Archive for February, 2010

The following reflection comes from Susan Sklar, Interfaith Program Manager

Picture this: a tree full of a dozen chickens and roosters in branches laden with oranges against a brilliant star lit sky.  This tree stood in the barnyard of a farm where a group of five women from the Presbyterian Church (USA) and Equal Exchange delegation spent two nights this past January.  It was one of our first sights at Luis and Elsa Castillo’s farm in Boaco, Nicaragua; and for me it’s an image that captures the beauty and tranquility that we found there.

The five of us were part of a fifteen member delegation to Nicaragua, visiting a primary co-operative called El Tesoro in Boaco. We had just made our way in the dark up the mountain using flashlights to avoid stumbling over rocks and tree roots. To our intermittent question, “ Donde esta tu casa, senor?”  (Where is your house, sir?)  Luis Castillo, answered repeatedly, “ Muy muy cerca.” (Very very close) something we soon stopped believing. The trip up the mountain was an adventure that lasted over an hour.

The five delegation members who made the climb: Melanie Hardison, PC(USA), Susan Sklar EE, Cari Senefsky EE, Kate Hopta from OH, and Cindy Shepherd from IL

When we finally reached the top of the mountain– both exhausted and relieved– the farm was inspiring.  The excited Castillo family welcomed us with open arms. Elsa fixed us generous plates of tortillas, chicken stew, rice, and cheese which she had cooked over a wood fire stove. There was no running water or refrigeration; the kitchen had a dirt floor; there were only a few electrical lights; but it felt like home.  That night the five of us accepted accommodations in the family’s small bedroom while they found spots for themselves in other parts of the house. (more…)

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Tell USDA “No” to GE Alfalfa:

USDA extends commenting period until March 3


IOWA CITY, Iowa – Feb. 16, 2010 – The new USDA pasture rule has been widely embraced by the organic community and greatly strengthens the integrity of the USDA Organic Seal. This is an important change that should be celebrated by the organizations and consumers across the country who commented on the issue and made it clear that consumers expect that organic livestock have access to pasture. Your voice does count!

And, we can do more. The new ruling also heightens the need to stop the USDA’s proposed deregulation of genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa. Such deregulation may result in the permanent contamination of organic grazing fields.

National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA), a business services co-operative for 112 natural food co-ops nationwide, opposes the deregulation of GE alfalfa and encourages consumers nationwide to tell the USDA they oppose the allowance of GE alfalfa into the nation’s food supply. A public commenting period, originally set to expire Feb. 16, has been extended to March 3.


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“The predominant ownership and management model for tea gardens in Darjeeling is rooted in colonial history. In view of the changing cultural, political, and economic climate, a new framework that revolves around worker involvement, participation, & ownership was conceived. This revolutionary concept is not only critical to the success of [Potong], but is important for the development of the larger Darjeeling tea community.” Prem Tamang, Tea Promoters of India

Fairly Traded Coffee, 1986

When Equal Exchange pioneered Fair Trade coffee in 1986, the founders were told they were crazy:  how could they create a viable business model while simultaneously helping small farmers gain access to the market; pay them an above-market price; educate consumers about the source of their coffee; and connect producers and consumers in relationships based on respect and integrity? 

Two decades later, there is no question that the founders’ idealistic vision has radically transformed the coffee industry. While Fair Trade may not yet be a household term, the concept has entered the mainstream coffee market. Over 400 new Fair Trade coffee roasters have sprung up across the country and a number of larger companies are dedicating a portion of their coffee purchases to Fair Trade; all of which comes from small farmer co-ops. Consumers are increasingly choosing to buy coffee sourced from fair trade co-ops and the producer members of those co-ops are, in general, doing far better than their non-Fair Trade counterparts.

Fairly Traded Tea, 2009

Skip ahead 23 years and let’s take a look at the tea industry. By far, the vast majority of tea found on grocery shelves comes from large-scale plantations. Even 98% of tea that is labeled “Fair Trade” is sourced from plantations, one of the last vestiges of the colonial system. The certifiers claim that there is not enough small farmer tea to create a viable supply chain; that plantation tea is the only way to offer consumers a Fair Trade tea. However, while it is true that in some cases, workers have more participation in certain decisions than do those working on non-fair trade plantations, by only working with large estate tea, the Fair Trade model focuses far too much on supply and not nearly enough on Big Change.

