Archive for November, 2012

Co-op Inspiration

The following post was written by Andrew Driscoll, Equal Exchange Natural Foods Sales Representative

As the first International Year of the Co-op comes to a close, co-operators everywhere are now gearing up for the decade of the Co-op. Ready for many, many more years of transformation, impact, creativity, and of course, co-operation, our friend Rebekah Hanlon of the Valley Green Feast Co-op has created this beautiful digital photo book to share and remind us all of how far we have come and how versatile our model is. Most important of all is that “we do these things together”.

“I started this photo project after becoming inspired by the book that is being written about my co-op network, the Valley Alliance of Worker Co-operatives. I am hoping to have a showing of all the pictures I took at some point and to raise money for co-op education. You can try to tell someone about the impact that co-ops have all day long but the truth is that everyone learns differently. And as a visual person I wanted to communicate the power of co-operatives in a way that really brings the love to life.” – Rebekah

Some of our fellow worker-owners here at Equal Exchange are already clamoring for a calendar version of this! What do you all think?

Read Full Post »

This is the second post from Tom Hanlon-Wilde sent to us from Quito, Ecuador where he is attending the Second Annual Meeting of the Small Farmer Symbol.

Small-scale Farmers Besieged by High Temperatures and Less Precipitation as Consumers Fail to Avoid Climate-Changing Habits

Our bike-riding and bottle-recycling efforts are not nearly offsetting our jet-setting vacations and highway commuting, and the farmers in tropical and sub-tropical regions are paying the price. At the Fifth General Assembly of the Coordinating Body for Latin American and Caribbean Small-Scale Producers, three dozen leaders of co-operatives from throughout the hemisphere met in Quito, Ecuador, to review the coming climate changes and the changes farmers will have to take to ameliorate the destructive effects of the actions of their customers.

Martha Yvette Aguilar reviewed the most current comparative scientific studies, concluding that the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are on pace to reach 440-570 ppm by 2020, the result of which will be an increase of 3.5 degree centigrade in the growing regions of the member co-operatives by 2050. Already, in the past 100 years, the average temperature in the coffee growing regions of southern Mexico and Guatemala and the Dominican Republic is up by 2 degrees C and in Nicaragua and El Salvador by 1 degree. The farmers of CONACADO in the Dominican Republic are seeing increases in defoliation and aborted flowering of their cacao trees due to the higher temperatures and more frequent droughts. The coffee farmer partners in Las Yungas of Bolivia will likely face the opposite threat – too much rain which promotes coffee rust and molds and leads to erosion. The effects will be varied within countries:  farmers in coastal Peru (CEPICAFE) will likely see increased precipitation while farmers in Cusco and Puno will see droughts and resultant forest fires. The disappearance of glaciers from Ecuador, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia will drastically change the availability of water for household and agricultural use and is projected to directly cause deaths to remote populations.

Ricardo Bustos of CRIC and Yvette Aguilar discuss carbon credit opportunities for coffee farmers

Ricardo Bustos of the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca, Colombia, explained that 830 member farmers can utilize a different variety of coffee to maintain yields in the face of the rust and wilting of coffee due to climate change, but that the higher intensity crop is a disruption to the cultural practices that indigenous communities have developed in the growing of traditional foods, forcing members to chose between maintaining yields for their income and maintaining culture for their communities. Carlos Ruiz Silva of APBOSMAM, a co-operative of 290 farmers in northern Peru, noted that their members are seeing more rapid maturing of bananas and shorter growing times for rice, which cause crop losses and require changes in farming techniques. Fewer cool nights (which is needed for the coffee plants) and more frequent high-intensity rains (which increase erosion and cause landslides and floods) have been observed. The threat of landslides due to high-intensity rains will require re-location and diversification of growing areas. The decline in yields of food crops for home (a 2 degree C increase in temperatures causes a 15% decline in corn yields in equatorial growing regions) will increase dependence on off-farm income and a change in the types of crops grown for home use. Growers are beginning to alter the spacing of coffee or cocoa trees and changing the spacing and types of trees inter-cropped with coffee or cocoa to deal with changes in temperature and precipitation.

Tom Hanlon-Wilde with Carlos Ruiz Silva, Vice President of ABOSMAM

Evidence of climate change was right outside our window – the glacier on Cotopaxi Mountain is 40% smaller than it was in the mid-1970s. Hope for meaningful action by consumers filled the room, but more evident was the steely resolve to take matters into their own hands and ready member-farmers for the coming climate changes.

