Gerardo Arias Camacho

Coffee Farmer, Llano Bonito Co-operative (COOCAFE) Costa Rica

“Without Fairtrade we would probably have gone out of business during the coffee crisis.”
Gerardo Camacho, October 2006

Gerardo Arias Camacho is a board member of his village co-operative, Cooperativa Llano Bonito. Its 532 coffee-growing members, 40% of whom are women, live in and around the village of Llano Bonito, population 2,000. Their farms are at an average altitude of 1,500 metres, high in the mountains of Tarrazu in San José state where they grow the renowned and sought after coffee grade known as strictly hard bean (SHB). The co-op is one of nine members of Coocafé, a secondary level co-op that represents 3,500 farmers across four states. Coocafé’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.

Gerardo is married with three children. The coffee he grows on half of his 5 hectare (12 acres) 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 family consumption. 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. Even putting in these long hours, Gerardo has struggled to make ends meet for the last five or six years when world coffee prices have fallen as low as 45 cents a kilo. He needs to earn 60-70 cents a kilo just to cover costs of production and a further $1,000 a year to cover his family’s outgoings.

Gerardo is familiar with free market advocates who call for ‘inefficient’ coffee producers to get out of coffee and diversify into other income sources. ‘Diversify into what?’ is his exasperated and impatient response to these economists who ‘sit in their offices and give us advice but have no idea of the realities’. He sees his future in marketing high quality coffee to niche buyers such as Fairtrade, gourmet and specialty markets and also wants to find ways to reduce his dependence on coffee - but his options are limited. Gerardo explains that he can grow great quality coffee on his land but the soil is not suitable for large-scale fruit or vegetable production and is too steep for commercial ranching. Even if he had surplus produce he couldn’t sell it to local buyers because the markets are filled with high quality produce grown more cheaply in parts of the country where the geography and climate are more favourable.

Avocado production is a potential option because there are both national and export markets for the fruit. But a huge initial investment of $5,000 a hectare would be needed – a good quality avocado tree costs $20 and takes five years to come into production. The co-op is looking into the feasibility of using the Fairtrade premium to part-fund a pilot project and, if successful, offering low-interest loans to farmers who want to take part.

The financial realities of the coffee market mean that Gerardo and hundreds of thousands of coffee farmers around the world are looking for ways to increase the efficiency of their operation, improve the quality of their coffee, identify and penetrate new markets, and diversify where possible into other crops or income generation.

Taking the neo-liberals’ advice and moving out of coffee is the last resort. For Gerardo this would mean selling up and trying his luck by growing rice or sugar cane or rearing livestock in another part of Costa Rica. But Gerardo has seen the reality of this with his own eyes. Farmers are lucky to get half the real value of their property when they sell up; as a result they don’t have the capital to buy enough land for a viable farm when they migrate. Many of these farmers can be seen in the cities sleeping rough or living in ghettos, their children sucked into drugs, gangs, crime and prostitution.

Fortunately, with the support of Coocafé and Fairtrade, this is not a path that Gerardo will have to follow: ‘The Fairtrade price allows us to survive as coffee farmers. It covers our costs of production, lets us send our kids to school, buy clothes and keep a roof over our heads.’

From a conversation between Gerardo Arias Camacho and Dave Goodyear of the Fairtrade Foundation, March 2005

Fairtrade and Llano Bonito Co-operative


The co-op receives at least the Fairtrade minimum price of 126 cents/lb for its members’ arabica coffee; this includes a premium of 5 cents/lb that is used for business, social and environmental programmes. Because farmers have struggled with low prices from conventional sales during the coffee crisis of recent years, the members agreed that 80% of the premium is returned to members as a cash payment. The remaining 20% funds three main programmes: education, social/community development, and environmental protection.

