Media links

As I readjust to North American life and grapple with, among other things, the fact that I am no longer tall or living (comfortably) on $12 a day, I wanted to share some recent media coverage.

Farewell Bolivia…

The Ramos family. From L-R: Genero, Vladimir, Elizabeth, Noemi, Rebecca, Gilda Marilin and Leonida

The Ramos family. From L-R: Genero, Vladimir, Elizabeth, Noemi, Rebecca, Gilda Marilin and Leonida

As I count down the hours to my departure from Bolivia, I would like to extend a huge thank you to all of you for supporting this venture, in a whole host of different ways – whether it be in the form of generous donations for my fundraising campaign, moral support, words of wisdom, logistical help, care packages, hand-knitted hats and much more along the way.

We raised a remarkable $4896, surpassing my $3000 target and all of my expectations.  http://cci.akaraisin.com/Crossroaderfundraising/JoniWard  All funds raised go directly to support Crossroads` vital projects and activities in their eight partner countries.  From myself and all the farmers and families I have worked alongside here in Bolivia, thank you.

The impact of this project is significant and tangible.  The livelihoods of rural Bolivians are being sustained through access to an expanded Canadian coffee market.  New relationships have been established; fair trade, organic coffee from COAINE cooperative will be available in Montreal, Ottawa and Nova Scotia later this year, as well as currently in Manitoba.  (I am still not quite over the fact that I will soon be able to drink this very coffee only a couple of blocks from my home!)  My volunteer successor will be heading out to Bolivia in the coming weeks, ensuring the project’s long-term sustainability.

It has been an incredible, enriching, humbling journey, both personally and professionally, and I am profoundly grateful for your interest and support.

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With the recent tragedy of the collapsed garment factory in Bangladesh, where the horrifying death toll has now reached over 900 people; it is acutely apparent that our collective progress towards safe and fair working conditions has an awful long way to go.  As millions of people toil daily in deplorable conditions, creating item after item to be sold cheaply in the West, exercising our purchasing power to seek out direct or fair trade products is ever more important.  From the comfort of our privileged lives, it is all too easy to let distance cloud our perspective and numb our ability to act.

We all have the power to make a difference.  We all have a responsibility to reflect upon the purchases we make and the people behind the products we consume.  After all I have learned and witnessed here in Bolivia, I find it hard to believe that we can drink coffee for the low prices we pay.  Coffee should not be cheap.  The livelihoods of farmers and their families are at stake.

Every single coffee bean goes through a long, laborious process before it makes it into your steaming cup of espresso or latte.  So the next time you’re browsing a supermarket aisle or at the counter of your favourite café, I urge you to take a moment and spare a thought for the farmer and the family behind your morning cup.  Be curious, be accountable, ask questions beyond looking for logos, seek out direct or fair trade coffee.  And know that you will be changing lives in the process.

Bridging the gap with direct trade

From L-R: Lay Yong Tan, Fidel Palle, Walter Callisaya Michel, Mario Condori Palli, Anne Winship, me, Jean-François Leduc, Erin Cochrane and Alix Reid

From L-R: Lay Yong Tan, Fidel Palle, Walter Callisaya Michel, Mario Condori Palli, Anne Winship, me, Jean-François Leduc, Erin Cochrane and Alix Reid

Rounding off my Crossroads’ mandate with a week as inspiring and motivating as the one I have just experienced, is truly a gift.  From April 24th – May 1st, I hosted five Canadian micro-roasters (four invitees, one self-financed), with an objective of establishing direct trade relationships.  We braved Death Road, visited coffee plantations, met farmers and their families, toured facilities, cupped coffee, discussed potential partnerships and negotiated contracts.

Hailing from Quebec, Ontario, Nova Scotia and Manitoba, the group was diverse – from one micro-roaster who was enjoying her first trip outside North America, to another who has 40 such coffee-origin trips under his belt.  Each had unique experiences and knowledge to offer, along with a shared passion for coffee and a commitment to direct trade.  I learnt a huge amount throughout the visit and am filled with respect and admiration for the individuals I had the pleasure of hosting.  

