Gerardo Arias Camacho is a coffee farmer and a board member of his local Llano Bonito coffee co-operative.
After a nightmare journey to the US, including being robbed at gunpoint by bogus police, illegally jumping the Mexican border and risking death crossing the desert, Gerardo worked for eight years in New Jersey. He earned enough to buy the family farm from his parents and is now proud to be able to provide a decent living for his own family on the piece of land where he was born.
Gerardo Arias Camacho is a coffee farmer and a board member of his local Llano Bonito coffee co-operative. Its 630 members are based around the village of Llano Bonito, population 2,000, in San José state. Coffee is grown on small farms of 1.25 hectares on average at altitudes of around 1,500 metres in the mountains of Tarrazu, ideal for growing the renowned and sought after strictly hard bean (SHB) grade of arabica coffee.
Llano Bonito co-operative is one of 10 members of COOCAFE, a secondary level co-operative that represents 3,800 farmers, 20 per cent of them women, across four states. COOCAFE’s mission is to promote the social and economic development of its members’ communities through environmentally sustainable coffee production. It processes, markets and exports its members’ coffee and provides a range of agricultural services and training programmes.
Gerardo is married with three young children. The coffee he grows on half of his 5 hectare (12 acre) farm provides virtually all of his cash income. On the rest of his land he keeps several cows and grows vegetables, beans, corn, bananas, oranges and mangoes for the family. The farm takes up most of his time so on a typical day he gets up at 5am and works in his fields from six in the morning until five or six in the evening.
Gerardo was born and bred on the family coffee farm, the second youngest of 13 children. But back in 1988, when he was 10, coffee prices fell and his father reluctantly had to pull him and his two school-age brothers out of school, unable to afford the expenses.
After eight hard years working on the family farm Gerardo realised that lack of a decent education limited his career options, so he and some friends decided to follow the well-worn trail to the US in the hope of making some money. Unable to get visas, the group’s nightmare journey began with them being robbed at gunpoint by bogus police. Then after paying off corrupt police, being cheated by their guide, illegally jumping the Mexican border into the US, risking death crossing the desert, and surviving on water with very little food for nine days, they eventually arrived penniless in New Jersey where they were met by friends from home.
After eight years of low-paid work Gerardo had earned enough to buy the family farm from his parents so that they could retire with some financial security. Low coffee prices later drove him back to the States for another two-year stint but Gerardo is now proud to be able to provide a decent living for his own family on the piece of land where he was born.
COOCAFE’s full name is El Consorcio de Cooperativas Cafetaleras de Guanacaste y Montes de Oro R.L. It supports diversification into alternative income sources to increase members’ incomes, reduce dependency on coffee, and create employment. Projects include the manufacture and export of yucca and plantain chips; macadamia nut production; fish farming (tilapia); ecotourism; establishing a cafeteria and local supermarkets.
COOCAFE and its member cooperatives have established two foundations: Hijos del Campo (Children of the Fields) Foundation provides hundreds of school and university scholarships for promising students; Café Forestal Foundation supports socio-economic and environmental development projects such as reforestation and water recycling.
COOCAFE owns its warehouse, coffee processing factory and coffee roasting plant, making the group of co-operatives vertically integrated from seed purchase to the export of bagged coffee. It exports roast and ground coffees to Fairtrade, organic and specialty coffee markets in the USA and Japan, the profits of which are invested in its education and environmental programmes.
COOCAFE has been Fairtrade certified since 1989 and in 2010 sold around 1,100 tonnes to Fairtrade buyers. For these sales it receives the Fairtrade Minimum Price of 140 cents/lb, or the market price if higher. It also receives the Fairtrade Premium of 20 cents/lb to invest in business development and community or environmental programmes. The Fairtrade premium has been invested in a wide variety of projects. They include:
Environmental and agricultural projects:
- Employing technicians to provide technical assistance and organise agricultural workshops.
- Replacement of ageing coffee trees.
- Intercropping and shade tree production programmes.
- Reforestation of 5,000 hectares.
- Renovation of processing plants and conversion to clean technology.
- New water treatment system in processing plants has reduced water use from 2,000-3,000 litres per 225 kg of coffee to 200 litres.
- Training in the appropriate management of solid waste.
Business and social projects:
- Business development and quality control programmes.
- Road and bridge repairs – hurricanes regularly bring down bridges and cause mud slides that block roads. This is widespread and beyond government resources, so local co-ops repair the damage for the benefit of all residents and to enable farmers to transport their crop to the processing plant.
- Secondary school and university scholarships for farmers’ children.
- Providing computers, other school equipment and teaching materials to rural schools.
- Repair, improvement and maintenance of school buildings.
- Ongoing support to training courses provided by the government’s National Institute of Learning for income-generating schemes for women and to reduce dependence on coffee – cultivating ornamental plants and flowers; chicken farming and egg production; sales of handicrafts in their own shop.
- Development of eco-tourism.