Read Full Post »

This blog post was sent to us by Tom Hanlon-Wilde who is currently in Ecuador about to attend the Second Annual Meeting of the Small Producers Symbol. Tom is an Equal Exchange Sales Manager in Portland, Oregon.

Invitation to the Second Annual Small Producers Symbol Meeting in Quito, Ecuador

Imagine you wanted to change the world and you succeeded, only to have someone steal your ID and your clothes and pretend to be you. Would you try to discredit the impostor? Or would you go to your true friends and show them the true you?

This is the scenario leaders of small scale farmers’ co-operatives faced in 2011 when large plantations  were given fair trade certification against the wishes of the farmers who had painstakingly built the movement. The identify theft suffered by farmers in the Global South spurred their co-operatives to rise up and take action.

I’m here in Quito, Ecuador, to witness those farmers reclaim what is rightfully theirs.

In Quito, a star-studded cast of authentic fair trade leaders, including Merling Preza Ramos of PRODECOOP in Nicaragua, Sergio Neira of CEPICAFE, and Raul del Aguila of COCLA, in Peru, and Nelson Guerra Chinchilla of COPRACAEL in Honduras, have convened the 2nd International Meeting of the Small Farmers Symbol (SPP). At this meeting, the farmer co-operatives involved in the Small Farmers Symbol will formalize the operation of their new certification system. The system is impressive, with the new General Standards incorporating four dozen criteria for small farmer member organizations, including maximum individual farm sizes and a maximum percentage of farm work performed by hired farm workers. In addition, buyers who use the SPP must meet nearly three dozen criteria, including a minimum of 5% annual volume growth in program purchases. At this meeting in Quito, farmer representatives will also approve the newly updated Cost Regulations, and Rules on the Use of the SPP Graphic.

More importantly, the event in Quito will be an giant step in advancing the original vision of fair trade. As Rink Dickinson, Equal Exchange Co-President and Co-founder, pointed out at the Interfaith Task Force meeting in Cleveland, Ohio, on October 22, 2011, “We need to be clear: the idea for controlled mainstreaming of fair trade came from the south, most specifically from one coop (UCIRI) in southern Oaxaca, Mexico. The idea was not to give control of the fair trade system to European non- profits, or bureaucrats, or multi-national companies or to plantations . . . .” It was just that loss of control that brought the farmers together to form the Small Farmer Symbol.

In a 2011 interview with Catholic Relief Services, Merling Preza explained that the US-based certifier Fair Trade USA (a.k.a. TransFair USA) reached an agreement with smallholder farmer representatives in 2003 that its coffee certification program remain exclusively for small scale farmers. She further noted that Transfair confirmed that commitment in a letter to producers three years later, and that as of June 2011, Merling was still receiving personal assurances that there were no plans to open the market to estates. When that agreement was abandoned, the farmers readied themselves to launch the Small Farmer Symbol.

Christopher M. Bacon foresaw the troubles in the fair trade system in his study for the Journal of Peasant Studies #37 when he wrote of the Transfair USA system, “Voices without votes, North-South inequalities, and dwindling prices paid to its stated protagonists indicate the need for governance reform, cost of living price adjustments, and additional investment in the innovative alternative trade and hybrid models. “

Over the past two decades the farmers and leaders used tender care and fierce determination to grow both their coffee trees and co-operatives. Today in Quito, I expect this gathering to burst forth into life an innovative alternative trade model that gives farmers a voice and a vote.


Read Full Post »

The following post was written by Fair World Project (FWP) and was first posted on their blog.  Due to the importance to all of us concerned about Far Trade chocolate, certifications, and most importantly farmer impact and consumer education, we are reposting it in its entirety below.  If you have comments, please share on FWP’s blog.  Thank you!

There has been a lot of talk about food labels in the media lately, especially if you have been following Proposition 37 in California.

Transparency in labeling is important and the labeling landscape can be confusing.

The FWP team recently took a shopping trip to see how fair trade chocolate bars are labeled. Chocolate is on our mind because last month Hershey announced that they will source 100% “certified” cocoa by 2020, without specifying what kind of certification. Later in the month was, of course, Halloween, a holiday where, by some estimates, 90 million pounds of chocolate, most of it not fair trade, is purchased.