Meet the micro-roasters

Alix Reid, Green Bean Coffee Imports

Alix Reid, Green Bean Coffee Imports

Anne Winship, Bean Fair

Anne Winship, Bean Fair

Jean-François Leduc, Café Saint Henri

Jean-François Leduc, Café Saint Henri

Lay Yong Tan & Erin Cochrane, T.A.N. Coffee

Lay Yong Tan & Erin Cochrane, T.A.N. Coffee

"Caranavi province: Coffee capital of Bolivia"

“Caranavi province: Coffee capital of Bolivia”

Meet the producers

We visited coffee plantations at altitudes ranging from 1200m to 1700m, spending time with farmers and their families.  The fair trade premiums that COAINE receives are essential for the livelihoods of these families.  Beyond ensuring a fair wage, fair trade enables access to health services, education and other social services which would otherwise remain out of reach for these rural communities living in poverty.

Fidel Palle, coffee farmer

Fidel Palle, coffee farmer

Walter Callisaya Michel, COAINE's treasurer

Walter Callisaya Michel, COAINE’s treasurer

Mario Condori Palli, President of COAINE

Mario Condori Palli, President of COAINE

Mario and his wife Bertha

Mario and his wife Bertha

Genero Ramos, coffee farmer

Genero Ramos, coffee farmer

Genero Ramos with two of his daughters, Rebecca (12) and Noemi (11)

Genero Ramos with two of his daughters, Rebecca (12) and Noemi (11)

Genero with his son, Vladimir (2)

Genero with his son, Vladimir (2)

Genero`s wife Elizabeth with their other two daughters, Gilda Marilin (5) and Leonida (7)

Genero`s wife Elizabeth with their other two daughters, Gilda Marilin (5) and Leonida (7)

With the Ramos family

With the Ramos family

Dialogue and discussion

While visiting the coffee production zone around Caranavi, we connected with several members of COAINE in the community of Niño Jesus.  After an enormous lunch, lively discussion ensued and it was inspiring to see producers and micro-roasters learning from one other, and listening with respect and receptivity.  

A warm welcome in Niño Jesus

A warm welcome in Niño Jesus

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Esteban Bohórquez, founding member of COAINE, speaking to the cooperative's progress over the years

Esteban Bohórquez, founding member of COAINE, speaking to the cooperative’s progress over the years

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COAINE cooperative members

COAINE cooperative members

The little guy on the right is sporting a Justin Bieber T-shirt, especially for our Canadian cohort perhaps...

The little guy on the right is sporting a Justin Bieber T-shirt, especially for our Canadian cohort perhaps…

 

With Anastacio Mamaní Callisaya

With Anastacio Mamaní Callisaya

Micro-roasters and producers in Niño Jesus

Micro-roasters and producers in Niño Jesus

The coffee harvest

The cosecha (harvest) for coffee begins in April and continues through to August.  We were able to try our hand at picking coffee cherries, as well as observe the washing, pulping, fermenting and drying processes.  COAINE produces four main varietals of coffee : criollacaturracatuai rojo and catuai amarillo.

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Coffee plants, laden with cherries

Coffee plants, laden with cherries

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Bertha showing us how it's done

Bertha showing us how it’s done

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Coffee cherries (it took me a very long time to pick this small amount!)

Coffee cherries (it took me a very long time to pick this small amount!)

Washing the coffee cherries

Washing the coffee cherries

Erin, working the pulping machine

Erin, working the pulping machine

Vincente, coffee farmer, with pulped coffee beans

Vincente, coffee farmer, with pulped coffee beans

Picking out defective beans as the coffee dries

Picking out defective beans as the coffee dries

Visiting COAINE`s new wet mill facility in Muñecas (built with the aid of fair trade premiums)

Visiting COAINE`s new wet mill facility in Muñecas (built with the aid of fair trade premiums)

Coffee cupping

Our coffee cupping session took place up at FECAFEB`s facilities in El Alto.  FECAFEB (La Federación de Caficultores Exportadores de Bolivia) is the umbrella organization for all Bolivian coffee cooperatives.  Coffee cupping is the method of evaluating various characteristics of a particular coffee bean.  Much like wine tasting, coffee cupping is a complex process, determining taste, flavour, fragrance and aroma.  By sniffing and tasting the coffee at different stages, it is possible to evaluate attributes such as balance, body, acidity, sweetness, after-taste, clean cup and uniformity.

At this early stage in the harvest, fresh coffee beans from only the lower altitudes were available for tasting.  We cupped three batches of coffee beans all from the same farm: criollacatuai rojo and a combination of the two.  Extreme care was taken to treat the beans to the exact same process to produce the most accurate results.  Four cups of each batch were prepared in order to identify consistency or lack thereof.

