Sunday, October 27, 2013

The dark side of fair trade

Copan kids heading into the coffee fields at harvest time

When I stand in my Canadian shoes, I am an ardent supporter of fair trade – comercio justo as it’s known here in Honduras. Count me in for any practices that try to help small producers in under-developed countries make a decent living from their coffee crops and such.
But when I look at fair trade from the perspective of Hondurans, things get a little muddy. That’s especially true around the question of prohibiting child labour.
Taking steps to stop children from being forced to work to produce goods for the developed world is, understandably, one of the most fundamental principles of fair trade. Back home in Canada, I took pride in paying more for fair-trade coffee, believing that the extra cost was worth it if it ensured that some struggling family somewhere in the world earned a bit more for their coffee crop and didn't have to send their children into the field like tiny slaves.
But like I say, it all just gets a little less clear once you look at it from the Honduran perspective.
Beans, corn and coffee are easily the three most important crops for poor rural families in this part of Honduras, the west. The first two keep a family fed. The third – coffee – generates pretty much the only cash many of the families will see over the course of a year. Rural Hondurans are quite good at living a very nearly cash-free existence, but coffee is a treasured “money crop” because it pays for all the things that even resourceful Hondurans couldn't otherwise access -  like schooling, health care, shoes, laundry soap, electricity, purified water, transportation, household emergencies, vet care and animal feed, to name but a few.
In other words, coffee really matters. And fair trade really matters, too, because as always the producers are the ones who make the least money by the time coffee beans go from their fields to your cup at a high-end specialty café. I once crunched the numbers to get a sense of the difference, and it turns out that a nice cup of coffee at your favourite café sells for roughly 100 times the price that the producer got for the beans that went into that cup.
So yes, an organization that certifies producers to ensure they make more money in exchange for adhering to better agricultural and hiring practices – what’s not to like? But there’s the theory of fair trade, and then there’s the reality.
For instance, child labour. Given that more than 80 per cent of coffee producers in Honduras are small one-family operations, everybody in the family has to work when the harvest is on. And for the really poor families who don’t even own land, it’s even more important to hire the kids out to producers looking for extra hands during the harvest from October to February.
The public primary schools shut down for a two-month vacation in December-January specifically so children can work in the fields. When the coffee season is on, giant truckloads of children being driven off into the hills around Copan Ruinas or even to nearby Guatemala is a routine daily sight.
It’s child labour, there’s no doubt about that. In an ideal world, these kids would be in school rather than working. But it’s also the only way that a lot of Honduran families can make it through the year. For mothers with small children, taking their kids along for a day of picking coffee is often the only option if they don’t have anyone to look after the child while they work.
For these families, the well-intentioned fair trade prohibition against child labour looks very much like a threat, a risk to their livelihoods. If all the growers in Honduras actually stopped using child labour, the result would be disastrous for so many people. From a Honduran perspective, prohibiting child labour actually increases the risks for children.
Nor is the certification process easy, or cheap. Some of the small co-operatives have figured things out, but it would be difficult if not impossible for a small independent producer to get certified.
And yes, fair-trade beans fetch a higher price on the market for producers. But meeting the requirements for fair-trade or organic designation also means higher costs. Last year, a local fair-trade-certified coffee co-operative here in Copan also learned the hard way that buyers sometimes just declare they've got enough fair-trade product for now, leaving producers to sell on the regular market regardless of the extra time, work and money they've put in as certified growers.
What’s an ethically aware coffee drinker to do? I’d suggest buying from a local coffee-roasting company that purchases directly from growers in under-developed countries. I went along on a coffee tour earlier this year with an Australian couple who own Jasper Coffee in Melbourne, and I was really impressed at how much support they give the Copan producers who they've been buying from, and how much interest they take in their lives. That’s the kind of coffee company I’d like to support. (In Victoria, Level Ground looks like it might have those kinds of relationships.)
And please, continue appreciating the principles of fair trade, and the good work that the movement has done in under-developed countries. It’s just that like everything else in this world, doing the right thing is more complicated than just buying into a brand. 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Water's Edge: A short video of the beautiful Moskitia

    First morning back in Copan Ruinas after more than 2 weeks in the Moskitia. I'm happy to be home, but going through the 44 gigabytes of video footage I brought back from the region has certainly reminded me of how lucky I've been to be able to explore this gorgeous part of Honduras.
    I'll be making at least three short videos from the trip - one that highlights the projects in the region of my organization, the Comision de Accion Social Menonita, a second that ties into another CASM project to try to attract tourists and investors to the area, and this 5-minute glimpse of the region that I made this morning to share with my readers and Facebook friends. Hope it whets your appetite for more, because underneath all that astounding beauty there are a lot of problems that the region needs help with.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

