The following was written by Becca Koganer, Natural Foods Sales Representative, Equal Exchange
Coffee growing is the most intense work I have ever witnessed. I can’t really put it into words.
The trek to the actual communities where the farmers members of the CIRSA co-op live is indescribable to begin with; imagining having to figure out transport from these isolated places where the roads wash out and can send you over a cliff in an instant; it had my mind spinning. In the moments when I found myself being totally present, I could take in the beauty of the place. We got a ride with board members and 2 technicians. It’s the technicians’ job to check every member’s farm for the standards and practices that are required, this is an incredible amount of work. The work of a board members is also unbelievably challenging and they sleep at the office 4 days a week, leaving behind their farms and families. Victor Hugo, board member, told us how at age 19, he took back a hacienda from a rich German land owner with 29 other companeros in 1994 and split it up collectively to farm. Camarino was hoping we would get to his family’s community because he hadn’t seen his parents since last November. Julio Cesar, the other technician, took photos and videos of us throughout the trip, to share at CIRSA’s annual meeting- to show the strong partnership between our two organizations, co-operatives both. The 5 of us Equal Exchangers, our photographer, Julia, and the folks from CIRSA stood in the back of the truck holding on as we passed across mountainsides and through communities, passing corn, corn, and more corn. Between the corn there were incredible views of valleys, more mountains, communities with farm animals and colorfully dressed women holding babies. People were drying coffee on rooftops, depulpers were visible from the road.
Communities that we passed were all agricultural. From our standing view, it was clear that people were growing corn, coffee, and raising cattle. When we got to the community we were staying in, we’d been on the road maybe 2 and a half hours. We had to go to one of the highest altitude communities, and not to Camarino’s community because the harvest was over there, much earlier than in years before. Climate change is just one of the challenges that these communities live with that shapes their realities. After a meeting with the CIRSA delegate and the farmer members (not everyone who lived in that community belonged to CIRSA, but there were about 19 members total), we set out to visit one of the member’s farms. He said it would be about a half hour walk up the mountain. High noon and breakfast of beans and tortillas, we hiked up to Fernando’s farm. Fernando spoke Tzotzil and I speak very little Spanish; we walked side by side (except for when he had to stop and wait for me). I definitely learned a lot about communication on this trip.
Connections don’t form with language alone. You don’t need words to bond you to people, you just need intention. This hike was hot, muddy, and often times just straight up. The clearing would open up behind us and we’d see the beautiful views that filled me with a sense of spirituality I hardly ever feel. I welcomed these beautiful distractions from the intense communicating my body was doing to me. The altitude, the climb, finally we were at the coffee farm. Time to really work. First we picked. It was shadier on the farm, but that meant more bugs. We had to be careful not to damage the leaves, as they were needed for the plant’s viability for the next harvest. Once we had finally picked enough to fill the sacks, they had to be transported back down the crazy hike on backs to be washed, sorted, and depulped.
So much sorting to get the bad beans. There were 3 stages at which coffee was sorted.
Specialty coffee takes so much care and hard work. Every stage didn’t just have one part. The pulp would become fertilizer by adding it to the worms. The fertilizer then needed to go back up the mountain to the farm for the plants to replenish what they lost in that season’s harvest. There was always something to do. As member, Escolastico would tell us later, “there is never a moment to rest”, and the members don’t just make one trip up to the farm during the course of a day, but many. When the coffee was ready to transport to town, to the CIRSA office, a farmer would have to pay someone with a truck to help him get the coffee out. Back down that long cliffside road to Simojovel, where CIRSA’s office is. We hiked up only once, and witnessed many stages of the processing, and hadn’t even felt the tip of the iceberg in terms of how much work it really is to grow coffee.
CIRSA’s office does not have any beds. The board members sleep there during the week, as there’s no way for them to get back and forth to their communities which are often very far away. What a sacrifice these people make, what service for their communities. Board members serve for 2 years and are elected at meetings by the delegates for each community. When we arrived at CIRSA the first day we got to Simojovel (another intense journey through mountains and communities, passing armed soldiers and random checkpoints), the board members, along with the president were filling up a container, which would be ready to go to the processing mill by the time we were done with our dinner. They loaded up the truck, without machines (there would be no forklifts at the processing mill either, people work hard with their bodies every step through coffee production) and sat down to meet with us to plan for our trip to the community. On our last morning, we went to CIRSA one more time. This time, we got there very early and got to see 2 farmers bringing in their coffee. We saw a man take out his CIRSA ID card, probably the only form of identification that he had. He gave the card to a board member on the computer checking him in. He had learned to use a computer for his board job in October. Then they weighed the coffee. This man’s coffee was being weighed by someone from the same cultural background (rather than on coyotes’ scales, which as the farmers told us, would always come up short); the dynamic between this type of powerful shift in control is immense. This is what CIRSA provides beyond price to farmers. CIRSA paid him for his coffee, and I felt how important our pre-harvest financing really was for them. Principle 6 (cooperation among co-ops) manifested into something completely tangible beyond the ideology of a simple trade relationship. Partnership is cooperation and communication. This coffee that was going to be loaded onto the container was destined for Equal Exchange; from our partners on the other side of the supply chain.
Co-operatives sometimes have trouble keeping their members because of how much extra work it is takes be part of them (this is true for all kinds of co-ops), and in times of high prices, for coffee co-ops, the coyotes can get close to CIRSA’s price. But this co-op, founded by coffee farmers as a means to take control of some parts of their challenging lives, is so much more than just about price. In a worker co-operative, each worker is an owner. In a farmer co-operative, each farmer is a worker and an owner. Something clicked for me in Chiapas, when I realized how much just the existence of this co-op really means to indigenous cultures who through their collective effort, could really own their own futures. But it’s not enough, not yet.
The challenge for me now is to explain how what is happening is not enough. These people work so hard and they continue to struggle. Their struggle resonated so deeply that it almost crippled my ability to think proactively about how to be a real partner. They told us how we pay the highest price, but spread out among all their buyers, it’s still extremely difficult to survive. They told us how much our visit meant, because we were there to connect with them through real relationship; partnership, and we were there to try to understand their realities. If only all importers, roasters, coffee drinkers, citizens of the global world- would keep the conversation going about co-operatives and what they mean for the preservation of culture yet the control over production and ultimately, livelihoods, maybe we could all push for in a world where trading was fair for all the parties involved. Where the people who grow our food are treated as well as the people who manage our money. A world where we were all willing to do more to support the production of food and the people who work tirelessly just to get by. Authentic fair trade isn’t about price alone, and it’s not about co-operatives alone, it’s about real relationships that connect people across the supply chain- starting from the small farmers.
Humbled by the people I met and the work that they do, I will drink every cup of coffee remembering their faces and their stories, and hopefully will share their message in a way that helps push us all towards a more fair and just food system.
Photos courtesy of Equal Exchange. Photographer: Julia Hechtman