Transformation of the tea industry is both possible and long overdue. Due to the feudal nature of plantations, workers are often trapped in a system of dependency. In many cases, workers receive their housing, schooling and medical care from the estate. This means that if a worker loses his/her job, or if the plantation is abandoned, thousands of workers and their families are left without any form of income or services. In fact, in many regions, economic, political and cultural realities are causing this system, frozen in a bygone era, to crumble on its own. Tea workers, however, can’t afford to wait for slow change and committed fair traders and activists need to take action now to create a new model based on human rights and economic justice.

A Different Kind of Tea Model

We think the time for change is now. Our tea partners – in India, Sri Lanka, and South Africa – share this conviction. On a recent trip to Darjeeling, India, we visited our partners, Tea Promoters of India (TPI) and saw an array of exciting projects that are part of their vision of a transformed tea industry where the farmers are empowered, making decisions, taking risks, building their own businesses and improving their lives and communities.

Small Farmer Co-operatives

Sanjukta Vikas, a dairy co-operative comprised of 450 small farmers, also exports high quality, organic Fair Trade tea with the technical assistance and training of a local non-governmental organization, and the processing and marketing assistance of TPI. Walking through the community felt like that mythical Shangri-la of the movies. The village was clean and well-maintained, water flowed in abundance; the brightly-painted homes were surrounded by sweet smelling flower gardens, terraced hills, and shaded farms planted with oranges, bananas, onions, garlic, ginger, and turmeric. Colorful Buddhist flags were strung across the trees in front of a handful of houses; the co-operative itself is also home to Christians and Hindus.

We visited farms and spoke with many farmers. The commitment they have made to bio-dynamics, organic farming, and permaculture was clear. We were shown how materials are recycled and reused; nothing is wasted. Another constant was the sense of pride and self-assurance the farmers displayed which contrasted sharply to other places we’ve visited. Owning their land and having options affords farmers a stronger sense of investment and control over their business.

Worker-owned Plantations

The Potong Tea Garden, established over 100 years ago by the British, is the story of a plantation repeatedly abandoned, taken over, mismanaged, and abandoned again, until 2005 when the 350 farmers decided to take control, and with the support of TPI, run the estate themselves. 2500 people depend on the plantation for their livelihoods, shelter, medical needs and educational services.

We met with members of the Potong Welfare Committee and were told about just some of the economic hardships they suffered during these periods of abandonment: schools were closed, malnutrition was rampant, illnesses abounded, and dozens of people died. The committee’s president, Sher Bahadur, said: “It was so very, very bad. There was no food in the house. The plantation system was structured in such a way that we were never taught any other means of livelihood. We were 100% dependent on the tea plantation. So when the plantation was abandoned, what could we do?”

After the government had taken over the plantation and grossly mismanaged it, Potong was auctioned to a Kolkata company in 2005. But the company was unfamiliar with the tea industry and suffered huge losses. So the owners sought out TPI and asked if they would be interested in running the estate. Representatives of TPI approached the workers. They explained the situation and proposed a solution to keep the estate in operation: the workers take over management – and 51% ownership. TPI would purchase 25% of the remaining shares and provide the technical assistance and market support. Like Sanjukta Vikas, the farmers could process their tea at TPI’s facilities.

After 45 days of deliberation, the workers agreed and a Management Team was created comprised of farmers, TPI, and representatives of the Kolkatta business which still owns a minority share. A member of the Welfare Committee told us, “Before, they were the management and we were the workers. Whatever they asked us to do, we had to do. Before, the management was the supreme authority and we were scared of them. Now we discuss things amongst ourselves.”     

President Bahadur agreed, “Now we have a new structure and we can work with dignity and for our own development. We are working for ourselves and no one else. This is our model and if we are successful, then we will have a future.”                         

Nothing Short of Transformation

It wasn’t easy for Equal Exchange’s founders to challenge an entire coffee industry, especially one so rooted in economic, political, and historic power. But through the co-operative’s success,  the organization has demonstrated that consumers are a “sleeping giant”: once “awakened” and shown a path grounded in fairness, respect, and mutual dignity, people will act on their values, aim high, and purchase ethically. Many will go beyond consumption and also advocate for necessary systemic changes.

We believe there is a path toward a small farmer tea model like the ones we saw at Sanjukta Vikas and the Potong Tea Garden:  one which paves the way for small farmers to have greater access to the market, affording them more economic power, stronger control, better lives, and healthier communities. There are already producer groups and alternative trade organizations working toward this vision. We are convinced that U.S. consumers, armed with information and knowledge, and given a real choice, will walk alongside us as we turn our vision into reality.  There is no reason to accept anything less.