Much sniffing, slurping and silent rumination later, the merits of the coffee were discussed and the varietals revealed.  Incredibly, Jean-François and Lay Yong (both certified coffee cupping judges) were able to identify which of the three batches was the mix of coffee varietals during a blind taste test.  Impressive!

Coffee cupping at FECAFEB (La Federación de Caficultores Exportadores de Bolivia)

Coffee cupping at FECAFEB (La Federación de Caficultores Exportadores de Bolivia)

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Firstly, the fragrance of the dry grains is evaluated

Firstly, the fragrance of the dry grains is evaluated

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Next, we tested the aroma of the grains once infused with hot water

Next, we tested the aroma of the grains once infused with hot water

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Testing the aroma again, while breaking the surface with a spoon

Testing the aroma again, while breaking the surface with a spoon

 With the crema removed, the coffee is slurped vigorously,(with obligatory accompanying noise!) allowing for the coffee to cover the palate evenly

With the crema removed, the coffee is slurped vigorously,(with obligatory accompanying noise!) allowing for the coffee to cover the palate evenly

Tasting several samples of the same batch enables any inconsistencies or defects to be identified

Tasting several samples of the same batch enables any inconsistencies or defects to be identified

At FECAFEB, after a successful cupping session

At FECAFEB, after a successful cupping session

Results and good news!

We concluded a productive week by visiting COAINE`s dry processing plant up in El Alto.  Each micro-roaster had an opportunity for some one-on-one time with cooperative members, with myself and another translator present.  I am thrilled to report that both T.A.N. Coffee and Café St Henri negotiated contracts with COAINE and will be sharing a container from this year`s harvest!  T.A.N. Coffee is importing 220 bags (at 70kg each) and Café St Henri, 60 bags.  Furthermore, both micro-roasters are collaborating with COAINE to produce high quality coffee with unique specifications, relative to their markets.

With this, I am more than delighted to realise that my Crossroads mandate has allowed things to come in a glorious full circle, that I could only dream of, seven months ago.  Since Cafe St Henri is based in Montreal – with three cafés and a number of wholesale customers – I will be able to drink COAINE’s fair trade coffee only a couple of blocks from my Montreal home.  Having a personal connection with the producers behind my morning coffee is a truly wonderful prospect!

Heartfelt thanks to everyone involved in the success of this visit and these partnerships.  I can say with confidence that Crossroads is bridging a much-needed gap with its international development projects such as this fair trade initiative.  Real change is happening.  Lives are being transformed.

Making a difference one cup at a time – Vancouver Sun article

My article in the Vancouver Sun – “Making a difference one cup at a time”:

http://www.vancouversun.com/business/Making+difference+time/8308418/story.html#ixzz2S2Hef96t

I write this having just waved off our visiting Canadian coffee roasters at the airport.  It was an incredible, inspiring week and a wonderful way to wrap up my volunteer mandate.  Stay tuned for a full report! 

Unbelievably, I now have a little over ONE WEEK remaining in Bolivia…these seven months have flown by!

Shoe shiners and zebras on the streets of La Paz

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Lustrabotas

Every day, thousands of lustrabotas (shoe shiners) line the streets of La Paz, squatting on stools, clutching their wooden boxes and touting for customers.  Most are male and although there are some older men, many are adolescents and children as young as 8 years old.  These men and boys wear baseballs caps and cover their faces with woollen balaclavas or ski masks, concealing their identity due to the shame and social stigma surrounding their trade.  

Lustrabotas are often presumed to be petty criminals or addicts and are harshly discriminated against, thus they prefer to remain anonymous than to risk being recognised by peers, neighbours or teachers.  For some shoe shiners it may be their only means for scraping together a living, while others are in school or university.  Having your shoes shined here can cost as little as 2.5 Bolivianos (36 cents/24p).

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Edgar, who generously answered my questions and shined my boots

Edgar, who generously answered my questions and shined my boots

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Traffic zebras

To describe traffic in La Paz as chaotic is an understatement.  It is akin to the madness of rush hour in Bangkok or Kathmandu.  Due to the customary 2.5 hour almuerzo (lunch break), there are actually several rush hours per day, and the traffic doesn’t seem to be much calmer in between.  Trufis (minibuses) and cars cram the streets, cutting each other off, honking impatiently and pumping black clouds of fumes.  If there are lanes, they are not used, and if there are traffic rules, nobody is paying them any attention.  Crossing the road is a feat not for the faint-hearted.

