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.
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.
In the morning light we saw the entire menagerie: a small herd of cows and calves, horses, geese, a pig, dogs, fruit trees, a flower garden, as well as wet mill and coffee drying racks. Luis and Elsa’s farm was the picture of success. We realized that the fact that there were many animals, diversification of crops, and growth was partly due to the Fair Trade premiums distributed by the larger Tierra Nueva Co-op. Fair Trade brought the Castillos, like the other co-op members, access to the U.S. and European organic coffee markets.
Co-operatives, like Tierra Nueva, are the foundation of the Fair Trade system. If not for co-ops, coffee producers whose farms are often located in remote mountainous areas would be isolated from one another and the market. Once organized into a co-operative, farmers can pool their incomes to set up an office with computers, and Internet services to ensure access to current pricing information, a phone, and a fax machine. The farmer members participate in democratic decision- making that leads to mutually beneficial financial practices. They are also the recipients of such resources as grants for planting and quality control training. The co-op helps the farmers to become more competitive and effective.
The next day the delegation members picked coffee cherries at another successful farm: the home of Norman and Jocanda Aguilar and their four children. Norman showed us his wet mill—where the red coffee cherries are separated from the beans— the only motorized de-pulping machine in the El Tesoro co-operative. He was able to install the machine as a result of a loan from the Tierra Nueva co-op. It has saved him time and money since he has to pay fewer workers during the de-pulping stage, and it goes faster.
At Norman’s farm, we saw an area planted with hundreds of new seedlings, part of the Planting Trees for Life Project sponsored through the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Small Farmer Fund with Equal Exchange. Two years ago, Tierra Nueva, which has a total of 8 co-ops and just over 600 members, established this project to provide its farmers with several hundred thousand coffee seedlings to replace older non-productive trees. They have also propagated 125,000 citrus, cacao, and shade trees which contribute to the biodiversity of the organic farms; these trees help the coffee plants thrive and make them more pest-resistant. The families can consume the fruit.
However, Tierra Nueva’s biggest achievement to date has been the construction of the new regional dry mill and honey processing facility which started in 2008 as the result of profits from Fair Trade premiums. Before then, the co-op had to truck the de-pulped beans miles away to a sister co-op’s dry mill for the next stages of processing. The co-op members were proud to show us the three sturdy cement block buildings built in 2008 and 2009 where workers are establishing a coffee drying patio which will be completed this coming year.
The dry mill is the place where farmers take their beans which have already gone through the first stages of de-pulping, fermenting, sorting, and drying. At the dry mill or “beneficio seco,” the beans are dried in the sun for eight days. Then the outer layer or parchment is mechanically removed and the beans are hand-sorted again and stored for at least one month in order to stabilize the level of moisture which eliminates fungus. There is a quality control laboratory to test the flavor profiles of the beans. After these last steps, the coffee is loaded into 150 lb. burlap sacks and taken to the dock for export.
Last year at Tierra Nueva, new initiatives were instituted to facilitate gender equality so that women could start their own businesses and contribute economically to their families. A new Women’s Institute was established which will graduate a class of 130 women this spring. As a result of these initiatives, women have formed their own honey co-operative. The honey is collected trucked to the facility, left in barrels so that the sediment is separated out and bottled in a new building at the dry mill. Juan Mora Rocha, President of Tierra Nueva proudly explained to the group that the dry mill has been a critical step in the economic development of the co-op. When Tierra Nueva finishes this facility he said, “it will complete the chain of production.” This means that the small coffee and honey farmers will have more control over their products from harvest to export.
The Presbyterian Church(USA) /Equal Exchange delegation was made up women and men from eleven different states across the U.S., with a range of ages, and included seven pastors. For all of us, visiting the farmers was a moving experience—but for different reasons. Some folks were surprised by “primitive living conditions,” which included outhouses, few pieces of furniture, and a plethora of insects. Others felt at a loss at not knowing Spanish or were touched to see a different culture so close up. One group member spoke of being affected by a farmer who spoke to him about how he always thinks about those who have less than he does. We were all profoundly moved by the fact that due to Fair Trade, the work of Equal Exchange, the Tierra Nueva co-operative and our faith-based partnerships, the farmers of El Tesoro are thriving on their land and they are able to plan and build a future for themselves and their children.