What better way to start the New Year than being the first American Fair Trader to visit the indigenous coffee communities of northern Peru! I went to see the growers of Oro Verde Cooperative to celebrate bringing their first container of coffee into the USA. And what a celebration it was! It was two years in the making, and this presents Oro Verde with entry into the huge North American marketplace, where their exquisite coffees will be well received.
Along for the ride was Esperanza Castillo, the peripatetic general manager of Pangoa Coop in southern Peru. We were Pangoa's first Fair Trade buyer as well three years ago, and we were sponsoring her trip north to provide an important farmer-to-farmer technical exchange-and the farmers took great pleasure out of learning from each other in such areas as field management, cooperative organization, Fair Trade buying practices and how to handle Fair Trade and our Social Equity Premiums.
A second reason for my trip was to teach Fair Trade and Trade Justice to twenty US college students who were at Oro Verde for a January course sponsored by Living Routes, Inc. The students were subject to a three day barrage of lectures and experiential learning from yours truly, and I promised them that after those three days, they would know more about the nuts and bolts and philosophies of Fair Trade than almost anyone in America. And, believe me, they do. The students are currently working with me to craft the world's first written agreement between buyer (us) and seller (Oro Verde) documenting what a long term Fair Trade relationship would look like. This is an important model, as Fair Trade talks alot about long term relationship, and you can find it in everybody's literature regardless of how minimal their Fair Trade purchases. But what does it really mean and what would it look like in practice? This is a very exciting endeavor. It was the request of the Oro Verde board of directors, not my brilliant idea.
But, of course, the most joyful piece of any trip for me is getting up to the far flung grower communities, especially when I am the first. OK, it is egotistical and I think I am Indiana Jones, but can't I have some fun? Social justice doesn't have to be overly serious all the time!
Walking into Alto Shambuyaco, we were greeted by about two hundred indigenous growers, with flutes, drums and horns banging out a traditional welcome. My two lovely escorts (or guards in case I tried to bolt, I think) took my arms and led me into the warehouse cum festival hall. We all made speeches of welcome - my first attempt at speaking in Kechua (at least I didn't call anybody a big whale, like I accidentally did in Cuba-but that's another story). And the aguardente (sugar cane moonshine) flowed way too freely for the early afternoon. But it did lubricate the joints for the upcoming dancing! The Chanka people do a wild round dance. In partners we danced a two step in a wide circle around the room. Intermittently, couples would spin out of the circle and spin back in random patterns. The music would speed up, then slow down. Draped with clinking bandannas of nut shells, we kept a funky beat and collided regularly with each other (OK, maybe I was the only one who collided with others, but this was no beginner's class!).
We visited the coffee fields and also the cocoa and sugar cane fields. We are working to help Oro Verde get Fair Trade certification for cocoa and sugar, and we will begin using the mild, brown sugar ("panella") in our hot cocoa mix when we can import it. The sugar is processed by squeezing the canes in a wooden mill press that has a one-horsepower engine-a real one horse power! We also explored the possibility of making exotic fruit marmelades and ingredients for the ice cream and yogurt industries from the wild assortment of fruits grown only in the tropics and some only here in northern Peru. The farmers are well aware that diversification of income is much better than reliance on a single crop-especially one as price fickle as coffee.
I was also invited by the local shaman to take an ayahuasca voyage into the spirit world. I don't take these things lightly, but I was honored to be offered the experience. This is more than just a psychotropic experience - it is an opening into the worldview of these Andean peoples and a chance to have a respectful audience with their spirit world. Unfortunately, even though I was given a double dose of the plant preparation, I never left my humble abode. As much as I respectfully asked for guidance and insight into my own fears about greater commitment to the work of social justice, no response came. This really stumped the shaman, as the other men participating went off into the spirit world and transformed into animals, had visions and returned with great insight into their lives. For me, I figure that the message was that I am on my path, and my work is manifesting my values on this plane, right here and now. Aw, c'mon, just a little vision? Guess I have all the info I need. Back to work.