As we push for companies like Hershey’s to clean up their supply chains, ensuring that children are not forced to work and farmers and workers are paid fairly, and ask consumers to make more of their purchases products that are fairly traded, we also see a role for making sure those fair trade labels mean something.  So what we found on our recent shopping trip was somewhat alarming.

Here are two privately labeled chocolate bars, one from Trader Joe’s and one from Whole Foods, both claiming to be fair trade, a Fair for Life logo prominently displayed on the front.

But looking a little closer, on the Whole Foods bar, it is only the cocoa butter that is certified fair trade.  In the case of Trader Joe’s, the ingredients that are fair trade are not even identified in the ingredient list, though the description on the front panel indicates it is likely only the cocoa as well.

This is a good start, but how do we know that the sugar and vanilla farmers were not exploited to bring us these “fair trade” chocolate bars? Is it still okay to prominently display the Fair for Life logo on the front of the bar, advertising this as a fair trade product? According to the official policies of IMO, holder of the Fair for Life standard, itself, the answer is no. If a product is not at least 80% fair trade by weight (in some cases 50%), it should not display the label on the front panel. We recently sent a letter to IMO asking about this discrepancy, as well as the fact that neither of these bars indicates who manufactured the bars. A key benefit of the Fair for Life program is that, unlike other fair trade labeling programs, Fair for Life requires all handlers through the brand holder to be audited and registered. Therefore, without noting the audited company responsible for making the bar, it might appear that Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s themselves have been fully audited, which they have not.

In contrast, here are a few examples of companies that have the labeling right.


Read Full Post »

by Rob Everts, Co-President, Equal Exchange

Exactly one year ago three of us from Equal Exchange made our first visit to the West Bank to meet with farmers during the olive oil harvest.  While meeting the farmers, their families and cooperative leaders, as well as PARC (Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee) officials, we learned the profoundly integral role olive trees have played in the lives, culture and livelihoods of Palestinians for centuries.  We also learned about the profound challenges growers face in making the economics of olive cultivation viable.

Sania Shqeer, member and board member of the Al Zawyeh olive oil co-op

Many farmers are separated from their groves by either the separation wall or large Israeli settlements or are attacked by settlers as they try to harvest their crops.  In addition, severe limitations are placed on their ability to collect rainwater for irrigation.  These obstacles make care and attention to the trees very difficult if not impossible.

It is in this environment that the farmer co-ops of PARC started harvesting their olives in mid-October.  In order to support farmers, PARC started a campaign to recruit volunteers called “Ehna Ma’kom” or “We’re With You”. As part of this campaign, they have recruited volunteers from Palestine, Europe, North America and other countries to assist them in picking the olives. The presence of the international volunteers also helps to prevent attacks by Israeli settlers while farmers pick their olives especially in the areas next to the separation wall.

We remain hopeful that over time that these obstacles will be surmounted and that the olive industry will once again thrive as a viable source of income for Palestinian farmers.  Meanwhile, the Equal Exchange delegation was extremely impressed with the olive pressing, storage and bottling infrastructure that PARC has been pivotal in developing.

And it shows in the superb quality of the finished product!

Below, we share photos of the volunteer brigades sent to us by our PARC partners.

Read Full Post »

Equal Exchange banana summit getting underway. The event was hosted at East Side Food Cooperative

On Tuesday October 23rd 2012, 25 people representing 13 co-ops, 2 distributors and one importer (Equal Exchange) came together in the Twin Cities for a small farmer banana summit. The group discussed the challenges and successes in the small farmer supply chain in order to deepen support for and expand reach of Equal Exchange bananas in the Upper Midwest. Rick Christianson of Coop Partners Warehouse, (CPW) one of the first supporters of the Equal Exchange banana program in the Twin Cities, gave this speech as part of the summit. His words encompass a lot why we do this work at Equal Exchange.

Rick Christianson, of Coop Partners Warehouse, addressing the banana summit attendees

I’d like thank Equal Exchange for holding this event. And East Side Co-op for hosting us here today. I’d also like to express my appreciation to J&J for putting us in their gas chambers—er banana rooms this morning, and for partnering with Co-op Partners in this banana program for all these years.

When the idea of a Banana Summit was first mentioned to me, it brought up images of a mountain top covered in banana peels. So everyone please watch your step.

