Tuesday, May 30, 2006



On the last day of the world

I would want to plant a tree

what for

not for the fruit

the tree that bears the fruit

is not the one that was planted

I want the tree that stands

in the earth for the first time

with the sun already

going down

and the water touching its roots

in the earth full of the dead

and the clouds passing

one by one

over its leaves

This is a poem my mom sent me by M.S. Merwin who was recently descibed by the New York Times as a "Poet of Their Own". He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1971. He and his wife live in a remote part of Hawaii where they are restoring an abandonned pineapple farm. I thought the poem was fitting because....

our first seeds have sprouted!!

The first seeds to sprout were the "marías" or Calophyllum brasiliense (I have also read they are called the Brasilian Beautyleaf). I was concerned that we were going to have trouble with these seeds because the condition of the seeds was not great, and they typically do not like to be stored for as long as we stored them. But at least 50 of them sprouted just this week. Marias are a very common canopy tree throughout Costa Rica. They are of a medium hardness whose wood is used for furniture, firewood, and sometimes in construction.


The second group of trees to sprout were the "nogales" or Juglans neotropica or Central Amrerican Black Walnut. I just read that these are actually not the same as the North American Black Walnut, which I had assumed. However, these are not native to this region of Costa Rica, but have been brought here from Nicaragua. Now they are becoming very popular because they grow very rapidly. The more I start to look around, the more I see them. Many are planted in agroforestry systems and sometimes for shade for coffee.


The system we are using to germinate our seeds is based after the methods used in this region to germinate coffee seeds. We begin by dumping the seeds in a shaded seed bed and cover them with banana leaves. Once they reach 20cm or so, we then translant them into a plastic bag with richer soil. We keep the bags in a shaded area for at least 6 months and then transplant them to their final resting place. This week we are moving these seedlings into plastic bags, and we plan on transplanting them next April when the rainy season begins again.

Other seeds I have sprouting on the farm right now are Avocados (Haas), Tamarindos, various palms, and hopefully cacao. Ironically people claim that neither avocaodos, tamarindos, nor cacao will produce fruit here because it is too cold. However, every year people claim it is getting hotter, which I believe, so this is sortof a test for climate change. And if they dont fruit, thats fine, because they are all pretty trees.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Semillas Semillas Semillas

I just came back from another seed collecting mission in the isolated mountain kingdom of Las Alturas de Cotón. If you havent read my previous blogs about it, you should to understand the wierd politics and history of this company town turned sustainable ¿utopian? society.

This trip, I had two Panamanian Indian guides, Carlos and Javier. We took an old Toyota Landcruiser up the dirt roads to the boundary of Amistad International Park. We hiked up past the old dillapidated biological research station, up the trail to Cerro Chai.

Cerro Chai

The Biological Research Center (Las Alturas)

The seeds we collected were Chicarrás, Quiuras, and Jira Colorados. Chicarrás and Jira Colorados are both very large canopy trees with extremely valuable timber. I believe that it is now illegal to harvest these woods because of the threat of extinction. The Quiras are a smaller tree (still quite large) that produce a tomato like fruit that is eaten by birds and other small animals.


Big Trees

While we were in the rainforest it started pouring. There was nothing to do but get wet and cold. We were nearing 5000 feet, so it gets cold. I tried to ask Javier what group of indiginous people he is a part of. He laughed. "Somos Indios." He told me. I said I know, but what kind. Like in the US we have Cherokees, Navajo, etc. There used to be Aztecs, Mayans, and Incans. He said the Aztecs are from Mexico, we are from Panama. Cristopher Colombus came over and called us "Indios" so we are "Indios". You know like "Indigenes". I asked him which he preferred, he looked at me like I was rediculus, "Indios" he said.

Javier is 17. He came from the Bocas Del Torro region of Panama. Indios can pass freely from Panama to Costa Rica without a passport. Many come as seasonal workers to work with coffee or to towns like Las Alturas (if there are towns like this anywhere else). Javier didnt finish high school. He didnt like the options that that type of education would lead to. When he was in Davíd, he found an advertisement to work in Las Alturas. Now he is a sort of apprentice to their reforestation project.

Reforestation Nursery at Las Alturas

Javier asked me if I was married. I said I was too young still, people in the States dont get married till theyre older. He asked me when I plan on getting married. I said, probably when Im in my 30s. He said that if people wait that long here, everyone will think that they are gay. He is only 17, and people give him a hard time for not being married yet. Most indios get married when they are 15. He doesnt want people to think he is gay. He needs to find a wife. He told me there is a guy in Las Alturas that isnt married and everyone says hes gay. The town doesnt have much to do but gossip.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Marcos Lobos

Marcos Lobos sells popcorn and cotton candy at all the rodeos in Coto Brus. His wife makes tamales. Marcos rides an old, beat-up motorcycle and has a green helmet. Once I tried to say in Spanish that he is "quite a character", but I made the mistake of calling him a cartoon character (characatura instead of personaje). My mistake was more approriate. His gray hair is alost completley white. He is a small man with a big belly. He smokes cigarettes, and shouts instead of talking. Marcos owns the farm next to us. He doesnt live there; he lives in town.