Education


The co-op contributes 75 cents from every 100lb of Fairtrade sales to Coocafé’s Hijos del Campo (Countryside Kids) Foundation which provides school and university scholarships for promising students or ones from poorer families. School is free in Costa Rica but parents have to pay for school uniforms, travel, lunch, and some books. Scholarships, allocated by the Education Committee, are worth $150 a year for secondary school pupils and $350 for university students. Since 2000, 165 secondary and 32 university students from Llano Bonito co-op have received scholarships, while Coocafé has funded almost 1,750 throughout the nine member co-ops since 1997. Five of the scholarship students from Llano Bonito have since returned to the town to use their knowledge back on the coffee farms and in the co-operative.

Environment


Likewise, Llano Bonito Co-op contributes a further 50 cents for every 100 pounds of Fairtrade sales to Coocafé’s Café Forestal Foundation. The aim of the Foundation, whose main funding is from sales of their own-brand Café Forestal ground coffee, is to improve the farmers’ standard of living by supporting projects which focus on sustainable production and environmental protection.

A major success has been the purchase in 2003 and 2006 of two environmentally friendly ovens that are used to dry the coffee beans after processing. They were paid for with a low-interest loan from a local NGO and part of the premium is used to repay the loan. The new ovens dry the beans with a much more even heat which gives better quality results, so the crop fetches a higher price. They are also more efficient and the chimneys are fitted with filters to stop harmful particles polluting the air.

Like most arabica coffee growers, Llano Bonito uses the wet processing method which involves washing the ripe red coffee cherries before pulping them to separate the coffee beans from the hull. The beans are then fermented in tanks for 24 to 36 hours while enzymes break down the outer layer of the beans. The enzymes produce a sticky mucilage which must be washed off before the beans can be dried.

The new drying ovens replace wood burning ovens that used 20,000 cubic metres of firewood – that meant cutting down 10 hectares of forest every year. They now run on a cheaper, more environmentally-friendly fuel: the coffee hulls and pulp. To supplement this recycled waste, a neighbouring Coocafé co-op recommended the dried shells of macadamia nuts. After searching for a supplier they eventually located a group of macadamia nut farmers about three hours’ truck drive away. This was a fortuitous meeting as the group was looking for a responsible way of disposing of their waste shells.

The co-op now also makes organic fertiliser from waste pulp. It is composted, mixed with calcium to enrich it, and then sold to members for a minimal price to cover costs. Before this, coffee hulls and pulp were disposed of by being tipped in the river where it gradually decomposed, contaminating the water, creating a stench, and poisoning fish.

A recycling programme is in place to manage farm and home waste and a tree planting project protects soil and reduces erosion. Farmers are taught how to protect springs and rivers and receive ongoing training in the production of organic fertiliser and pesticides. Seven years on, and use of chemical pesticides has been reduced by 80% allowing the soil quality to recuperate and recover its fertility. The covering of hand-cut weeds and fallen leaves helps prevent erosion and gradually breaks down, returning nutrients to the soil, completing a virtuous circle the farmers are proud to contribute to.

Community


Hurricanes are a regular occurrence in Costa Rica. Bridges are brought down and mud slides cover roads, making it impossible for growers to get their coffee to the processing plant, for farmers to get their crops to market and for people to get to schools or hospitals. Communities know from experience there’s no point waiting for the authorities to act so Llano Bonito Co-op works with Coocafe to repair roads and bridges so that all members of the community can go about their normal business once more. In the same way, they have supported local schools by purchasing computers, painting classrooms and carrying out repairs to school buildings.

Gerardo's Story


Hi, my name is Gerardo Arias Camacho. I am from Llano Bonito Leon Cortes in San Jose, Costa Rica. I was born on a small coffee farm in the region of Los Santos Tarrazu. There were 13 children in my family, six boys and seven girls. I am the second youngest. My father’s small farm is about 10 miles away from the town of Llano Bonito. My parents had terrible problems sending us to school because the school was so far away. There was no road, just a dirt track across the country. A friend of the family, Jose Alberto Duran, used to give us the use of his house which was in the village beside the school. My mother Magdalena Camacho moved to the village with all the children of school-going age for the school year. Meanwhile my father Trinidad Arias stayed at the small farm with my older brothers and sisters doing the coffee labour and also planting some other vegetables and cereals.