When I started working in the organic produce game organic bananas were no where to be found. There were only rumors of them on the west coast. The conventional banana business was an ugly and bloody political nightmare–about as opposite of Fair Trade as you can imagine. But we in the young co-op community had no idea how to utilize what little buying power we had to try and make a difference. So we scrambled around trying to find something more palatable to our fledgling little world of impoverished idealists.

In the early 80’s we finally managed to figure out how to get organic bananas to the Twin Cities, but it was a logistical nightmare. The bananas were grown in Mexico, and trucked up to Los Angeles. They were gassed there, 2000 miles away. The pallets were then wrapped in paper and put on cold, 36 degree produce trucks for the 2-3 day journey to Minnesota. Every load was a gamble against time and temperature. My memory may be exaggerating things, but it seemed that about a quarter of the time the bananas would arrive chilled–a lovely stage 2 gray-green. About a quarter of the time, they would come in sweating and cooking—exotic leopard skin bananas with black and yellow the only colors in sight. And even when the bananas survived the trip OK, everyone that dealt with them had to keep a lookout for the black widow spiders that seemed to love hiding the wooden crates that the fruit was packed in.

Banana summit attendees listen and debate about the future of small farmer bananas.

For the most part, we lived with that system for over twelve years. So after experiencing those early years, what we have now seems like banana heaven to me.

We really are incredibly fortunate to have an organization like Equal Exchange doing the great job that they do to get us a quality product that has been well cared for all along the line, that has the force of social justice behind it, and that is in keeping with the values that the co-operative community has worked so hard to establish.

The day to day tasks of our work often can serve to cloud our vision of the larger picture. But the relationships that have been forged between farms, wholesalers, retailers, and consumers in this area is an accomplishment that we all should be proud of. You may or may not realize it, but especially in produce, the co-operative culture of the Upper Midwest has created a growing alternative food distribution system that is very much the envy of many in the sustainable agriculture world. It is a model that continues to thrive despite strong competition from establishments with far more economic clout than we have.

Jessica, of Equal Exchange bananas, breaking down the economics of the Equal Exchange banana supply chain

As one who has been in this game since the Pleistocene, I have been privileged to see and be a part of a the ever expanding organic and co-operative movements. But while the business end of the organic world has thrived, it often seems that some of the heart was lost in the process.

As a buyer at CPW, I try very hard to keep heart in its rightful, prominent place in the equation. With regional farmers, we have developed a delivery system that goes well beyond the usual buy-sell dynamic between farm and wholesaler. For product from other growing regions, wherever we can, we focus on farms that build both their soil and their communities…that care about their workers and treat them well. Farms that maintain their integrity on all levels of their operation.

Through the years, I have been privileged to befriend and develop relationships with an ever growing number of wonderful, dedicated, innovative, brilliant, but down to earth people on farms all around the country.

When it comes to product imported across the water, the barriers to keeping strong connections to people and the land are enormous, and it is wonderful when we have the opportunity to partner with others in order to help keep our reality in line with our vision.

So personally, and in a business sense, I hope that all of us can realize how valuable it is to have Equal Exchange there for us to establish and maintain the connection between the real people at both ends of this trade line. Bananas are a big part of all our businesses. And thanks to the efforts of the growers in Peru and Ecuador, and the work of Equal Exchange, and J&J, we have a product on our shelves that is not only a big seller, but it has its heart intact.

The co-op community of the Upper Midwest really is a shining star of a model that shows that it is possible to thrive in business while maintaining integrity and caring about social justice. Having truly Fair Trade Bananas is key to our continued success on many levels. I’d like to thank Equal Exchange for making this a reality and working so hard to maintain it.

J&J Ripening tour; Banana Summit Attendee’s debating the future of bananas; Abbey Rae (East Side Food Coop) and Erik Larson (St. Peter’s Food Coop) listening intently.

Read Full Post »

The following article ran in the October 30th issue of Freshfruitportal.com

From what began as a tool for Peruvian growers to gain organic certification and negotiating power with the Dole Food Company, the Piura Center for Small Organic Banana Grower Associations (CEPIBO) has forged ahead with direct fixed contract exports to Europe and North America. The group is now the largest of its kind with 843 containers sent overseas last year. At http://www.freshfruitportal.com we catch up with its general manager Jose Lecarnaque Castro, who finds little rest in his push to get smallholder farmers educated in specialized training.

