It’s been several years now since I traveled to southern Ecuador to visit one of our farmer co-operative partners, the Federation of Ecological Coffee Producer Associations in the Southern Region (FAPECAFES), but it’s a visit I still remember well. I’m sharing it here because I think that many of the issues are still very relevant today: particularly how small farmers are working together (with little support historically from the government) and are making tremendous advances to create and strengthen a high quality Fair Trade coffee co-operative business with international recognition; and because their story highlights the severe environmental degradation that they are confronting and attempting to reverse.
Despite the fact that 98% of the coffee in Ecuador is grown by small-scale farmers, only 5% have organized themselves into associations, or co-operatives. FAPECAFES is one of the only associations of small coffee farmers in Ecuador and the only Fair Trade coffee association in the entire country.
Historically, coffee was one of the most important crops in Ecuador. However, starting in the 1970s, the government increased investments in the oil and banana industries. In the late 1980s, when the world price for coffee began to drop, government support was pulled back even further. Coffee farmers could no longer support their families and began abandoning their farms to look for jobs in the cities. Many migrated to Spain, Italy and the U.S.
At a meeting with the FAPECAFES governing board, the farmers explained how difficult it has been for coffee growers without support from their government. Valentin Chinchay explained, “If we hadn’t organized ourselves into work groups and associations and pulled together to meet all the challenges, many of us would probably be in Spain right now, living as undocumented immigrants.” Even COFENAC, the government coffee agency, does little to support Ecuador’s small-scale coffee farmers. The agency favors the large-scale coffee processors and exporters and the relatively few large individual growers – most of whom also own, or are connected to, the mills and export agencies. To help fund its programs, COFENAC charges a 2% tax on all coffee processing. Since co-operatives such as FAPECAFES and independent small-scale farmers are charged money to have their coffee processed, they pay this tax but never receive benefits from COFENAC (such as technical assistance, trainings, or processing equipment for their farms).
Given this context, it was amazing to spend time with the FAPECAFES staff and board, and to visit the members and see their farms. In spite of the many technical, environmental and financial challenges they are up against, they are incredibly dedicated, high-spirited and enthusiastic about their organization.
Ecuador is one of the world’s most biologically diverse countries, home to over 1,500 bird species and the largest amount of plant species per area in all of the Americas. Unfortunately, the country is being deforested at an alarming rate: only 6% of Ecuador’s rich tropical forests remain today.
Throughout the world, small farmers face an increasingly hard time making a living. When the international price for an agricultural commodity – such as coffee – falls near or below the costs of production, farmers have few options to support their families. Trees are often cut down to sell for lumber or to be used for firewood.
The price for this deforestation is high: in addition to the loss of habitat for migratory song birds and other wildlife, deforestation causes soil erosion, landslides and climactic changes which further impact the area’s ecological cycle. Not only does the lack of trees make it harder for the soil to hold moisture, but the climatic conditions actually change – it rains less, which further affects the crop yields. And so the farmers produce less, make less money, and therefore must cut down the trees to sell for firewood. The cycle continues.
On the road to Palanda to visit one of the coffee associations (APECAP) organized through FAPECAFES, we had to stop while workers cleared boulders from a landslide off the road. Landslides in this area are a common occurrence due to the amount of soil erosion caused by extreme deforestation.
Patricio Sanchez, coordinator of CORECAF – a local non-governmental organization that provides technical assistance and advocacy support to small farmers – accompanied me on this part of the trip. We spent considerable time talking about the extent of deforestation in the southern provinces and the huge impact this has on both farmers and the environment. “Coffee is our only hope,” Patricio told me. “Look out there at the landscape,” he said, pointing out the vehicle window. “Whenever you see a wooded area; it’s a coffee farm.” He went on to explain that the only farmers in the region still working their land are those coffee farmers who have affiliated with APECAP. Higher prices and technical assistance are just some of the benefits they receive by being organized in this association and selling to the Fair Trade market.
We spent the afternoon visiting with local APECAP member José Armijos. In 2003, about 70 members formed APECAP; the association received its Fair Trade and organic certifications that same year. At that time, they were receiving 45 cents per pound for their coffee. “With organic and Fair Trade certifications, we began receiving better prices for our coffee and that encouraged us to continue,” José said. Two years later, they sold six containers of coffee to the Fair Trade market, and with the extra premiums, hired extension workers to provide technical assistance and began investing in improvements to their processing equipment. Inspired by their neighbors’ success, 250 additional farmer families joined APECAP.