Today it started raining at 12:23 pm. As soon as it started, I heard the familiar shout/grunt announcing someones presence at the door. I should have realized it was Marcos. Marcos talks fast, and if you dont understand him, instead of slowing down, he just shouts louder. He wanted a break from the rain. We sat on the front porch. I made coffee, and we sat there for an hour and a half playing dominoes. He knew how to play, but I tought him the California way of making points in multiples of 5. He caught on fast. I was surprised at how fast he could count. I still won all the games though.

After playing for a while, we started talking about reforestation. If you havent read or dont remember, Marcos is the man who cut down our one old growth tree. I dont know if it was a joke, or maybe I misunderstood him, but he told me if I wanted to cut down any of his trees because they were too ugly, I could. I didnt really understand. He shouted it at me again. Maybe it was a way of making ammends for what he did, an eye for an eye a tree for a tree. I told him the only thing I was worried about was a poró tree that is close to falling on our house. He told me I could cut it down. Thanks Marcos.

We kept talking. He liked the idea that we would be rich one day after he died when we harvested the trees we planted. I started to explain that we arent going to harvest them, that we are trying to grow trees to help the environment of the region and the world. I explained the importance of tropical rainforests. He said he understood. But he was concerned about how to make money. He told me he thinks the cooperative is going to fail here, he has no faith in it. He sells popcorn and cotton candy. He said he maid $400 at the last rodeo. That is alot of money here. His rents his farm out to other farmers. The rest of it he lets go to weeds. He wants to sell it. He is asking way too much.

I am starting to like him. Julietta asked me if we smoked "la pipa de paz". "Tal vez," I said, Maybe. When he got up to go, I asked him if he minds riding his motorcylce in the rain. He said he has been doing it his entire life.

Pictures and more "characaturas" to come.


Thursday, May 04, 2006

¿Fair Trade?

by Eliot Logan-Hines

Alot of consumers in the United States are becoming familiar with "Fair Trade", hoping to bring about a change in the treatment and payment to workers and farmers in "Third World" countries, by cutting out middlemen and establishing standards and regulations. "Fair Trade" is not an international standard, therfore to be certified in England requires a different beaurocracy than being certified in the US. This is taken from FairTradeUSA´s website, http://www.transfairusa.org/:

The principal criteria of Fair Trade certification are:

-Fair prices for farmers and decent working and living conditions for workers
-Direct trade with farmers, bypassing middlemen
-Free association of workers and co-ops, with structures for democratic decision-making
-Access to capital
-Sustainable agricultural practices including restricted use of agrochemicals

I want to give a brief overview of my visit to a certified "Organic-Fair Trade" coffee farm and cooperative in Nicaragua, and an explination for my disillusionment with any idea of "fairness".

I visited a coffee growing community in the mountains above Matagalpa, Nicaragua. The "cooperative" that processes and markets the coffee of these group of farmers is called Cecocaphen RL. It is not "fair" to look at this organization and current state of business without knowledge of the last 30 years of Nicaraguan history (or, really, 500) Please read my blog, A brief history of Nicaragua, to get a slight picture of the current problem.

Coming from a coffee-growing community in Costa Rica, with two of its natives, we all couldn't believe how poor these Nicaraguan farmers were in comparison. All of the houses have dirt floors. The village is wired with electricity but there are frequent black outs and brown outs. There is no tap water, only well water that needs to be filtered. The bathrooms were only outhouses, no porcelin thrones like Nicaragua´s "Rica" neighbor. No one owns a car or motorcycle, hardly any have bikes. But amid all this poverty, they grow "Organic Fair Trade" coffee.

Whereas in Aguabuena, where high pressured tap water poors out of (relatively) hot showers, and teenagers ride their dirt bikes up and down the main street every night complaining of boredom, only to go home and watch dvds and listen to reagetón on their big sound systems, in this now seemingly rich town in the country, Aguabuena, the farmers are "too poor" to be certified Organic ni Fair Trade.

A typical house in La Corona, Nicaragua.

The two Costa Rican natives, Julietta and Walter, on the streets of Matagalpa.

¿What is going on?