I was born on the 18 February 1970. In 1976 I began school. Unfortunately I could only go to school for four years because in 1980 the coffee price began to go down and my father couldn’t afford all the expenses. It was too hard for him to keep two houses, one on the farm and one in the village. My brothers and I helped my father by working in a nursery belonging to Jose Alberto Duran. In the morning we worked for him before school. Our school hours were from 11am to 4pm. With the money he paid us we could buy pencils, notebooks, books and so on.

My father never went to school. He doesn’t know how to read or write, and this was very hard for him. When he went to the city and had to sign legal papers or had to fill out forms, he couldn’t do it so he had to try and find somebody to do it for him. It was also a problem trying to catch the right bus. So he always took care that all his children learned to read and write. In 1980 when I was 10 years old, he said to me and my two brothers who hadn’t finished school, “Kids, I’m sad I cannot send you to school any more. At least you know how to read and write already, so you won’t have the same problems as me.”

So when I was 10 years old I began to work with my father on the coffee farm. But I did miss school a lot. I really wanted to keep studying. I cried every day probably for around a year because it’s not easy being 10 and having to work on the coffee farm. For a kid it’s a big change and the work is very tough. At school you do your drawings and read your picture books. You learn mathematics, history, science and language. You play with your small friends, have fun and play jokes. But then at 10, there is poverty all around you and your parents don’t have any money so you don’t have many choices. I worked with my father till I was 18 years old. I helped him with the coffee farm. This was back in 1988 and the coffee prices went down and down every year. My parents, my brothers and I dreamt of buying a small pick-up truck to carry the coffee to the mill and also to take my mother to doctor’s appointments. Because my mother had 15 pregnancies, one of which was twins, and after that she suffered much with her legs. She got varicose veins and ulcers. Every time she has to go to the doctor she has to go by horse for 10 miles and that really hurts her. We also really needed the truck to carry the coffee to the mill because previously we had to carry it by horse, and it took us five hours up and four hours down. This meant the horses got tired after a month of forced labour and didn’t want to work any more, so it was very difficult for us to collect the harvest.

When I was 18 years old I decided to emigrate to the United States because many people from my region were emigrating to the USA, Canada or Grand Cayman Island. And I wanted to get on in the world and do something. I hadn’t finished my schooling and hadn’t done a degree, so I couldn’t find a good job in my country. The only choice I had was to emigrate as my friends had done. But the United States Embassy didn’t give me a visa. So I decided with another 10 friends of the same age to make the trip through Mexico and jump the border to work in the States. And that way I would be able to help my father keep the farm and support my family with money. My biggest dream was to earn some money so my family could buy a truck.

I used to hear people say that it was very dangerous to travel through Mexico and jump the border, and that many people die in the desert or drown in the Rio Bravo or many other terrible things. But in spite of that I decided to make the trip.

When you are a country boy and you’re not used to the atmosphere of the city, airports, airplanes or highways, and when you leave your small village and take an airplane and land in the huge, congested city of Mexico City, you feel as scared as a chicken in a wolf’s lair. And to begin the nightmare, we left the airport and took a train to the north bus station. We were trying to get to Brasilia Hotel. But just 10 minutes after we got on the train, three guys came up to us and told us that they were police officers, but they never showed us any identification. They pointed their guns at us and said, “Get out of the train.” And they put the 10 of us in two little Volkswagen Beetle cars. We felt like sardines in a tin. They took us to a very nasty neighbourhood in the city. They asked us for $200 each – that’s $2,000 between the 10 of us. And if we refused they would take us to the police station and send us back to Costa Rica. So we gave then the $2,000 and they let us go.

