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Diary of a
Trip to Origin

BY KAREN GORDON

I was fortunate enough to travel recently to Nicaragua and Costa Rica with a wonderful group of women in the coffee industry. The trip was a visionary idea of Karen Cerebros of Elan Organics and coordinated by the indispensable skills of Kimberly Easson and her travel company, Java Ventures. The group ranged from women who owned micro-roasters, green coffee buyers from large corporations, importers, quality control-barista trainers, and government aid workers. A major focus for the group was on organic and fair trade issues in small cooperatives with a majority of female membership. Two of those cooperatives specifically were Cecocafen in the region of Matagalpa and Soppexccaa in the largest coffee growing region of Nicaragua, Jinotega. It was an eye opening experience for all of us. Whether it was our first or tenth trip to origin, each one of us learned something new. I was fortunate enough to travel with one of the premier persons in coffee, Erna Knutsen. With all her experience and travels in the coffee business even she found that these women could teach us new things about quality coffee. More importantly, they could show us what fair trade coffee can do for the farmers; not only in a time of crisis, such as weíre in, but for a lifetime. We were touched by the pride and generosity of the poverty stricken country of Nicaragua. Even in this tough times, they provide us with such wonderful coffee at all levels (conventional, organic and fair trade).

They live in an unstable third world country where the infrastructure is so decimated it takes two hours to drive less than 20 miles. Imagine the difficulty in moving the coffee from the farms to the mills to the ports. In some places, small family owned plots depulp their coffee on hand turned grinders. Itís amazing, the energy that goes into creating just one bag of coffee on some of these small farms; many of which are owned and operated by women. The Nicaraguan people have suffered great losses to their male population due to past wars, thus the woman have become active forces in all aspects of Nicaraguan life. We had the opportunity to meet with many of these women and hear about the problems they encounter on a daily basis trying to maintain their business (growing coffee) and family lives. Their responsibilities include making sure they are producing quality beans and getting a fair price for them, as well as providing an education and healthcare for their children. This isnít always possible. Many of the small farms we visited had no formal school buildings or enough teachers. In some instances they have none and must travel great distances to the closest school either on a neighboring farm or in the city. They may have medical buildings, but no medicine or medical personnel to dispense it.

These women invited us into their homes, onto their land and shared their love of life and coffee with us. Homes were constructed of plain gray brick or wood and sparsely furnished. They served us lunches of fresh root vegetables and rice, sometimes chicken on mismatched plates, cups and utensils; but that did not seem to matter to any of us. The meals were served with pride and tasted delicious. They even took into consideration that some of us may be vegetarians.

After spending time with these women that are the seeds of the coffee industry, I feel that the effort and energy they put into the success of their coffees and cooperatives deserves to be acknowledged.

We saw first hand what fair trade can do for these hardworking people. It helps contribute to the improvement of their land, homes, and the education of their children. Monies are appropriated for the building of schools such as the partial structure we saw on a farm in Jinotega. Sometimes there isnít enough money and they may need to leave the structure unfinished. This money also contributes to the ability to improve the level of processing and quality control where it needs to start, at the source. The creation of cupping labs such as the ones we visited at Cecocafen and Sopexcca were prime examples of this. The ability to cup their own coffees and teach the farmers what to look for in their coffee, as well as the coffee of other origins is a necessary tool for improving quality.

I am pleased to be able to say that as a group we were able to raise enough money to complete the school on the farm we visited and were honored to be able to do so. The money collected by the women I traveled with may not seem like a lot; but $500 can just about complete the construction of a school. As I write this article Iím told the progress on the school is going well. This isnít a lecture or sermon on fair trade, but food for thought. Every time we buy or roast a bean, drink a cup of coffee, we need to remember, how fortunate we really are. We are all lucky to be making money doing something we love that starts with the hard work of others who truly love what they do. Only they do not benefit the way we do.

My company, Coffee Holding, is sponsoring a second teacher for Las Alpes, the farm where the school is being constructed. This additional teacher will allow more children to attend school, up to the sixth grade, in their own community. This was previously impossible. Sopexcca, of which that farm is a member, also has a program in place whereby parents sign a contract to keep their children in school in return for food assistance. This has significantly reduced the dropout rate. Again, just another example of how fair trade can improve the quality of life for these poor, but hardworking people.

Karen Gordon is the director of specialty green coffee at Coffee Holding Co., Brooklyn, New York. The company is a charter member of SCAA, Cornerstone SCI, Grounds for Health supporter & a member of the Coffee Kids program.


Tea & Coffee - May/June, 2003
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