Arnaldo Neira Camizán is a veteran coffee farmer and co-founder of Central Piurana de Cafetaleros (CEPICAFE), one of Equal Exchange’s coffee co-operative partners in Peru. Mr. Neira returned to the United States this past November to train workers at Catholic Healthcare West Hospitals that serve Equal Exchange coffee. During the trip he was interviewed by Corey Mason on KECG Radio, 88.1 FM in El Cerrito, California. Ed Vincent was the production engineer on the interview, which took place at El Cerrito High School on Nov. 11, 2009. This is the first of three installments of the translated interview.
Corey: A very good morning to everyone and welcome to KECG Radio, 88.1 FM El Cerrito. We’re here in Northern California at Studio A, and this morning we have the great pleasure and privilege to welcome our good friends from CEPICAFE and Equal Exchange. We welcome to the studio Arnaldo Neira Camizán, who since 1974 has farmed coffee on his farm named “The Roses,” which is located in Coyona, Huancabamba, Piura, Peru. Mr. Neira has 22 acres on which he grows coffee, bananas, and oranges plus raises animals. It’s a gorgeous farm, with a view of Hawk’s Mountain and the town of Coyona. Mr. Neira is a founder of Central Cooperative of Coffee Farmers of Piura (CEPICAFE), and has served as Vice-President of that organization and has been President of his village level co-operative, which is named José Gabriel Condorcanquí. Did I pronounce that right?
Sergio: That’s it.
Corey: Thanks. It’s a real pleasure and privilege to welcome you here to El Cerrito, California, quite a ways north from Peru. Mr. Neira, affectionately known as Don Sergio, visited coffee customers in the Western United States during tours in 2000 and 2002. In 2003 and in 2007, he and fellow farmers hosted delegations of Equal Exchange customers visiting Peru. This week, he returns to the U.S. to visit customers and inaugurate the new Equal Exchange warehouse in Oregon. This visit of yours comes after you hosted African coffee farmers on a visit to your farm. Who visited and what inspired them to travel half-way around the world to visit you?
Sergio: First of all my friend Corey, I want to say how grateful I am that KECG Radio of El Cerrito, California, has given me the opportunity to send warm greetings to all of our good-hearted friends who stand in solidarity with us farmers of the South, especially with growers in Peru. Okay, a few weeks ago in Peru in the specific northern region where I live, we had a visit by farmers from three nations in Africa – from Senegal, from Burkina Faso, and from Cameroon. They came to Peru primarily so that we could share our experiences, because they, like we, are farmers of coffee, cocoa, banana, mango, honey, etc. In addition to sharing experiences, they came to get to know what kind of work we are doing within our organization as small-scale farmers in this part of the world. In truth, we covered thousands of kilometers and it was a very nice visit that let us share each others’ experiences and to really get to know each other because as small-scale farmers in the world, there are many common needs and many common realities which unite us. For that reason we can come together as brothers, really, through farming which is what we all do for a living.
Corey: Exactly, so you have much in common as the farmers of the world?
Sergio: Yes, that’s it. Like I said, the necessities are the same and we are, well, as countries on the road to development – accompanied by countries of the north that are industrialized – step-by-step we want to go develop our own actions. It’s not just farming; it’s just as much our work socially and economically.
Corey: Exactly. And you’ve arrived here to California to visit community stores that sell the coffee grown by you and your co-owners at CEPICAFE. How has the reality changed for the small-scale coffee farmers of CEPICAFE in the seven years that have gone by since you last visited in 2002?
Sergio: In truth, there have been important changes. One thing that’s changed is that we’ve started to take the initiative to improve quality. The quality of the coffee we’re selling to Equal Exchange who, in turn, offers it to the consumer here in the U.S. and particularly California, is an organic coffee grown by small farmers in a way that is in harmony with nature and [that is grown] in a way to protect our natural resources. And to produce a quality, organic product like our coffee, is something we’re doing as a commitment to not contaminate the consumer and not contaminate ourselves in its production. Overall, we’re offering clean food. This is one of the first achievements we made in how we shaped our agricultural production. On the other hand, we have brought into being a real change in the social conditions of our farmer co-owners. In our area, today the majority of the children of members are at least graduating from secondary school, which was something that just didn’t happen 10 years ago. And it’s thanks to this market – this model of trade designed to seek out social and economic development for families organized in the Global South – this market that we call Fair Trade. And it’s through Equal Exchange, by selling through them that we reach that market, in this case the market for our coffee.
Corey: You personally farm 20 acres of coffee in Coyona, Piura. We hear a lot about climate change, but have you witnessed any effects in your area?