José led us through his coffee groves, chatting and joking throughout the day. After all the arid landscapes, stark deforestation, and landslides on the long trip from Loja, it was refreshing to be under so much shade and surrounded by greenery. The farm was full of fruit trees: lemons, oranges, guava, bananas, plantains, pineapples, and many other fruits I’d never seen before. He made us sample everything. At one point, his wife climbed up the steep mountainside to bring us a tray of freshly squeezed lemonade. At the end of a long, but very fun visit, José concluded: “We don’t want anyone to give us anything. A fair price for our coffee will help provide us with trainings; then we’ll show you results. We’ve received little help from the government and look how far we’ve already come.”
One of the ways that FAPECAFES is trying to help its members is through farm renovations that will increase their yields. Years of low prices made it difficult for farmers to maintain their farms in optimum condition. Soils are depleted and yields have dropped dramatically, making it even more difficult to produce enough coffee per acre to make a living. So the farmers are choosing to reinvest some of their premiums into tree plantings – both coffee and shade trees. FAPECAFES provides them with technical assistance in organic composting, terracing, and pest control.
Members also receive trainings in quality and loans to make improvements in their processing infrastructure. For many years, the price of coffee on the local (and international) market was so low that farmers picked all their coffee at one time – regardless of whether it was ripe or not – and laid it out on their patios to dry in the sun. Local buyers came by and bought this coffee, called “natural,” for an extremely low price. FAPECAFES is now training the farmers in how and when to pick the best beans and has provided them with low-cost loans to buy depulping machines. Now, the farmers are using this “wet processing” method, which produces a much higher quality coffee for the international market. Higher prices and Fair Trade premiums provide the incentive to change their practices.
Once the pulp is removed from the coffee beans and dried in the sun, it is taken to the dry mill for the final stage in the processing. FAPECAFES currently rents the dry mill from COFENAC, the government coffee agency. The mill had been unused for decades and was in terrible condition when they rented it. José Apolo, the Quality Control Director for FAPECAFES, told me that when the members approached COFENAC with the idea of making the mill operational again, rather than receiving support, they felt that the agency took advantage of them. They have been charged exorbitant rents and have had to invest their own money into repairing the building and upgrading the machinery.
Jose accompanied me to the Province of El Oro to visit the farmers organized in the association APECAM. He had just returned from Guayaquil where he was visiting a processing facility to learn about their machinery and operations. The farmers had recently made the decision to use a portion of their Fair Trade premium to buy land and build their own dry mill and he was very enthusiastic about the strides the organization would be able to make in quality and cost savings by owning and running their own mill. For the first time, they won’t be paying a 2% tax for benefits they never see but instead would reinvest in their own organization!
Only in the last few years have the farmers begun to see the benefits of their association. Now they follow careful steps to ensure high quality beans: they sell directly to the Fair Trade market and receive a higher price, and they reinvest this higher premium into infrastructure and technical assistance that further contributes to their co-operative business. Their coffee is sold under their name and buyers are starting to recognize its unique flavor profile. After years of feeling hopeless and powerless, the farmers are participating in meetings, making decisions, behaving as business people and feeling the fledging excitement that comes when one can begin to imagine a future for oneself and one’s family.
I asked Carlos if there were other projects that the members were choosing to support with their Fair Trade premiums and he told me an unforgettable story. In addition to all of their investments in the coffee, FAPECAFES has also made contributions to local health clinics. Apparently, venomous snakes live in the coffee groves and snakebite is one of the more common ailments that necessitate a visit to the clinics. If these bites are not treated quickly, it can be fatal and several children in the region have died because they couldn’t get the antibody in time. Unfortunately, the government-run health clinics lack resources, and often the syrum is simply not available. So at last year’s General Assembly meeting, the APECAM producers voted to use a portion of their Fair Trade premiums to buy rubber boots for the children to protect them from the snakes and to supply the local clinics with snake-bite syrum. “To date, we have saved the lives of several children,” Carlos told me. “We wish that our government put more value on our children’s health, but even if they don’t, we will continue to work together and find our own ways to protect our families. Please tell your consumers how much we appreciate their assistance in our struggle.”