Saturday, December 01, 2012

Heading to the hills and a model finca

Margarita and family drying coffee in the new secadora
We headed up into the hills this week, to beautiful, rainy forests and a family farm doing everything right. OCDIH, the organization I’m helping with communications, wanted a case study to present to funders.
So we went to meet Rosa Margarita Escalón España. (We, because I recruited Jody, knowing my Spanish would not allow a good interview.)
Which meant 90 minutes on a bus. Then 45 minutes in a truck with Alex and Alexis, the OCDIH ag tech guys who guiding us. After a stop for breakfast in a woman’s tidy kitchen, we pushed up muddy, slippery hills as far as we could and started walking through slippery, sucking mud. (Telephone Spanish is especially challenging; I had apparently missed Alex’s request that we bring boots. They scrounged some up.)
Papayas, with dark green coffee plants behind
Margarita’s place was on the side of a mountain about 45 minutes walk from the road. She had coffee plants, and sugar cane, and of course corn and beans. But she also had papayas and carrots and onions and was trying to grow a few apple trees ordered from the U.S. It’s an integrated ‘finca,’ a farm that combines coffee and a bunch of other crops in a small space.
The family had a sugar cane grinder, run by a horse hooked up to a long arm who walked around and around, grinding the tough cane. The boiled the juice down for sugar, and made caramelos to sell.
The first thing we saw when we arrived was a new secadora - a long structure with a clear plastic roof stretched over arched white PCV tubes. OCDIH promotes the project. Margarita’s family was just finishing the wooden drying tables, with screens across the bottom. The first plastic tub of coffee beans was dumped in the screen while we were there. (Coffee berries are red, like small cherries. You have to pick them, and strip the beans out. They’re kind of slimy, and need to be dried. Typically, they’re dumped on a concrete pad and turned with shovels. The secadora means faster, better drying and fewer broken and damaged beans.)
The house was totally basic - lean against the wall and you would be white with the lime used to paint the adobe bricks. But there was a solar panel, and lights in each room, and a Claro satellite dish.
Margarita and her family are a success story. Standing on the edge of a section of two-year-old coffee plants, with papayas ripening, onions and carrots sprouting and chickens running around the yard, I thought this family had it going on. The soil is good, and enriched with compost. The farm is organic. Margarita is a leader in almost a dozen community groups and women's networks, mostly promoted by OCDIH.
But it’s still a life far removed from what I think of as the modern world.
Jody and friend, in the door of Margarita's tidy kitchen
After we did the interviews and took a bunch of pictures, it was time to go. Two horses were saddled for us. Or one was saddled, for Jody. Mine had a rig made of four branches and a towel, with no stirrups. 
Everyone else walked - Margarita and two of her sons, including the youngest, a nine-year-old. I felt a bit odd, but it was another 45-minute walk, all uphill.
After about 35 minutes, we stopped to admire the Escuela de la Republica de Canada, a development project. It is a heck of walk to that school, but all Margarita’s kids have attended (or still are attending).
But the school goes to Grade 6, and that’s as far as any of the six kids are going to pursue their education. It’s a four-hour walk to the nearest colegio, or high school - less time if you can catch a ride in the back of a passing truck. That’s just too far. The nearest clinic is the same distance. (Though Margarita, as part of the income-producing activities promoted by OCDIH, has attended workshops on traditional medicines and grows plants to use and sell.) Getting products to market means a long slog with a couple of horses.
And I haven’t figured out how the six kids - without their own land - will make their way in the community.
No easy answers - but a heck of a finca.

1 comment:

scotty on Denman said...

Another fascinating article, Paul. The photo shows a happy, healthy family "doing everything right," technological improvement to increase efficiency (and light their home,) diversification of both crops and products and participation in community associations, the things that multiply the fruits of labour and blessed soil. How soon, though, will Margarita's family be limited again by the fixed area of their land?

The lack of serviceable roads stands out as a critical limiting factor which is further connected to education opportunities for the kids as well as to marketing farm produce. Does the state provide maintenance or do road projects remain private initiatives?