Sergio: Yes, climate change is affecting the high-altitude growing regions, in those areas we farm, that’s to say higher than 4,000 feet above sea level. Because that’s where we cultivate the coffee, just the same as the cocoa and the sugar cane, is in an area between 3,000 feet to 6,000 feet above sea level. And due to this climate change, for the part of the farm that is situated above 4,000 feet, one can see the damage caused by excessive precipitation. There, particularly with the coffee and cocoa, there is a fungus that is damaging the leaves and fruit. In the case of my own farm, I’ve lost about 50% of the yield compared to what I had before.
Corey: Yikes, how terrible, a real crisis then. And because of the humidity the fungus is new?
Sergio: Yes and no, it’s a fungus that has existed for years there among the plants and forest, but this year and last year, because of the excessive moisture and excessive number of rainy days, that has sickened the plants and caused much of the problems in the growth and productivity of our crop.
Corey: The U.S. media also reports that farmers are clearing rainforests in Brazil to grow organic soybeans. Are farmers in Peru clearing new lands to grow organic, Fair Trade coffee?
Sergio: In our resource-rich country is a jungle, a primeval jungle covering millions of acres. We who farm, especially those of us practicing organic agriculture, have a standard, an internal requirement, to not cut down or burn forestland. For that reason, we organic farmers in Peru neither log nor burn trees. When we have to grow crops in the high jungle, for instance to plant coffee, what you do is clean out the low brush, those small bushes, and then naturally occurring trees that needed thousands of years to grow, we conserve those and they become the natural shade trees for that plot.
In the end you have a forest that leaves us with a very interesting organic farming area. Additionally, if we’re talking about Fair Trade, Fair Trade also has a standard, a principle that is part of its genetic makeup, which is preservation of the environment. And in regards to environmental protection, Fair Trade advises us that farming activities should not result in logging or burning trees, nor threatening in any way our mother earth. Those principles that we put into practice because they’re required if you’re going to be an organic farmer, they’re required by Fair Trade, and we respect and follow them.
Corey: So even when there’s pressure [to clear the forest], you’re not doing that because it would disturb the natural balance?
Sergio: No, we’re not. Even if at the moment it wouldn’t hurt [the forest], in the medium and long term you’d suffer the consequences that others suffer now.
Corey: How did you and your neighbors learn how to grow organically?
Sergio: Okay, in Peru in the coffee growing zones, chemical inputs for fertilizer are almost never used. So we’re practicing a traditional agriculture; that is, an agriculture that only involves planting and harvesting. So when we were told about the opportunities in the European and U.S. markets to make available for sale our crops with organic certification, for us it wasn’t difficult to make that switch from traditional agriculture to organic agriculture. The certifying agency agreed to complete the switch in two years, what you’d call transitional organic, to undertake the conversion from traditional to organic because we had never used chemical inputs. So fine, it was easy because we were already applying organic material to the soils and we started mixing in pulp from the coffee, manure, plant cuttings and kitchen scraps to form an organic fertilizer. It was no trouble to start making our own compost and fertilizing our own soils, and that has yielded very nice results.
Corey: What chemicals are being used by non-organic coffee farmers in Peru?
Sergio: If we’re talking about traditional coffee farmers that aren’t in the organic program, or that haven’t yet been motivated to undertake organic farming, very few of those are using chemical inputs. And if there is a group, and they would be medium-sized farmers with 20-50 acres because in Peru we don’t have huge plantations anymore thanks to the agrarian reform of 30 years ago that broke up all the huge plantations. So there are some large farms but mostly small plots. Of the group that is using non-organic inputs, and it’s a small group in Peru, they are using a compound called CompoMaster Cafe, which is a mix of ammonia sulfate, suplomag [magnesium supplement], urea [for nitrogen], and ulexite (sodium boron). Ulexite is a naturally occurring rock that has plenty of micronutrients and that you grind up and mix in, but you can’t put in too much or it hurts the structure of the soil. The fertilizer is used to get higher yields and profitability of the crop.
Corey: Okay, so, for the most part the farming these days uses organic methods and if there are conventional farmers they’re adding that, right?
Sergio: Yes, yes, yes. We in Peru have, up until now, wanted to keep this work going that we have united farmers, organized in our co-operatives, in our local granges, and through our second-level co-ops and the National Coffee Board (which is our trade association that brings together all small farmers), we have made Peru the world’s number one exporter of organic coffee. And we want to keep that going because we have become the pioneers, the trailblazers, when it comes to farming organic coffee in Peru and throughout the rest of the coffee-growing countries.
Translated by Tom Wilde, Equal Exchange West Coast Sales Manager