Here at the Canadian Fair Trade Network, we believe that it is important to understand agriculture and how we come to see products on our grocery store shelves. Fair trade must be linked to this understanding, by meeting and talking with the actual people who either grow or make the products that we buy. Hearing from farmers and producers themselves, is therefore essential to understanding these systems and to changing them.

To support this understanding, the CFTN organized our first Fair Trade Origin Trip to Costa Rica in November to help Canadians experience fair trade first hand and share their learnings with others to drive change forward at home. On November 7th a diverse group of industry, advocate, and CFTN staff flew to San Jose to begin our week long adventure through Costa Rica’s diverse ecosystems and mountain ranges.

The first co-op visit on the trip’s itinerary was Co-ope Agri, which was founded in 1962 by 391 small-scale coffee farmers with the aim of building a strong farmers’ organization to bring dignity and development opportunities to their communities. While talking with the co-op’s General Manager, Jonathon Duran, he explained their humble beginnings while talked about what they have managed to accomplish over the years. While the co-op was established with coffee, in 1974 they started a sugar processing plant and in 1988 they began reforestation efforts around the region.

“In the last 5 years, we have protected 11,600 hectares of land, sold 500,00 trees at cost to our members to help them reforest their lands, and made and sold 600,000 bags of organic fertilizer through composting. We have accomplished a great deal as a co-op of 8,000 members over the years, but we’re only selling 10% of our coffee as fair trade. We could accomplish a great deal more, if we could bump that number up”. Jonathon Duran, General Manager, Co-ope Agri.

This was the first lightbulb moment, of many during the course of the trip. Co-ope Agri produces 100% of their coffee to Fairtrade standards, yet sells only 10% of it to Fairtrade buyers. This speaks directly to the importance of our work here in Canada, and the need to drive sales, to ensure that farmers see the most amount of benefit possible and fair trade as a whole reaches its maximum impact.

Next on the list was La Alianza, a smaller coffee growing co-op in the same region of south west Costa Rica. There we spoke with a couple of different farmers and members of the co-op who told us that before the establishment of the co-op there were three buyers in town, who offered a low, flat rate. Joining the co-op changed that; the solidarity and technical support it provided brought stability and increased yields (and therefore income) to farmers in the area.

There we learned that the majority of the fair trade premium is being reinvested into the farmers and co-op, to ensure long term growth. When we talk about fair trade, we often talk about price, or how the premium is used to support health and education related programs. Here, the farmers focused on farming practice, quality, and increasing their yields, to ensure a higher long term price and premium down the road. Our group found a new appreciation for their morning cup of coffee as they saw the coordination required for growing and transporting coffee beans growing at high elevations.

On the fourth day of the trip, the group drove north east towards San Jose, and then south east to the town of BriBri, to meet Walter, the General Manager of APPTA Co-operative, which started in 1987. Walter explained how the co-op needed to invest in driers for their cocoa beans as the weather is no longer reliable in the region.It was apparent that fair trade was ensuring the survival of their agricultural practices and thus the communities’ economy. Walter continued to explain that “because APPTA is here and because we pay farmers a fair price, it maintains a decent price for all cocoa farmers in the region. The year that we weren’t able to buy cocoa, the prices offered for cocoa in the region dropped to a third of what they were”.

With a total of 1000 members, APPTA works with 50 different communities, with quality of life for its members and environmental protection being the two central focuses for the co-op. During the groups visit, they met the president of APPTA, Juanita, who has been involved in the co-op for 29 years. She focuses on biodiversity on her 4-hectares of land, to ensure her soil and plants are healthy, growing cocoa, bananas, pineapple, star fruit and a variety of other things. “Consumers should know, that by buying fair trade products,

they enable many small scale farmers to maintain this type of agriculture, to protect the ‘worlds lungs’ from deforestation and monoculture”. Walter provided the group with further insight sharing that “if everyone in the world farmed like this, the planet would be happy, and we would not be seeing the environmental crises that we are”.

From BriBri the group took boats up river to the indigenous community of Yorkin, on the Costa Rica-Panama Border where they spent the night in traditional shelters. Being a member of APPTA, the indigenous community grows cocoa and bananas which are then transported down river to BriBri. While crushing dried cocoa beans and indulging in pure cocoa liquor, the group gained an in-depth understanding of the intricacy of the APPTA co-op and its rural members.

The group spent the last part of the trip on the coast, winding down on the beach and reflecting on the insights they had gained over the past week. Although all parts of the trip were integral to the experience, the people on the trip made the whole adventure richer and provided an insider look into what things meant beyond the surface.

“When we asked the farmers “What message would you like to share with Canadian consumers?” they answered: “We are proud to say that we think of you every time we plant, care and harvest our crops. Tell them that our coffee will not poison their stomachs because we do not spray our earth. Tell them to support us because we are under the mercy of the weather and of the international market.” It is one thing to understand the theory behind Fairtrade, it is another to experience it physically”. Joana Bettocchi Barrow, SFU student, trip participant.

Categories: Blog Post