Fair Trade Firsthand: Fair Trade Towns Leaders Go to Origin

Courtney Lang February 11, 2011

Last week a delegation of volunteers from Fair Trade Towns throughout the United States got to see the effects of their hard work firsthand on a Global Exchange reality tour of Fair Trade cooperatives in Costa Rica. Why Costa Rica?  Well, it just so happens that Costa Rica is home to the first Fair Trade Town in Latin America: Perez Zeledon.  Costa Rica is also home to some of the oldest and most advanced cooperatives, which are true models when it comes to the social and environmental sustainability of farming communities.

This guest blog post comes from Cristina Aguilera, a retired public-school educator who represented the Fair Trade Towns Boulder campaign on the trip. Stay tuned for more follow-up blogs from other trip participants.

Having been to Costa Rica before but new to the Fair Trade movement,I had no idea what to expect when I signed up to join a Fair Trade Towns USA trip to visit coffee and sugar producers in the central area of this lush, tropical country.  Boy was I pleasantly surprised to learn that not only were my native Spanish speaking skills a boon to the group (I was born in Cuba and grew up in the U.S.) but that I would be meeting so many amazing people and learning mega amounts of information about Fair Trade and the production of coffee and sugar.

We flew into San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, on Saturday, January 29, and after one day of orientation by our group leaders we traveled south to our first tour destination, CoopeAgri, a Fair Trade coffee and sugar cooperative in Perez Zeledon. What follows are personal stories of some of the people I met there: coffee and sugar producers, CoopeAgri personnel, cooperative workers and board directors.

When we arrived at the cooperative, we met with CoopeAgri‘s board of directors: seven men and one woman, all producers and workers.  Interestingly when this cooperative started in 1962 there were 391 members and only 10 were women (2.5%). Today there are 17,000 members and 5,780 are women (34%).

Alba Nidia Rojas Borrego

Alba is the first and only woman elected by the regional delegates to be a director for four consecutive two-year terms.  She is passionate, spirited and committed to the progress of Costa Rican women. A true inspiration.

Alba Nidia comes from a small mountain town in the Perez Zeledon region and has been a coffee producer for the past thirty years.  I was able to interview her and learned about her path to success and the benefits of participating in Fair Trade the past four years.  She grew up in the sixties when women weren’t allowed to attend school beyond elementary grades.  When she was 18 she worked for a teacher in San Isidro as a domestic employee.  She had always wanted to attend high school, so with the encouragement and financial support of that teacher she secretely, without her parents’ permission, was able to graduate from high school by attending night school.  This degree allowed her to enter a CoopeAgri training program for producers and workers aspiring to become board directors.  Last year, together with forty women, she spearheaded the formation of a women’s catering cooperative for women whose caretaking of elderly parents and/or children only allows them to work part time.

Will Valverde                                                                                                  

Will manages International sales of Fair Trade coffee and sugar for CoopeAgri.

Fluent in English and very articulate he was able to guide us through the multiple layers of cooperative services offered by CoopeAgri.  His steadfast commitment to Fair Trade and its benefits for the community was transparent throughout our two days with him.  He was always willing and able to answer our many questions and clarify linguistic misunderstandings.  His pleasant personality and sweet disposition were greatly appreciated.

José Luis Mora

José is a worker at CoopeAgri’s research sugar cane project under the direction of Agricultural Engineer Willie Valverde, no relation to the previous Will Valverde.  José Luis manages the irrigation system at this site.  He explained to me how important keeping the seedlings moist is during the long dry season in this area.

We learned all of this on our first day with CoopeAgri!  Stay tuned for more stories and reactions from our trip in the weeks to come.

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Courtney Lang, National Organizer | Fair Trade Campaigns

Courtney Lang brings over 5 years of community organizing to Fair Trade Towns USA, building both the Local Food and Fair Trade networks in Vermont. As Local Food Coordinator with City Market/Onion River Cooperative, Courtney worked with local producers, institutions and consumers to grow the local food system and organize a strategic model for community engagement through farm tours, workshops, and local food challenges. Like many in the Fair Trade industry, Courtney was inspired to take action in Fair Trade when she witnessed child-labor first hand in Costa Rica. As a founding member of Fair Trade Burlington, she has worked with economic development organizations, businesses, and consumers to build awareness of Fair Trade among Vermonters. She also worked with a Fair Trade USA licensee, Vermont Coffee Company, as Friend Ambassador where she united the story of Fair Trade to every purchase of coffee.