the cooperative’s community women’s group. We received presentations from the areas children’s group, many of whom receive school scholarships funded by CECOCAFEN and US-based Coffee Kids. And, to everyone’s delight, a local mariachi-like assembly of guitars, fiddles and a bass serenaded us, then required us to get out of our chairs for a post-meal jig. Our feeble attempts at dancing delighted the gathering. We sadly piled back into the mini-bus, headed back to Matagalpa, and prepared to leave for Guatemala.

Next month, read about Bill’s travels in Guatemala and Mexico.

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