Photo: Oke Usa

Click here to read the original article.

Read Full Post »

By Becca Koganer, Equal Exchange Sales Representative, Northampton, Mass

As I sit stuck once again, at Chicago O’Hare Airport, I am slightly thankful for this unexpected couple of hours between travel which has forced me to slow down and reflect on the two days passed where I met some of the most dedicated people in the cooperative movement.

As a newly elected board member to the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC), I feel almost without words following this two day intensive retreat. We met in Madison, WI, a city with more heart than I can describe both in terms of vibrant coop community and beautiful people. These retreats are once a year, a time for the board to sit down and get our heads together around strategic planning for this movement.

In the weeks leading up to the preparation for this weekend meeting, I have to disclose my intense anxieties around being on a new board; a working board (and I mean WORKING!); and being the youngest and most inexperienced among the group. Somehow, I volunteered for this. There were moments as I prepared to fly out, reading over the documents that had been sent around describing some of the work that was to come once, twice, three times- thinking maybe it isn’t too late to pull out of responsibility I had signed up for.

The intimidation I felt leading up to this retreat mostly pertained to my own insecurities around feeling new. But hey, who doesn’t get butterflies on their first day at a new job? Reflecting now, I can’t believe I let my nerves get to me because I sit here thoroughly reminded of what it’s all really about: the people. People are at the heart of this movement, and in a truly human moment, I felt like a person; not a sales representative of Equal Exchange, not the eastern regional representative to the Federation’s board, just truly human. I suppose I was worried about not being able to live up to what was expected of a board member, and filled with almost a crippling respect for those residing on the board and their unyielding servitude for this movement.

What do I mean by movement? Yes, it’s true that worker cooperatives are business model, but WE are so much more than that. The Federation is trying to build a democratic society in which workers are in control of the management, governance, and ownership of their places of work; workplaces that uphold the values of empowerment, equity, dignity, and mutual respect. The Federation serves its members by doing work they cannot do on their own; we are a member driven organization. Our business model is a vehicle for change. If you are familiar with Equal Exchange, this should sound familiar.

Equal Exchange is a successful worker cooperative whose products are vehicles for social change. It’s true we sell coffee, tea, chocolate; delicious things. We use these delicious things to impact the lives of consumers and producers through our trading practices embodying authentic fair trade. The work the USFWC does parallels this ideology.

I immediately felt at home when I stepped into the house of our board president. Her home was an open and accepting place, filled with posters identifying her activist roots and solidarity with so many movement (environment, labor issues, etc). It wasn’t just the physical space in which we met for our retreat that was filled with this home-like comfort for me. Every board member brought this kind of electric energy that could have inspired perhaps even some of the most cynical people I know.

It has been a powerful year for cooperatives. The International Year of Cooperatives declared by the UN is coming to an end. This past summer in Boston, the USFWC held the most well attended worker coop conference in the Federation’s history. All eyes are on our movement and this weekend 8 people (2 staff and 6 board members) sat around a table for more hours than I would like to admit planning how to best serve our members and serve our movement for the future.

I am grateful that I can bring this experience to my coop and to all those who read this now, in hopes to create a better understanding for the importance of the role of having a national organization doing this work: building membership, education, advocacy, and finances for worker cooperatives. There is so much work to be done, and despite the inspiration I feel now from being on this board, we can’t do this alone. We need all of you to get behind this movement and help drive it to where it needs to go.

Cooperatives are stewards of the values of their members. At Equal Exchange, our values are around issues of social justice and economic transformation for our producer partners (farmer cooperatives), sustainability, and the environment (to name a few..). The worker cooperative movement is vast, and it serves communities of all kinds. Worker coops serve local, regional, national, and international communities. Equal Exchange works with farmers in Central and South America connecting them to a fair trade market. TESA (Toolbox for Education and Social Action) of Northampton, MA serves their communities by providing educational resources, including but not limited to cooperative education for college credits at the local community college. Union Cab of Madison, WI serves their communities by providing transportation for the greater Madison community from hospital workers who need to get to work in a snow storm to students who need a safe ride home from the bars. Rainbow Grocery of San Francisco, CA serves their community by providing a full service grocery store with products that they believe in, from vendors that they trust. There are tech worker coops, engineering worker coops, psychotherapy worker coops, and wildlife biologist worker coops. There are regional networks all over the country serving their member coops on the ground by offering technical assistance to their members and helping convert local businesses to worker coops. No matter what your passion is, there’s a space to create a worker owned, democratic business out of it. The list of worker coops and networks isn’t short, but it needs to get longer. We need to build this movement up and up and up. Only then, can we leverage our capacity to build a REAL democratic society.

