As you can tell from recent entries, I haven’t been out of the country too much in the last couple of months. I thought I would turn over the blog space this week to my colleague Jean Walsh, who along with several others from TransFair USA recently accompanied the winners of last October’s Fair Trade Month sweepstakes to Costa Rica to see the impact of Fair Trade on the ground. Take it away Jean!
Thanks Dave. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I had been to Costa Rica years ago, but I had never visited any Fair Trade farms there, so I was excited. To be honest, I was also a little apprehensive about spending a week with a bunch of strangers in one of those big tour buses. But we all learned a lot, had a wonderful time, and came back even more inspired about Fair Trade.
Our first stop was the coffee cooperative CoopeTarrazu, where we were treated to a presentation, a tour of the processing facilities and a coffee “cupping”. The nuances of acidity and balance and aroma were lost on most of us, but at the end I heard Nancy from Seattle comment, “I’ll never think of coffee the same way again. I will appreciate every cup!” We learned how Fair Trade has enabled the organization to invest in environmentally friendly farming and processing methods like wastewater treatment systems and biofuels for the drying chambers.
After that we met a sugarcane farmer who, with a machete, expertly hacked off chunks of sweet, juicy cane for us to enjoy as he told us how he and a small group of other farmers are getting certified to sell on the Fair Trade market. Harvesting sugarcane is incredibly hard work. The long, slender leaves are barbed and sharp, and weeding organically requires one to bend down and whack the weeds around the stalk, being careful not to damage the plant.
Our bus then made its way over to the Caribbean coast to visit APPTA , whose members grow coffee, cocoa, and tropical fruits. This was my favorite part of the trip. Juanita Baltodano (pictured above), president and founding member, explained how APPTA has used Fair Trade social premiums to establish a “tele-school” in an isolated mountain region, finance the down payment for a tractor that will enable them to transport production from three indigenous communities, repair a bridge, and create a small emergency loan fund. She told us how the founding members had to learn how to make cement blocks to construct their space - they literally built the cooperative from the ground up.
On Juanita’s organic farm, her precocious grandchildren delighted us as they opened up pods of cacao to reveal the slippery sweet, cottony pulp within. Hard to believe that somehow turns into chocolate.
We waved goodbye to Juanita and her family and boarded the bus for a final day of swimming, fishing and snorkeling in the Caribbean (these are contest winners…they get some R & R!). The contrast between Costa Rica’s vacation areas and the farms of the hard working families we visited was a jolt, and really highlighted for the group why it is important to help connect consumers with the farmers who struggle to make a living producing the food we eat. For me, that’s what Fair Trade is about – thinking past the store shelf all the way to Costa Rica.