Ten years ago, Equal Exchange brought a group of food co-op and natural food store representatives to visit CEPICAFE, one of our small farmer coffee co-op partners in northern Peru. We stayed four days and nights living and working along side the coffee farmers, “helping” them with the harvest. One of my most fond memories was during lunch following that first full morning (ie 4 hours) picking coffee. We had had a lot of fun, laughing, singing, and telling jokes with the farmers, while they tried to teach us their techniques. But truth be told, the work is back-breaking, the hike to the farms was exhausting, and the sun was hot.
We’d told the group of 12 that after lunch we’d be joining the farmers for another 4 hours of cherry picking. One by one, the visitors approached me to whisper in my ear, “I really don’t think I can do any more.” So when we were done with our heaping plates of rice, beans, chicken stew, and corn tortillas, I announced to our hosts that the “workers” were done. Earlier in the day, we had joked that we had come to help them “so they could have a break”, but we had to admit that we just couldn’t keep up. The farmers laughed good-naturedly as we explained the “rebellion at hand.” In the partnership of producers and consumers, it was clear who had the tougher role.
I remember also when the long day was ending. We were joined at the depulper, the wet mill that takes the outer layer of the coffee pulp off the bean, by the entire co-op of perhaps 60 to 70 farmers. One by one, the visitors took their turn at the mill as each coffee farmer turned over bucket after bucket of beautiful red coffee cherries. The farmers cheered and laughed as the northerners grunted and groaned, hamming it up just slightly for the crowds. It was more hard work, turning the shaft round and round as the blade separates the pulp off the bean; and your shoulders can get pretty sore. The farmers of course have to depulp everything they’ve picked that day or the beans will over ferment and the quality will be seriously jeopardized. So, we got competitive with each other, and ended by groaning from the monotonous efforts using muscles we didn’t know we had. Our hosts gathered round cheering us on, hopefully feeling acknowledged and respected. In utter sincerity, we let them know that we would not be able to do this, as they do, day after day.
After four amazing days sharing meals, stories, and the harvest in the small village of Coyona, and four star-filled nights sitting on the back porch in the dark with our hosts, just watching the silhouettes of mountains and listening to their six year old son play the guitar and sing wistful ballads for us, it was time to go. The community threw us a going away party that felt truly heart-full. We ate sheep head soup, drank beer (our contribution), bootleg moonshine (their contribution), and danced until the wee hours of the morning.
I won’t forget that visit ever. Or Dona Dora when she cried at the co-op meeting where we introduced ourselves and she told us she’d never met a coffee buyer before; in all the decades she’d been growing coffee, she’d never once met someone who had drunk it or bought it, never mind that one of these people would one day end up in her village. She cried and we cried in response. We had come to learn from the producers, share some of ourselves and our lives with them, and let them know how much we appreciate the hard work they go through to give us our coffee. It’s not an exaggeration to say that friendships were made during that trip and bonds were formed despite the distance, language, and cultural differences.
It’s now been ten years since made that trip. West Coast Sales Manager, Tom Hanlon-Wilde decided to host an anniversary visit this past summer. He invited the folks who’d gone with us in 2003, and a few others, to visit the community and see how things have changed since then. Were the farmers doing better? How had their lives changed? How did they feel about Equal Exchange and what impact has our on-going relationship had on them?
Sadly, I wasn’t on this anniversary trip, But I’m looking forward to hearing from those who went. In the upcoming weeks, I hope to post articles, reflections, and photos from the participants. Today, I’d like to share with you the first article that was written by one of our trip participants, Joe Damiano, Bulk Buyer at the Green Star Natural Foods Market, in Ithaca, New York. Click here for the full article.
Read Tom Hanlon-Wilde’s reflections here.
It’s these memories, and reading new reflections, that makes Fair Trade so much more than a job, so much more than a transaction, and so much more than a cup of coffee.