Cecocaphen (Matagalpa, Nicaragua) vs Coope Publos (Aguabuena, Costa Rica)

Cecocaphen is a second (or maybe third) level cooperative. I dont know how many middlemen end up being between the producer and the consumer (there were still too many to count). It pools coffee from the entire northern area of Nicaragua, comprised of thousands of small-scale farmers. Each of these smaller communities forms a smaller cooperative, that pools together to another regional cooperative, that then pools to the large Sol Cafe processing plant. The coffee is marketed by Cecocaphen to US and European importers. The coffee is shipped by boat from one of Nicaragua´s two ports as green beans. The office of Cecocaphen is a very pretty building up on a hill overlooking the city of Matagalpa. They have air conditioning, a full pot of coffee in the waiting room, skylights, and beautiful gardens.

Coope Pueblos, in our town of Aguabuena, Costa Rica is a small cooperative. There are about fifty coffee farmers that are members of this cooperative and pool their coffee together. It is then processed and roasted in a neighboring community, by a neighboring cooperative (I will write a history of the tragedies that have befallen these cooperative later). It is then marketed by a non-profit (CAN) based out of Santa Cruz, CA, and shipped straight to the doorstep of the consumer in the US or Canada. The office of Coope Pueblos is a modest building with its share of problems. The office is currently also an internet café and is in the process of being certified to sell coffee and espresso drinks.

It is hard to really know which farmers gets paid better. Being Fair-Trade, Organic certified, the Nicaraguan farmers should receive $1.41/lb ($US, everything is in US$). That is the going rate, even Starbucks´. In Aguabuena, farmers sell 100 pounds for $100. So it seems like the Nicaraguan´s got the better deal, but wait. The Costa Ricans (by Costa Rica, I only mean farmers of Coope Pueblos) sell theirs as whole berries with the red skin and everything. The Nicaraguans (and by this, I mean Cecocaphenés) do the first stage of processing the coffee, removing the berries skin, at home. This requires more work and more labor. These "mini beneficios" are found in almost every farmer´s farm. They then dry the beans, thus loosing water and weight to sell them for $1.41. So, I dont know which farmer´s get a better deal. But I can tell you that the Nicaraguans have dirt floors.

But then again, this isn´t Cecocaphen´s fault. The government of Nicaragua is beyond broke. The current ex president is under house arrest for embezzling the entire countries GDP and international aide, while running the country out of his luxurious home; not to mention, the history of economic manipulations by Uncle Sam. A cooperative like Coope Pueblos could never exist in Nicaragua. The Costa Rican government gives major economic help to "Cooperatives". Cooperatives can qualify for low interest loans and tax breaks, but in Nicaragua, nothing. So what does it mean to be a Cooperative in Nicaragua?

They have a democratic structure. Each mini cooperative has an elected representative that sits on the board of the regional cooperative which has an elected representative that sits on the board of Cecocaphen. In Nicaragua, to survive at all as a business you have to sell out to the big guys. You can´t function as a little town cooperative, you have to have play the major leagues. The image I will never forget after touring the processing plant, was coming back to the main office where we were given a lesson on aromas and flavors by the official taster/quality control of Cecocaphen. He was a little man with a moustache who slurped the coffee very loudly, swished it around in his mouth, wrinkled his nose, and spit it out in the trash can. He spoke of the hints of movie-theater-popcorn-butter and apricots. All I could think was that the women working the assembly line probably had no idea what either of those two things smelled like.

Tasting with Cecocaphen. Josh Mills with the dirty tee shirt is tasting coffee, the taster is in the background with his apron and moustache, Alfredo, a young coffee farmer, is in the foreground.

These women are sorting through coffee beans as part of Cecocaphen´s high quality standards. There are seventy women in this room. They work 8 hours a day with a 1 hour break. They get paid $3/day. This is Fair Trade.

And then we come back to Aguabuena, a now seemingly small and middle-class cooperative, where Walter ships out each weeks shipment of coffee. There are only a few people that work at the processing plant. Everyone here has free time to talk, even the coffee roaster while he is roasting up the French Roast. He jokes that only Estadounidenses like French Roast. The cooperative here doesnt have enough money to buy its fair trade certification. Most of the cooperatives here only sell within Costa Rica so there seems to be no rush. CAN is trying to help, maybe in time.

I don´t know whats fair. Cecocaphen doesn´t seem fair. But then again, I have no idea what the conditions are like in Vietnam and Brasil where the cheapest coffee is produced. Maybe this is fair. I don´t want to turn people away from Fair Trade. I think it is an important step. Maybe more important than anything is the change in the awareness of the consumer. We need to know what we are buying and where our $$ goes. But, if you want my opinion, I think you should buy from here, Coope Pueblos. I see the coffee get shipped out each week to each individual consumer. I know the people packing it. It feels like the fairest of the options.

If you want to order coffee from Coope Pueblos, go to http://www.communityagroecology.net/cart/