Cue La Paz’s troupe of dancing cebras (zebras).  In the heart of the city centre, youths in zebra costumes guide traffic and usher pedestrians across the road.  Armed with flags,  the cebras dance, skip, and comically express their dismay at those who do not respect the crossings, wringing their hands and shaking their heads mournfully.  

This creative road safety initiative began in 2001 as a means to educate and sensitize the public to respect the zebra crossings.  It is also part of a social program that aims to help under-privileged youth by providing them with employment.  In contrast to lustrabotas, these cebras are popular with locals.

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Street-side vendors

Another frequent sight in La Paz are these street-side vendors.  Resembling miniature sidewalk dépanneurs, they sell everything from snacks to toiletries and also double as public phone booths.  Often staffed by a knitting cholita, it is not uncommon to see a toddler playing in a cardboard box at her feet.

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Tomorrow spells the arrival of four Canadian coffee roasters, a much-anticipated week-long visit that I will be facilitating.  Stay tuned!

Football fever and Semana Santa

Semana Santa celebrations in La Paz

Semana Santa celebrations in La Paz

Semana Santa

During Bolivia’s Holy Week celebrations, I witnessed the largest of many Good Friday processions taking place in La Paz.  La Procesión del Santo Sepulcro spent three hours gradually winding its way through the city streets, eventually circling back to a downtown church.  Approximately 95% of Bolivians are Roman Catholic, thus it was no surprise to see the streets filled with onlookers.

The procession depicts the fall and rise of Jesus Christ and was a sorrowful, sombre spectacle, an act of mass mourning rather than celebration.  School groups marched in uniform, chanting Biblical passages led by one child with a megaphone, while crowds of locals followed behind carrying flickering candles.  Most dramatic of all were the robed figures, with their tall, pointed hoods, eerily reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan.  (Apparently the costumes represent mourning and are entirely unrelated to the KKK).  These haunting figures move slowly and silently through the streets, carrying enormous wooden platforms displaying effigies of Jesus and Mary.

A striking, shocking sight to the uninitiated, I was prepared to be somewhat alarmed this time around, having witnessed larger and more intense Semana Santa processions (i.e. more hoods, plus clamouring, wailing crowds) in southern Spain many years ago.

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Live football

Despite hopes of attending a live football match during my trip to Argentina, I opted to wait until returning to Bolivia, where I was less likely to fall victim to outrageously inflated tourist prices.  It paid off, since Messi and his team visited La Paz the very next week for a World Cup qualifier.  I scored a third row seat for only $17, a fraction of the price I was offered in Buenos Aires.

Of the South American teams competing for next year’s World Cup in Brazil, Bolivia was trailing at second to bottom of the table while Argentina were flying high at the top.  Bolivia, however, possess the intriguing ‘altitude advantage’; visiting teams have to contend with adjusting to the dizzying heights of La Paz.

The packed stadium was a sea of bright red, yellow and green and the atmosphere electric.  Three sides of the stadium would chant in turn “BO, BO, BO!”, “LI, LI, LI!”, “VIA, VIA, VIA!” and then altogether “VIVA BOLIVIA!”.  The Chilean referee was subject to relentless abuse from the crowd, reflecting the increasingly strained relations between the two countries.  (I learned a whole host of new expletives which I’m not sure I’ll ever have an opportunity to use.)

Admittedly my support of Bolivia was dubious, since I was secretly hoping to see Messi score (he didn’t).  Whenever he would venture close to our section, there would be taunting cries of “Messi! La ALTURA!” (“the altitude!”).  Bolivia went 1-0 up in the first half, Argentina equalised just before half-time and despite many close calls, the match ended 1-1.  Polystyrene squares are sold for 1 Boliviano (15 cents/9p) as seat covers.  At the end of the match, thousands of these were hurled into the air from all sides of the stadium, falling like ungainly snowflakes onto the pitch.

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From container to cup

Loading coffee in El Alto

Loading coffee in El Alto

Green Bean Coffee Imports received a very special delivery a couple of weeks ago.  With much anticipation, the container of organic and fair trade certified coffee negotiated back in November finally ended its long journey from Bolivia.

