By Jenny DeWitt, Grounds for Change.
We awoke on Monday filled with excitement as we were finally visiting the coffee farmers and seeing Cafe Femenino coffee plants at peak harvest time. Today we would journey to El Ron and we were certainly in for a treat. El Ron is a coffee community southeast of Bagua Grande in Northern Peru and not on any maps I could find. The journey to El Ron was mainly by highway where we passed rice terrace after rice terrace. I was completely surprised by this, but Peruvians eat lots of rice and thus grow a lot of it. So as we traveled along the Utcubamba River, the terrain was lush and beautiful rice terraces, with a backdrop of green covered mountains and hills.
Turning off the highway we encountered the effects of spring flooding where we had several shallow, flowing washes to cross as we wound our way up towards the coffee farms. Luckily the water allowed us to pass uneventfully but we did move slowly as the roads were rutted and uneven.
As we pulled into El Ron, a band was waiting for us and struck up a tune. At this point we stopped and got out of the bus to listen to the band and be greeted by the leaders of the community. Community members gathered in the road around us and asked to take pictures with us – something that happened in every community we were to visit. We were then asked to parade through the town behind the band, a tradition in El Ron to welcome guests and let the community know guests were visiting. Folks waved from their homes or walked along with us. At the end of town, the bus met us for our journey to our hosts’ home for our farm tour and lunch.
This trip was a bit bumpier as we went higher into the hills and wound through fields of coffee plants, sometimes making sharp turns to avoid hitting boulders in the road. When we arrived at the home of our hosts, the band was already playing and all of the families of the community were there with their children waving at us. As we left the bus someone lit a string of fireworks demonstrating the excitement of the community.
Our first order of business was to get to a Cafe Femenino coffee farm to learn the picking process. Several community members went with us with baskets and containers they had fitted with straps so they could fill them with coffee cherries without having to hold the container. When we reached an area ready for picking, we made our way over uneven earth and wove through shading trees and shrubs to get to the coffee plants. Once at a plant ready to harvest, the ripe cherries were carefully plucked from the unripe ones. The farmers were very fast at this process and the Americans were not. The farmers were good-natured about teaching us and thoroughly enjoyed showing us their technique. In addition to enjoying their kind spirits, it was wonderful to see the small-scale and rustic qualities of these farmers’ fields.
Once baskets and containers were filled to the brim, we snapped pictures of the haul and headed back to the community area to see El Ron’s wet mill. The harvested coffee cherries were first put in large basins of water to separate the floaters. Floaters are beans that do not have the density needed to be acceptable for quality assessors so they are removed and remain in the community or are sold in local markets. Next the cherries are poured into the depulper where the pulp is pulled away from the coffee beans, with the beans falling into a large tiled basin. The beans will remain in the basin and are allowed to ferment for a time before they are dried.
Wet-processed coffee does involve quite a lot of water and the effluent (the water left from the processing) can be harmful to the environment if care is not taken. El Ron community members were excited to tell me that they are in the process of building a system to collect the effluent in order to contain the water until it is safe to release into the surrounding environs. Their excitement made it clear to me that the farmers were proud of their coffee production and they were working to employ best practices to make it sustainable. I can infer that receiving a premium price for their product no doubt keeps them committed to organic and fair trade standards, and the cooperative efforts help fund development in sustainability.
With the work done and demonstrated, it was time for the party! There were no festivals or holidays during our visit but El Ron wanted to give us the impression that we were there for a holiday. With that in mind, they recreated a Christmas tradition of their area for us. The community members decorate a tree by hanging culinary staples and treats from it. For us, we could see cacao pods, bananas, bags of rice, a bottle of alcohol, some sodas, and other goodies tied to tree limbs. The tradition is to then take turns trying to chop down the tree with a machete. Sounds easy, right? Ha! We used the machete while blindfolded! The Americans in attendance were given first strikes since we were the honored guests, but we did little damage to the tree... Once we had all taken a turn, children were invited to give it a go and then the older community members got into the action with huge swings that took the tree down. As the tree began to fall, the families jumped up and ran to the branches to grab what they could. Our group was happy to experience this tradition and the families were excited to take home some treasure!
Next it was time to settle down for lunch and a program. The hosts’ house was close to the wet mill and there was a nice, open area between the house and station for long tables and lots of chairs to be set up for us to gather. Houses in Peru are adobe-covered brick and they are small, probably considered tiny, by American standards. Our hosts’ house was no exception but they did have a community kitchen so groups could gather there to cook for their festivals and feasts. As guests, we were told to sit as we watched a stream of people deliver plates heaping with food to our table. Our meal was rice, potatoes and a quarter chicken. Even bigger men in our group could not finish all of the food served to us at that lunch. The community was so generous and even had cold drinks for us which was not easy for them to pull off without electricity.
As we finished eating, I invited a young girl to sit in my lap and next thing I know I had a sleeping child on me. The community members were worried that I might be upset, but I assured them that I was happy to offer her a napping place. As she slept, the program began. Community members did a few traditional dances for us and also sang us a song about the importance of coffee plants for them. The president of the cooperative for El Ron welcomed us and introduced each of us to the community. There were gifts from the roasters to the community and lots of pictures. Finally the band started playing again and we were all expected to dance! Community members approached each of us and led us to the dance area and we all took part. It was a fun way to end the day before we had to say goodbye.
Before we left any community there was a flurry of pictures. Both individuals and groups wanted to preserve the moment and we all acquiesced by smiling, holding babies and posing with anyone that asked. After our precious time with the people of El Ron, we said our goodbyes, and boarded the bus. Our reverse trip back to Bagua Grande was filled with each of us recounting special moments from the day’s adventure.
Next: Day 2 >>