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Todd Caspersen, Equal Exchange’s Director of Puchasing, travelled to El Salvador last week.  The following is a piece he wrote about Las Colinas, a small farmer coffee co-operative that was turned over to the farmers in 1980 as part of El Salvador’s agrarian reform.  Through the years, the co-op has faced many organizational, environmental, productive, and financial struggles; but despite the challenges has nevertheless succeeded in making huge advances.  Their coffee remains some of our most popular to this day.

Last week I went to El Salvador to visit Las Colinas, a long time Equal Exchange partner; and I am psyched about the different projects they are working on.

I am psyched about the great bourbon, a cultivar  of Coffea Arabica, that was drying on the patios.

I am psyched about the farm plan they have for 2010/11.

I am psyched about how healthy the trees look.

I am psyched that the soil analysis is back and informing the soil management plan.

I am psyched that they have gotten in front of the debt they got way back in 1980 as part of the agrarian reform.

I am psyched about a bunch of other stuff too but what I want to share with you today is about water.

The farm that the members of Las Colinas collectively manage contains a significant spring of high quality water, so significant in fact, that it provides water to the entire town of Tacuba and seven surrounding communities. We are easily talking about water for 15,000 people. The spring also provides irrigation water to the members for corn, beans, and vegetables. Most importantly and contentiously, it provides water for processing coffee. In the past, the coffee at Las Colinas was processed using a traditional depulper, fermentation tanks, and channels to transport coffee to the drying terraces; the water then went to sedimentation/evaporation ponds down by a stream. But that wasn’t good enough.

So, this past year they purchased a new depulper that mechanically removes the mucilage from the bean; eliminating the fermentation tanks and the need for loads of water; these are commonly known as eco-pulpers. They bought a Sarti which is made in El Salvador. Water is still part of the process and they needed to improve the treatment of the water and stop using the evaporation ponds by the stream so they installed some motors, pumps and built some new treatment tanks.

This photo shows processing water waiting for treatment in the new tanks.

This new system is impressive; water samples are being sent to a lab for analysis which have demonstrated they are successfully cleaning the water and perhaps more importantly using much less.

All of the processed water is re-circulated and sent to these tanks for treatment in the following sequence:

Step 1: Raise the pH of the water by adding lime to about pH12.

Step 2: Put in an additive they called polimetro; I am still waiting for the chemical name, but it’s similar to the additive used in wine-making that clarifies the wine. Once added, all of the solids in the water begin to drop to the bottom.

Here you can see the solids, lodo, settled out in a test container.

Step 3: Suction the clarified water from one tank to the next.

Step 4: Add acids to the clarified water to return the pH to 7-8.

Here you can see the testing of the pH of the water after the acids have been mixed in.

Step 5: Send the wet solids to an evaporation bed for drying in preparation for composting.

Above you can see the wet solids and dried solids side by side.

Step 6: Irrigate the members’ vegetable plots and move dried lodo in preparation for making bocache, which is a type of compost.

Here is the lodo all set to be mixed with other materials like coffee pulp.

Above is the cleaned water ready for irrigation; compare this picture to one showing water waiting for processing and the one below, showing solids beginning to settle out.

This water processing project was a collaboration between Las Colinas, Apecafe (the Association of Small Coffee Producers of El Salvador), Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and Setem; each organization contributing in a different way. If you purchased coffee through our partnership with CRS you also have participated in this project.

I hope I didn’t bore you with the water geek-out, but this type of work exemplifies the building blocks we use to build great coffee from great sources.

I am really excited by how our relationship with Las Colinas is evolving, and the work we are doing on farm productivity and quality development. I recommend that you get a big hot cup of Las Colinas coffee and look at the farm on Google Maps or Google Earth: N 13 52.128′ W089.54.756′. Great Coffee Great Source.

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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? (more…)

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You may remember our action alert from November. Food safety legislation has been knocking around Congress for quite a while, in the wake of the numerous recalls and other scares. It seems obvious that the government should put more teeth into food safety oversight, but – like many “obvious” initiatives that are spawned in Washington – the devil is in the details. In this case, the bills that have been reported out of committees have the very real potential to put many small farmers out of business. This could include our farmer partners here and abroad. A group of Senators is working on a solution.

For the specifics on how to take action, download this action alert from the National Organic Coalition (Equal Exchange is a member).

For more details on the legislation, see this update from the Executive Director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.

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