Back in early January, I headed up to COAINE`s coffee processing plant in El Alto to observe the coffee being loaded.  The truck arrived with typical Bolivian punctuality (7 hours late) and after much manoeuvring to park, the loading finally began.  This was the height of the rainy season and several of the cooperative`s workers had been held up in Caranavi due to mudslides, leaving the team depleted.  The container consisted of 260 bags at 60kg (132lbs) each.  I noticed a distinct lack of dollies or other loading equipment and soon discovered why.

The loading of the coffee was an impressive show of teamwork.  Five women, with their billowing cholita skirts and identical two long plaits, stood in a circle and together hoisted each bag onto the shoulders of one of five men, who in turn, strode along a narrow plank of wood into the truck, where another two men carefully stacked the sacks.  The entire process took a couple of hours, after which many clinking crates of beer appeared.

From El Alto, the coffee travelled to Chile`s Port of Arica, set sail northwards to Montreal and finally arrived by train at its destination in Clandeboye, Manitoba, where it was unloaded (by an altogether different method) in sub-zero temperatures.

To sample this wonderful coffee, please visit Green Bean Coffee Imports.  They boast a selection of roasts as well as green (non-roasted) beans for sale.  Their website even has handy tips such as how to home-roast coffee beans.  Who knew you could roast your own coffee in a popcorn maker?!  Not I.

Green Bean also wholesale and deliver across Canada.  If delivery is not your thing, don`t despair!  If all goes to plan, this fair trade, organic Bolivian coffee will one day be available from a micro-roaster near you…

Some of the 260 bags, ready for the road

Some of the 260 bags, ready for the road

60lbs of fair trade and organic coffee

60lbs of fair trade and organic coffee

With Green Bean`s logo, to boot

With Green Bean`s logo, to boot

Loading up in El Alto

Loading up in El Alto

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Walking the plank (is it just me or does the guy in the truck look worried?)

Walking the plank (is it just me or does the guy in the truck look worried?)

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Mario Condori of COAINE

Mario Condori of COAINE

The ladies, post-heavy-lifting

The ladies, post-heavy-lifting

Leaving El Alto

Leaving El Alto

Unloading in Manitoba, two months later

Unloading in Manitoba, two months later

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Unloading in the snow (with a distinct lack of ladies)

Unloading in the snow (with a distinct lack of ladies)

260 bags later

260 bags later

Alix Reid,working her magic in the Green Bean roastery

Alix Reid,working her magic in the Green Bean roastery

Roasted, packaged and ready for sale

Roasted, packaged and ready for sale

Melting glaciers, llama love and hanging effigies

PampalaramaA little while ago I took a hike up to Glacial Khuno Tinkuta, which is situated in Pampalarama, an hour and a half`s drive from La Paz.  Sitting at 5000m above sea level, the glacier was a short hike but a strenuous one nonetheless due to the altitude.  Almost immediately I was out of breath (which I initially attributed to over-consumption of potatoes) and developed a persistent headache, which meant for a slow climb. The landscape was fairly barren and except for a lone shepherd, my friend and I did not encounter a single person on the trails.  Herds of llama and alpaca grazed in the lower slopes, generously obliging my frenzy of photo-taking.

According to recent studies, Andean glaciers have shrunk by as much as 50% since the 1970s.  The nearby peak of Chacaltaya used to be home to the world`s highest ski resort, before its glacier rapidly melted over the years, disappearing entirely in 2009.  Glaciers act as a vital source of water for thousands of Bolivia`s inhabitants in El Alto and the Altiplano, as well as supplying hydro-power.  As a poor, landlocked country, the impact of climate change is felt more than ever and sadly the future looks bleak with Bolivia`s few remaining glaciers receding fast.

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Journeying back into La Paz, we wove our way along steeply sloping cobbled streets in the outskirts of the city.  Several Guy Fawkes-like effigies were strung up on telegraph poles, a sight I was curious about, having noticed them often in El Alto.  As it turns out, these hanging dummies are warnings for rateros (thieves) and potential criminals, in areas where crime is rife.  Often they are hung with accompanying signs, macabre messages professing that captured thieves will be lynched and/or burned alive.  It is perhaps indicative of a lack of faith in the judicial system and local police force (considered to be somewhat corrupt and inefficient), that residents claim to resort to `community justice`, prepared to take matters into their own hands.

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Stay tuned for an upcoming coffee-related post, before I head to Buenos Aires on holiday next week!