Thursday, October 15, 2009
Stacy Adrianson, Peace Coffee Customer Service Manager
She came in quietly and climbed into a chair. Her feet were dangled in midair, nowhere near the ground, and her hands folded neatly in her lap. She was introduced to us as Zillda, secretaria of the Vigilance Committee, a group of co-op members who ensure the co-op is run with member's interest in mind. It was early morning. The sun was still rising over the mountains, the air damp with dew, and the roosters were still waking.
This was our first meeting with the members of Pangoa Coffee Cooperative in the rainforest of Peru. It had taken the four of us three long days of travel to arrive in this quiet, beautiful place. The twelve of us sat in a make-shift circle, smiling nervously, making due with bits of Spanish and English, as soft morning light poured in through the open windows along with the rousing sound of waking moto-taxis. Truly local coffee was served to us in floral tea cups as Don Luis, the president, explained the history of this war-torn region and struggles of the cooperative. He spent a great deal of time telling us how the Fair Trade premium is used to improve the community -- college loans for children of the cooperative, grants for burial of co-op members, loans for healthcare, along with a half dozen other programs.
Eventually we all stood and gathered for pictures. Zilda smiled politely as camera shutters snapped and we all filed out to see the rest of the co-op. Tours, introductions, photos -- days of this lay ahead. But it was still new and most of us were quiet. As we traveled in a small mob, complete with paparazzi, our various personalities peeked out. Meagan asked incessant questions about the agriculture of the region; Lee happily posed for all the cameras, Esperanza (the co-op manager) listened intently to anything anyone had to say.
But the biggest surprised was Zilda. The Zilda we came to know was so very different from the quiet woman introduced to us on that first day. She was a force of her own, a whirlwind of knowledge, experience and enthusiasm. She had a laugh that would pull a reluctant sun from the clouds. She spoke with such animation that it was nearly possible to understand her despite our limited Spanish. She hugged like she meant it and she squeezed cheeks like a familiar Aunt. If she caught wind of any maladies, she'd disappear into the jungle, reappearing minutes later with fistfuls of vegetation and firm instructions on how they should be used. At one point, Stacy brushed against some jungle plant and large, burning blisters soon appeared on her arm. It was a little alarming, but Zilda simply laughed it off and said not to worry. Sure enough, within a half hour they had faded into memory.
We had the chance to go to Zilda's farm. Her family fed us a delicious chicken noodle soup with a local, fermented corn beverage. It was a great privilege to be on a trip entirely of women -- we sat for a long time in her cocina lingering over conversations of history, coffee farming and our own lives. She told us stories of pumas, her previous life as a teacher, what it's like to farm coffee, how she taught music to the local children. She even showed us her sense of humor by making us all scream with fright over the sight of the headless cobra she killed the night before our visit. Zilda has a beautiful home complete with cement drying patio just steps from the cocina. Clearly a woman of many talents, it was fun to spend a few days with her. She was one of many amazing people we had the chance to meet.
Olinda, vice precidenta de comite de la mujer (committee of women), was another memorable person. The committee of women was established to help the wives of farmers with their own unique needs. One night after dark, coming home from a long day of tours and visits, we were able to stop at Olinda's farm. On the edge of Pangoa township, Olinda and her family have a small house surrounded by a small lot of land that provides them with many of their needs. They have fruit trees galore and Olinda's son would disappear in the dark, only to reappear high in a tree, pulling down sweet limes and a variety of oranges for us to take. There is a pen with two delightful pigs and a shed with dozens of guinea pigs that will be served as the regional specialty, qui (a culinary adventure that both Meagan and Lee decided to try. They are still undecided if they like it.) Two sheep could be heard in the dark, although we weren't able to see them. Meagan bumped into an open air roost holding over a dozen fowl. The family farms rice, veggies, and, of course, coffee. Olinda invited us to her table where she broke open all kinds of tropical delights for us to try. Pacai, a long fruit that looks suspicously like a soybean pod on serious steroids was novel to us all. Olinda would break the pod and peel back one side to revel these roundish fruits that looked like giant marshmallows. They were sweet, a little stringy, with a large pit. Pretty good, but we likely won't be found hunting them down in import markets. We were not able to meet Olinda's husband as he was staying up in the mountains with their coffee plants and herd of cattle. The woman's role in this community and in the Pangoa Co-op is very important. Olinda's enthusiasm for the co-op and the members was tangible. She had a very cool "urban" farm right there in Pangoa. She even takes the extra fruit and rice to local farmers market held right outside the co-op offices every Saturday. Like so much of what we saw, she and her family were inspiring.
On our last afternoon, Esperanza and entourage took us to meet Don Isaac. He met us at the edge of the jungle and soon we were hiking through his amazing property and learning how he has taken his five hectares of land and turned it into a natural preserve as well as a production farm. A group of wild turkeys joined our hike and Don Isaac pointed out enormous wasp hives high in the trees. He tried to call out the endangered monkeys living in the canopy, but the monkeys kept their distance. He is working to protect nearly extinct native plants, including endangered palms traditionally used for making thatched roofs, all the while cultivating 14 different varietals of coffee. He has one of the healthiest farms that we saw. His plants are shaded and he takes great care to fertilize each one three times a year with a combination of guano, compost, and dolomite. This is no small feat as the fertilizer must be hauled into remote areas of jungle without equipment. Many of his trees are nearly 30 years old (the end of production life for most coffee trees) but are still producing because he takes care of them so well.
Besides coffee, he raises pineapple, plantain and has seven beehives. Of course, being the foodies that we are, we sampled it all and it was delicious. He was the first producer of honey in the area back in 1979 and Meagan braved the hives to get a first hand look. However, his honey production is down because his neighbor's virgin forests have been cleared for pineapple and yucca production and his bees no longer have diversity of flowers they need. Don Isaac proved to be a very savvy business man though. He is in the midst of planning an ecotourist's dream get-away spot. We all agreed that vacationing at Don Isaac's paradise would be heavenly. So we spent the afternoon answering his questions on what North American ecotourists might want and need to have an enjoyable vacation off the grid. We will keep you posted as his project progresses if anyone is interested.
We enjoyed visiting and getting to know all the farmers of Pangoa that we had the privilege to meet. Each farm and farmer was unique but they all shared a passion for an organic farming, coffee, family and community. We were particularly touched by their hospitality and we felt as though we were part of their community.