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Iguanas, Coffee, and Magnetic Poles

Iguanas, Coffee, and Magnetic Poles Image

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Ryan Seibold, Peace Coffee Barista

The island of Hispaniola (a.k.a. Haiti/Dominican Republic) was first inhabited by a society known as the "Taino" and numbered around 400,000 at the time of Christopher Columbus’ arrival. The island was the third piece of land Spanish explorers set foot on in the "new world" in 1492, following the Bahamian island of Guanahani and present-day Cuba. The island is home to the first Catholic Church in the "new world" known as "La Isabela" which hosted the first Catholic mass in 1494. From this point to present day, slavery, conquest, occupation by imperialist forces and dictatorial rule would make up much of the island’s volatile and incredible history. From January 28th to February 3rd, we got to know a handful of kind and inspirational coffee farmers of this island, bits and pieces of their culture and what they hope for in the future.

Starting this year, Peace Coffee will be purchasing coffee from the Federation de Caficultores de la Region Sur cooperative (FEDECARES) in the Dominican Republic (DR). Established in May of 1985, FEDECARES is a second-level coop made up of 176 base organizations, 6,000 coffee producers and 7,498 members in total (some of whom produce products other than coffee). Based in San Cristobal, DR, the coop provides members with technical assistance, marketing assistance, social services, and works in gender and youth action programs. The coffee producers of FEDECARES collectively farm on 15,000 hectares (approximately 6,000 acres). In 2006, FEDECARES exported 1.057 million pounds of Fair Trade certified coffee to markets in the U.S. and Europe. The coop is currently working with a 5-year plan that includes the development of two new arms of the organization. One arm will administer social programs that serve the coop's members and the other, called "Proco Sur," will aid with marketing efforts for all products produced by the coop members. The shift in developing these two programs is creating interesting challenges for the coop, but they feel the effort is well worth the struggle.

Our first lot of coffee from the DR will come from a FEDECARES coop member called Polo (named after the city of Polo near where most of the farmers live). This coop is a new member of FEDECARES respective to the other 175 organizations. Polo is located in the southwestern province of Barahona, an area known by few tourists, but boasts smooth white stone beaches, Taino petroglyphs and scenic drives along its dramatic coastline. Polo was our first stop on our tour. At one point on the drive to the coop, our driver, Juan, stopped in the middle of the road, put the van in neutral and said, "Watch this!" The van slowly began to move backwards, UP HILL! We were experiencing a magnetic pole, which evidently there are many throughout the mountainous areas of the DR. 

We had a relatively brief meeting with the Polo representatives (because they were hard at work processing our coffee!), but we gained valuable insight into their operations, challenges and goals for improving their coffee production.

Afterwards we were invited for lunch by members of the community of El Polo where we had a delicious lunch of locally supplied vegetables grown by a woman’s coop. We also visited a local store which also served as an outlet for locally roasted coffee, run by "Mama Guerra." We then took a bumpy truck ride up the mountain to see one of the local wet-processing stations.

Our next visit was to a processing warehouse owned by the Independencia cooperative, just northeast of Polo and also a member of FEDECARES. Established in 2000 and located in the Neyba coffee-growing region, this 124 member cooperative has one of the best processing warehouses that we would see in the DR. The warehouse was a generous donation of Oxfam Spain and has a 5,000-bag capacity. The only problem with the warehouse is that it doesn’t have sufficient drying patio space, and the coop is only at a production capacity of 2,000 bags per year.

Independencia works with a local non-governmental organization called, CIEPO. CEIPO assists the coop with technical assistance for the entire process of growing and producing coffee. They also work with various women’s organizations (~55 groups) to help them create healthy local economies. In addition to helping Indepedencia, CIEPO provides technical assistance to farmers in the area who grow beans, platanos and livestock as well as training in soil preservation. The organization has access to 30 million Pesos for micro-credit programs to fund the groups whom they serve and currently manages 13 million Pesos in circulation. 

After leaving Independencia, we pulled off along the roadside to check out an "Iguana Sanctuary." Iguanas thrive in this part of the country and even have their own protected land to roam free near the coastline. About five of these scaly, prehistoric creatures eagerly greeted us when a few folks in our group pulled out snacks as peace offerings.

Our visits to the Barahona and Neyba coffee regions of the DR now complete our driver, Juan, now pointed the van back towards San Cristobal, just west of Santo Domingo. Our host, Rufino, now had the opportunity to show us his land and community of Las Cacaos, where the cooperative of ASOCAES (or Cooperative La Esperanza) is centered. This day was a long day of driving and we anxiously arrived at Rufino’s home well after dark to be greeted by a fantastic dinner, the highlight being the wonderfully large and amazing avocados, mangoes and papayas Rufino had purchased earlier that day alongside the road at a fruit stand. The avocados were nearly as large as our appetites!

The next morning we took in views of this spectacular community and beautiful vistas on one more bouncy ride from the bed of a truck up the mountain to see Rufino’s shadegrown coffee parcel. Here bird-sightings, blue-shaded mountains, tricklings springs, waterfalls and river bends provide the perfect setting for growing coffee. It’s easy to understand how the coffee-growing community continues their occupation and stewardship of the land. The delicious fruit being just one reward!

La Esperanza, founded in 1979, was an outcome of Hurricane David and the community’s motivation to help one another. Organization of this life/community-saving cooperation was initiated by a Canadian nun named Incarnacion Caratera. As one of the founding coops in FEDECARES, La Esperanza is now 935 members strong with 22 base communities. In 1991 Fair Trade and organic certification became part of the coop’s vision. This process has had great success (and many struggles as well), and so Coop Coffees and Peace Coffee are excited to be a catalyst alongside the coop’s tremendous efforts to find stable partners and markets. 

Overall, our trip to the Dominican Republic was a great opportunity to learn and understand what coffee means to this unique island country and its people. We were graciously received and had the chance to meet some great friends and partners through the coffee trade. This will be the beginning of a great coffee partnership and we are excited for Dominican coffee to reach our roaster and then our very own coffee cups and tastebuds. Our trip was amazing and so it’s difficult to capture all our experiences in words alone like playing catch with the local children of Las Cacaos (we brought our baseball mits), bonding with other Coop Coffee members, and having the chance to converse and trade stories with our producers partners.


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