I’m excited to continue with my work nationally on the USFWC board, internationally with Equal Exchange, and locally/regionally with the Valley Alliance of Worker Cooperatives (VAWC).

What can you bring to the worker cooperative movement?

Read Full Post »

The view from La Ilusion

There’s a buzz of activity in the CIRSA office as producers come in from their communities to get their initial payment (called an advance) for the first beans of the harvest that they’ve turned in to the co-op.  At CIRSA, the volunteer board carries out most of the responsibilities, so a lot of on-the-job training is happening during this first month:  the newly-elected board shadows the former members who stick around to ensure a smooth transition in operations.  Jose Castillo Lopez, the treasurer, is learning how to fill out receipts and keep accounting ledgers; the president, Juan Carolos Perez Perez, is sitting at a computer, learning his way around the keyboard.  School was not an option for these guys, whose ages range from 30s to 50s, and so most have no more than a second or third grade education.  The entire endeavor is both ambitious and highly impressive.

Andres Diaz Diaz and Victor Hugo Garcia Lopez

Don Andres Diaz Diaz

The first (and sometimes only) language many CIRSA producers speak is either Tzoztil or Tzeltal.  So a good part of our conversations occur in this hilarious mix of four languages as everyone good-naturedly tries to learn a few words of someone else’s primary language:  the resulting conversations are absurdly funny.  In Tzotzil, new is “mol” (I have no idea how it is really spelled) and old is “hache”.  So each time someone introduces himself as treasurer or vice president, the others say to me, he’s the treasurer “mol” or he is the treasurer “hache”.  Then someone speaks and they look at me, point at him, and wait for me to respond, testing my memory. “ Isidro…mol”, I say and they break into peals of laughter.

Filiberto has a few jokes he’s clearly been waiting for the right moment to share. “Did you know that even dogs in Chiapas speak Tzotzil?  Waf waf,” he says and points to a plate of tortillas.  “The frogs too: lek, lek.  Good.”  Although they’ve all undoubtedly heard these jokes before, everyone, including me, chuckles each time he repeats them.  I’m sure it’s his delivery.  “Lek oy,” says Juan Carlos, smiling.  “This is good.”

Despite the brevity of my time here, the visit takes on a certain rhythm.  Breakfast with Filiberto and the board members.  (Today’s is a mouth-watering meal of memelas de calabasa (something like a pumpkin crepes) with beans.)  Then several hours up on the rooftop for long conversations about CIRSA and Equal Exchange, a delicious hot mid-day meal, followed by visits to the communities and coffee farms, and then a few hours in the evening socializing with whichever board members are up for it.

On the first full day of my visit, I spend a very somber morning with Don Andres and Don Bartolo.  I’m filled with deep respect as they tell me stories of hardship and suffering at the hands of the plantation owners, countless marches to government land reform offices in San Cristobal and Tuxtla Guttierez to fight for basic rights most of us take for granted, then periods of more violent confrontations as the landowners fight back.  Don Andres’s eyes tear up when he speaks about his months spent in prison for his organizing efforts.  My heart is heavy with what he’s had to endure and also filled with appreciation that he is willing to share these difficult memories with me.  I can’t do the story justice here, but I have all our conversations recorded and I have promised to write down what I can and share it more fully in the not too distant future.

Filiberto comes to see how we’re doing.  A few of the newer (and younger) board members have been listening to the stories as well, and those that were attending to the farmers have now also joined us.  The air is very heavy as the weight of their stories settle in the air.  I’m feeling a little badly as it was my questions that brought on this dark mood.