That night we had dinner and slept at the hotel, and the next morning at 4am we took the bus to the Mexico-USA border. It took us 35 hours by bus to get to the border. In these 35 hours we didn’t have any food or drink because we were afraid that the Mexican police would catch us again. So no-one wanted to get off the bus and buy food. By this time we had already paid the coyote who was going to help us to jump the border. The coyote charged us $3,000 per person. And we only had $3,500 each, which we had already borrowed. That meant a big debt. After giving $200 to the “police” and $3,000 to the coyote, plus the food and hotel, that meant we only had $200 left in our pockets to cross the border and get up to New Jersey. But when we arrived at the bus terminal near the border, we got caught again by the police. We had to give them the $200 each that we had left for food and other needs. Otherwise they would send us back and that would be terrible because to make the trip we had borrowed the money and our property was under a kind of mortgage. If we didn’t pay we would lose everything, as had happened to many other neighbours, which we had seen happen before.

So by this time we had gone for two days without food. We didn’t have one penny in our pockets. But we had to keep going. The coyote took us near the track that would take us across the border. And we began to walk for three days and two nights without food and with very little water. We crossed part of the desert, farms, small ranches and abandoned farms. So we got to the other side of the border. We had no strength left but we were happy. The coyote put us on a bus to New Jersey on a Thursday at 8am. But the bus takes 84 hours to get to New Jersey, so for another four days we didn’t have food and we were drinking the water from the small sink on the bus. I think we emptied the container of water very often on that bus because there were 10 of us surviving on water! Every time the bus stopped at the stations they refilled the container. So that kept us alive.

Finally on the Sunday we arrived in New Jersey at 6pm. Friends of ours were waiting to pick us up. So they gave us food and beds and a place to stay. In my case I got a job roofing, fixing roofs of houses. I worked for four months and they never paid me because I was illegal and didn’t speak any English, so they could take advantage of me and do what they wanted. They told me that when I learned they were going to pay me. But I worked very hard and never got paid. So four months later I decided not to work for them any more. I moved to Philadelphia. So I got a job in a restaurant as a dishwasher and made $3.00 an hour, but they also gave me a room in the basement of the restaurant. I was happy because back in Costa Rica I had been making $2.00 a day.

So after one year of working I made enough money to pay back the money I had borrowed and to buy the truck. So that made me happy and gave me strength to keep working. I worked for eight years in Philadelphia and made some money to buy my father’s farm because he was too old and didn’t want to sell it to anybody else and didn’t want to abandon it either. Even though it was a bad business I bought it to help him, so he could move to the town with my mother, as all my other brothers had emigrated to the States. I was afraid that something would happen to my parents because they had no neighbours, no phone – it was in the middle of nowhere. So I bought the farm. But the coffee prices were still low, so I had to go back to the States for another two years. Now I feel proud that I own the piece of land where I was born, because with the coffee crisis many other people lost their land.

Now Coocafé (the secondary-level co-operative to which Gerardo’s village co-operative is affiliated) has two foundations that get money directly from Fairtrade. The first is Hijos del Campo which has educational and social programmes. It helps the poorest families to send their children to school so they won’t have to same problems I had. In my co-op we have 26 students in high school and nine at university. So these kids will have a better future and will be able to get good jobs and won’t have to emigrate like I did. We also get more money directly in our pockets from the coffee we sell through Fairtrade terms which allows us to stay on our farms and to get enough money to cover our expenses and keep our families. Even though we only sell 30% of our coffee through Fairtrade terms, it makes a big difference.

The other foundation is called Café Forestal. This foundation does environmental programmes like teaching small coffee farmers how to make their own organic fertilizer and not to use chemicals. They also give trees to plant in the hills to prevent erosion and help the environment. They teach the small coffee farmers how to work in a sustainable way that is friendly towards the local environment and wildlife.

Gerardo Arias Camacho, March 2005

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