|“Everything I grow is organic. Why? You see my hands; they’re covered in dirt. But they’re no longer burnt from using chemicals. And my land? Well, it’s time to give back to the land a part of what the land has given to me.” Doña Ana Lucia Bañol, “La Montaña” Reserve, Riosucio, Caldas|
|“Why should I go to town and buy contaminated food, when everything I need I can grow right here, and it’s organic!” Don Roberto Motato, La Moñtana Reserve, Riosucio, Caldas|
In the outskirts of Riosucio, Caldas, 3300 Embara Chambi farmers have formed the ASPROCAFE coffee co-operative to improve their members’ quality of life, preserve their culture and communities, and protect the area’s natural resources. Equal Exchange has been working with these farmers for fourteen years. Our relationship has deepened over time, and continues to grow both in scope and in purchases: in 1995, we bought our first container of coffee. In 2002, we bought five. Consumer demand continues to grow and we are now buying 13 containers a year – all at prices well above market.
Supporting Food Security, Organic Farming, and Environmental Preservation
Many farmers in Colombia today lack interest in organic farming because it is difficult and costly. Yet, the indigenous farmers in ASPROCAFE are deeply committed to the environment and have dedicated the extra money they have received from Fair Trade coffee sales to create the Organic Coffee Project “for food security and environmental protection”. In 2006, representatives of one of Equal Exchange’s Interfaith partners, Lutheran World Relief (LWR) visited ASPROCAFE. Zoraida Castillo, LWR Colombia Program Director, asked the farmers in a meeting what they meant by food security. Don Roberto Motato answered, “Food for the earth, food for the animals, and food for humans. All three are very important and they are all connected.”
Impressed with the farmers’ high level of organization and commitment to the environment, LWR decided to provide $66,000 to support the Organic Coffee Project for two years. The funds are part of a unique partnership between Equal Exchange and LWR whereby Equal Exchange makes a donation to LWR’s Small Farmer Fund for every pound of coffee, tea and cocoa purchased by Lutheran churches through the LWR Coffee Project. These funds support projects carried out by small farmer co-operatives. The farmers are very hopeful about what they can achieve through this project.
During the coffee crisis (2000-2004), when the price of coffee on the world market did not cover the costs of production, many farmers abandoned their coffee and went to the cities looking for work. Those who remained behind lacked the resources to maintain and invest in their farms. Today, the price for coffee has risen, but unfortunately years of neglect have taken their toll and production is far below what it should be. In Caldas, many of the coffee trees are old, density per acre is low, and soils are depleted. Deforestation and poor land use management have caused additional problems: soil erosion, land and mudslides, water contamination, and changes in the local weather.
The Organic Coffee Program aims to replace old coffee trees with newer, higher-yielding varieties, increase tree density, and encourage the planting of fruit trees. Technical assistance and trainings are provided to teach the farmers environmentally sustainable practices which protect their water sources and enrich the soils. Another component focuses on “food security”: women are taught organic gardening and how to make natural pesticides and organic fertilizers. A revolving loan fund enables the women to buy farm animals which are used to diversify their diets and their income sources; the manure is used to make organic fertilizer. It is combined with the discarded coffee pulp to produce cooking gas.
Doña Julia and Mauricio take on the “green revolution people”
Doña Julia and her son, Andres Mauricio, live alone on their farm. Doña Julia’s husband left many years ago and her three other children are attending school in Riosucio. It is expensive, but the extra money she makes selling Fair Trade, organic coffee has enabled them to continue. Mauricio originally stayed to help her manage the farm and then discovered he had an affinity for organic farming and a passion for the environment. He plans to study agronomy some day, but for now he’s totally absorbed in the hands-on training that he is receiving through ASPROCAFE. “I’m not just studying farming and environmental preservation, I’m practicing it. And we’re seeing the results. Our water comes from a natural spring and is crystal clean. We are raising our own animals and using their waste to make gas. We no longer have to buy fuel for cooking – we make our own.”
Mauricio was very proud of their efforts to protect their natural resources. Throughout the day, he would point to the mountain where neighbors were growing coffee under full sun. He’d refer to them as “the Green Revolution people,” (a reference to the movement that began in the 1960s, promoting the use of chemicals and technology to increase food production) who are “contaminating our water and our land”. Each time he showed us some innovative new method he was practicing, he’d point to the denuded hills of the “Green Revolution people” and highlight the contrast. His jokes and his enthusiasm were infectious.
Doña Julia and Mauricio showed us the “live barriers” they’ve planted to separate their farm from their neighbors and to prevent soil erosion. They’ve started a nursery and will soon be renovating the coffee with healthy, new trees. Interspersed with the coffee, they’re planting citrus trees, plantains and bananas, avocados and other fruit trees which provide shade for the coffee, habitat for the birds, and lots of fruit – much of which we sampled on our way through the farm. We stopped to look at the wooden structures covered with plastic they had built to grow gardens. Organic tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, radishes – all grown in rows, interspersed with herbs…. rosemary, sage, mint, cilantro – and medicinal plants. There were “aromatics”, whose sole purpose was to keep insects away from the vegetables or to use as compost for making organic fertilizer for the coffee.
Each time they’d show us a new herb or plant, they’d tell us exactly what it was for and how to prepare it. It rains a lot in this part of the country and Mauricio and his mother showed us additional structures that ASPROCAFE had helped them build to make and store organic fertilizer and natural pesticides. They have an area for the worms that break down the compost. They have chickens and rabbits to make fertilizer, and for an occasional meal. And as Mauricio pointed out, everything they are eating and recycling comes from their farm.
Doña Lucia learns to farm… and becomes almost entirely self sufficient
Doña Lucia is a single mother who raised five children on her own under very difficult circumstances. Today she lives by herself on her tiny plot of land; her children are all in town studying. Originally from the city, she couldn’t find any way to support herself and her family. So, she moved to Riosucio and soon heard about the co-operative. “I didn’t know anything about farming. I’d never grown anything before; I didn’t even know how to grow a tomato,” she laughed. It was hard to believe looking around at her farm – just half an acre but teeming with coffee bushes, fruit trees, vegetables, herbs and medicinal plants. “I owe everything to ASPROCAFE,” she repeated over and over. “They saved my life. They trained me; they gave me seeds and loans to get started.”
She got teary-eyed as she told of her struggles to feed her family. “We moved here and were living in a shack. The walls were made of tin; we just had a dirt floor. But I sold my coffee to the co-op and after awhile I had earned enough to fix up the house.” She pointed to the cement floor, painted a bright, cheery red. Flowering bushes were planted throughout her yard, plants and flower pots hung from the ceiling; even the mountain path leading to her house was lined with bright-colored asters and geraniums.
With tremendous enthusiasm and boundless energy, she showed us her organic fruits and vegetables, neatly planted rows of coffee, the animal pens: pigs, chickens and rabbits. These were all bought on credit through the Women’s Program. After six months, Doña Lucia had enough money to repay her loan, buy more animals and another small plot of a neighbor’s abandoned coffee farm. (It was a one year loan with no interest, but she said she didn’t want to keep money that wasn’t hers one day longer than necessary.) She showed me how she used the waste from the coffee pulp and the animals to make gas for cooking.
“I’m also growing sugar cane, beans, and corn. Now I never have to go into town! I grow everything I need right here on my own farm. Cooking oil and salt are the only things I need to buy.” Before leaving, I asked her if there was anything else she would like to share and she responded: “Everyone says how hard it is to grow organic, but look, we’re doing all this ourselves – before, we didn’t know anything. But with help from the co-op, and our partnership with you coffee buyers, we feel excited about the future; so many things are possible.”
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