The following post was sent to us by Todd Caspersen, Equal Exchange’s Director of Purchasing, on his recent trip to visit our farmer partners in Colombia.
December 5th 2008
How do you tell a story that started so long ago that it has a multitude of sub-plots, characters, successes and challenges? I could start at the beginng in 1996 when Equal Exchange first purchased coffee from the Indigenous Resguardos (Reserves) around Riosucio or I could start when I first visited Riosucio in 1999 or I suppose I could start when we imported our first 90 bags of organic coffee in 2003 but I think I will start with the rain or “invierno”, as they call it here.
The 2008 harvest began with the flowering of the coffee trees in February which would have provided a bountiful harvest eight months later but then the rain started and has not stopped since. Take a look at the internet and you will see stories of flooding, landslides and disasterously low harvest throughout Colombia. According to the meticulous records of Don Hernan Trujillo, Riosucio has only had 8 days of straight sun three times since February. This has resulted in extremely low harvests and lots of damage to the coffee farms. To put it simply: summer never came this year.
There is general agreement among the farmers here that the climate is changing and it is having serious impact on the livelihoods of our partners. I never curse the rain but I want to now after days of walking through a landscape seriously impacted by it. Every road I have traveled shows multiple small landslides impeding passage; all of the coffee farms are affected one way or another and everyone is wondering: why is it raining so much and when will it stop?
Very sad and sobering to witness, but despite that I have seen some great stuff and am really excited by the progress that has been made over the last several years here. Three years ago, the Lutheran World Relief/Equal Exchange Small Farmer Fund gave a $66,000 dollar grant to the Asprocafe Ingruma Coffee Co-operative to support productivity improvements in the organic project. This included; soil analysis, credit for women and young people to buy pigs or cows for manure to use as fertilizer, and exchange programs with organic farmers in Nicaragua, among other things.
Last year Equal Exchange and Asprocafe organized a quality competition with the 350 organic farmers in Asprocafe to motivate the organic farmers participating in the program. This year we returned to do a second competition at the end of the productivity project. On Tuesday, I visited last year’s first place winner to learn what he had done with his prize money and to see the condition of his farm. Don Franciso Javier Rodriguez lives in La Torre of Supia at 1900 meters above sea level. He produces coffee on about 2 hectares. When he won last year, he called his wife on a cell phone (yes they are everywhere now) to let her know that he had won and she wouldn’t believe him until she spoke with someone else. When I arrived at the river way below his house to start the long climb up he was still surprised that I had showed up, exclaiming that he never believed I would come or that any “gringo” would come to visit him. It was a long climb up through a saturated landscape through lots of mud. When we finally arrived at his tidy blue house on a flat spot just below cloud level, we were greeted by his wife, daughter and a hearty second breakfast.
After our meal, they showed me what they had bought with the prize money ($750 USD). Right after collecting his prize money he gave half of it back to Asprocafe to buy the materials for a biodigester that would produce methane gas for the kitchen, replacing the wood stove his wife had labored over all of her life. The other half he used to make a payment on a loan he had recieved to buy a cow, which has produced three calves since he first bought it.
The cool thing here is that the prize money provided the materials for the biodigester which includes large sheets of plastic to make a long balloon and some pvc piping to conduct urine from the stables to the balloon and to then bring gas to the kitchen as well as to conduct the effluent to a cement tank. The effluent is then used as fertilizer; in this case on sugar cane. It’s not just the prize money that made this possible; it’s also the loans from the cooperatives to build the simple stable and pig stye as well as the credit to buy the pig and cow, most of which was fruit of the LWR/EE productivity project. It is a wonderful example of a multi-prong approach where Equal Exchange works with its U.S.-based partners and its farmer partners to create an integrated project that benefits everyone.
I am of Norwegian stock out of Minnesota and not given to great displays of emotion, but it was really heart warming and quite emotional to hear how the gas stove had changed the family´s life: Dona Rodriquez remembers the exact day the system started to produce gas, December 31st 2007. They no longer had to travel far up the mountain to gather wood, she no longer had to cook in a kitchen filled with smoke from burning wet wood that hurt her eyes and causes lung problems, Wow! Imagine going from having to start a fire every morning to just turning on your stove and have a strong bright flame. Another benefit is they are no longer gathering wood from the remaining forests. The cow they bought has produced more cows, milk and fertilizer. All in all a great example what we can do together.
Back in town, Beth Ann and the cupping team from the coop- Angelica, Yaneth, Edwin and Magda- have been busy cupping 150 samples for this year’s competition and despite the rain the farmers have turned in some very high quality coffee. It’s exciting to see this group of young people be so confident in their work as cuppers and perhaps more importantly, to see that they are still involved in agriculture. Tomorrow is the final round of cupping where we will select the top ten coffees and on Sunday the big event, where as many as 250 farmers will trek through the mud on their way to town to give presentations about their villages and associations, will receive presentations from the agricultural extention workers and what they are really waiting for is to see who won the competition. Stay tuned for an update on the results and hopefully some pictures but for now I am off to a place called Sirpirria to visit some more farms and later I will meet with the technical team from the cooperative to plan the next steps and talk about our plan to build a small scale organic fertilizer production facility. I wish I could share everything I have seen and know about this amazing place and its people but alas it would cover many pages. Pray or meditate for Sun in Colombia.