It’s time to return to the present and I decide this is a perfect moment to share greetings from the Equal Exchange staff.  Customer service representatives have made a card to send their salutations and appreciations to CIRSA.  Sales representatives have sent “We Own It” co-op buttons with the two pines international symbol of co-ops.  They love them.  Even better, we have made buttons to promote our Authentic Fair Trade Campaign, that say “I stand with small farmers” and I have brought dozens to share with them.  This allows us to talk about the campaign and our support for small farmer co-ops.  We talk about the Small Producer Symbol and they let me know that they will be registering.  I read them handfuls of greetings that individual Equal Exchange worker owners have sent, accompanied by photos.  This enables us to have lengthy conversations about Equal Exchange, how we work, and what motivates us to do our jobs.

The greetings cheer folks up and then I take out samples of some of the newest products Equal Exchange has begun selling since my last visit to CIRSA.  They’re fascinated with the Tamari Roasted Almonds, intrigued with the new peanut butter chocolate candy bars, and completely into the new fruit and nut chocolate bars.  They ask me dozens of questions about how the almonds are processed, how much they sell for, where the chocolate bars are made, where the cacao comes from, who does the packaging?  They love the package design (although they have suggestions for how to make them easier to unwrap).

We break for lunch and then pile into the truck for afternoon farm visits.  One day we travel to the community, La Ilusion where a meeting has been arranged with twelve producers who are members of CIRSA.  After a brief discussion about how they’re doing and concerns about coffee prices and coyotes (intermediaries), we visit a few of their well-shaded farms.  The coffee trees are filled with beans, just starting to ripen.  The plots here are tiny, micro-farms really, but at least the soil is very productive and their yields are higher than average.  All in all, they are expecting a good harvest this year and their biggest concern is whether CIRSA will be able to match the prices currently being offered by the coyotes.

On the second afternoon, we visit Victor Hugo’s farm, “paradise” as he’s been referring to it all week.  We tour the coffee farms and then meet his family and have some refreshments.

At night Filiberto, Rosenda, Ambar, Manuel, and Victor Hugo come by my hotel around 9 pm.  It’s time to have a cappuccino at the café CIRSA has recently opened right in the town square. CIRSA sells a small portion of their coffee into the national market and the café is a popular night spot for the residents of Simojovel.

Juan Carlos and Manuel in CIRSA’s new cafe

We sip our coffee and continue talking, mostly now about the elections.  The town hall is to our right, facing the park, and there is a line of police, backs against the wall, with their rifles ready.  The PRI party has won the elections in Simojovel, as in most of Chiapas and the country.  But accusations of fraud are rampant, the roads into town were blockaded for days in protest, and now the town’s angry residents are refusing to let anyone enter the municipal offices and begin assuming their posts.

Despite the graffiti covering the wall declaring the new mayor a puppet and demanding justice, the row of heavily armed police facing the town square, no one seems particularly worried.  Trash is piling up on the streets since the new town council can’t begin carrying out municipal services.  Still, someone has set up a projector and is showing a movie on the white wall of the town hall.  Rows of kids sit in the square watching the entertainment oblivious, or ignoring, the drama unfolding around them.

On my last day at CIRSA, Filiberto uses the occasion of my visit, not just to update me on how CIRSA has been doing in the past few years, but to also inform and educate the new board members.  He shows us an impressive power point presentation that he’s put together keeping in mind the low levels of formal schooling held by most board members.  Filled with pie charts and easy to grasp charts, we get a new sense of CIRSA’s current situation.  Finally, having covered CIRSA’s past and present, he asks each member of the Board to share with me their vision of the future.  What would they like to see?  If they are successful, what will CIRSA look like in a few years?

CIRSA’s former president, Don Isidro sums it up:  “This organization has done so much for us.  As producers, we have all been helped greatly by being part of this organization.  I have been part of CIRSA for 20 years now and today we are all so much more conscious of our situation, what we face, and how to overcome our challenges.    We want to continue raising awareness amongst our members about the importance of staying organized.  Everything we have achieved is because of this organization and we don’t want the younger members to forget that. We want to increase our coffee production and get higher prices for it. We want to attract more members and to diversify our products.”

Don Isidro and Don Manuel

In the morning, I catch a ride to Tuxtla Guttierez with Filiberto and the new and old Presidents (that’s right, the mol and the hache): they have an appointment at a local bank to discuss their line of credit.  I say my goodbyes to the remaining board members and promise to return in January when the coffee is in full harvest.  This time, I’ll bring a whole group of Equal Exchange worker-owners with me and we’ll spend the nights in the farmers’ homes.

The goodbye photos!

Kolobalik. Thanks everyone.

Read Full Post »