A wondrous place, a fragile future

Sunrise at Palacios
This place, this place. With each passing day I am astonished by its beauty a little more, and a little more worried for its future. What will ever become of the fabulous and vulnerable Moskitia?
    In another life, the Moskitia would be a world-renowned destination sought out by adventure travellers who crave that thing that’s so hard to find in this modern world of ours: An authentic experience. Whether the travel fantasy is vast stretches of empty Caribbean beaches, thriving indigenous cultures, or a world of lagoons, rivers and wildlife to explore, the Moskitia delivers. Monkeys, toucans, orchids, herons, fish dinners straight from the sea – all here.
    But this is not another life. And the overwhelming presence of narco-trafico in the region – while not nearly the danger to tourists that it is to those working directly in the business – pretty much guarantees that the Moskitia isn’t going to be seeing a lot of new travellers any time soon.
    The people who live in the Moskitia would love to see more tourists passing through. Jobs are hard to come by in this isolated and neglected region, and tourists boost the local economy in all kinds of ways – from the tours they take to the food they eat, the gas that powers their boats, the hospedajes and lodges they stay at while here, and the places they pass through on their way into the Moskitia.
    But the tiny toehold that the industry was just starting to get eight or nine years ago has ground to a halt under the weight of the 2009 coup in Honduras, a struggling global economy, increasingly dire travel warnings from the U.S., and the growing presence of serious-looking armed men in the cocaine business who don’t take kindly to outsiders.
    The Moskitia has always been a place for pirates. The state of Gracias a Dios, which encompasses the Moskitia, was practically made for illegal activity with its 16,600 square kilometres of waterways, hidey-holes and deep jungle. But cocaine trafficking is not just a few bad guys in eye patches stashing plundered booty, it’s a multi-million-dollar international business that is deeply integrated into life, government and policing systems in Central America.
Gulls and terns gather at the sandbar near Brus Laguna
    I visited Brus Laguna yesterday with my work mates, taking photos and videos for what is intended to be a promotional video that will spur tourism and investment in the Moskitia. Unfortunately, almost everyone we talked to in the little town was glum and worried, brought down by two murders this week, the murder of a couple and their young child a couple of weeks ago, and a rather horrendous shoot-em-up between rival drug traffickers a month or so ago that left 13 dead.
    Nobody’s killing tourists, of course. But that’s of little comfort to tour operators who are understandably nervous about bringing people into a situation that is well beyond their control. (Truthfully, well beyond anyone’s control.) One woman who was organizing tours in the region as part of a small Miskito collective cited two incidents last year that convinced the 11 families who had formed the collective to just pack it in.
    In the first incident, one of the small planes that brings the cocaine into Honduras from Colombia landed very close to where a group of travellers was staying. Nothing happened, but several of the travellers were very curious about the late-night landing and the small specks of light that appeared in the area after the plane came in.
    In the second incident, a tour guide was leading travellers through the jungle when suddenly a group of heavily armed men passed by. Pressed to come up with a quick answer as to who the armed men were, the tour guide told the group the men were guardabosques – forest conservation officers.
    That got everybody through a difficult moment. But fearing for the safety of future tour participants and of those working with the tour group - who would ultimately be blamed by those AK-47-toting “conservation officers” for bringing outsiders into the territory - the collective shut the tours down this year.
Miskito fishermen salt the day's catch, Brus Laguna
    My own travels here have been unadventurous, but for the countless sightings of super-powered boats carrying armed men zipping through the waterways of the Moskitia. But I have the benefit of being with my co-workers - all Hondurans and known in the area as staff of the Comision de Accion Social Menonita.
    My co-workers tell me if and when it’s safe to take photos and videos when we’re out and about, and I do what they say. I don’t scare easily, but even I don’t think a fair-skinned stranger toting a camera and stumbling solo into a place like Brus Laguna would be a good idea right now.
     The locals have been living with narco-trafico for many years now in the Moskitia, and they’ve all learned how to pretend not to see it, how to adjust their daily routines to avoid the dangerous hours of commerce and the high-risk areas.
    But how can you tell a tourist not to take photos because they could be putting their own lives or those of others at risk? How do you ensure they don’t wander into a situation that they’d be well-advised not to wander into? How do you keep everybody calm when – unlike the locals - they’re not at all used to the sight of armed and largely unfriendly men, or even the balaclava-wearing military doing boat patrols? And how does one convey to the narco-traficantes that this is just a garden-variety traveller wandering by, not an undercover DEA agent looking for trouble?

    Well, you can’t. That’s the essence of the problem in the Moskitia. So much beauty, so much potential risk. Now the Honduran government has signed an agreement with a British company to allow massive oil exploration in the region - a cause for concern in any fragile environment, but especially worrying in an ungovernable area under the management of a government that doesn't care to manage anything at the best of times. 
    I hope a day is coming when the people of this amazing region can put all of their troubles behind them and welcome the world. But at the moment, that day seems a very long way off.   

Sunday, October 13, 2013

When cocaine is all there is

   Drugs are on my mind, as they often are these days. South American cocaine, to be more specific, 800 tons of which are reportedly moved north every year to eager markets in the U.S. and Canada. And the majority of it passes right through this region where I’m working at the moment - the Moskitia.
   Just before I left Copan Ruinas to come down here, I was telling an American friend about how I loved coming to this gorgeous place but at the same time always felt a bit on edge because of the enormous presence of The Business, as I've come to think of it. She was astounded that such a thing could be going on in plain sight without the military and Drug Enforcement Agency being all over it.
   But of course, that’s the thing about The Business in a country like Honduras (or anywhere, for that matter): It’s complicated.
   One of my co-workers here in the Moskitia was complaining this week about the tendency among people in the scattered, isolated villages around here to view the industry as an employer rather than a scourge.
   But in truth, it IS an employer, in a region that has damn few. It’s also a customer for the handful of hotel and restaurant services eaking out a meager existence, and probably even an emergency lender at the neighbourhood level for families in a jam.
   The Business owns real estate, legitimate businesses, tourist attractions, gas stations. When the notorious Los Cachiros cartel was busted last month, people in the cartel’s home town of Tocoa protested over the jobs that would be lost if authorities shut down the cartel’s many businesses, which include a very popular private zoo.
   Here in the Moskitia, who can blame anyone for getting in on some of the thriving business going on right in the ‘hood? The people are completely on their own here, ignored by their government and largely shunned by development organizations. They've got no electricity, no infrastructure, no money that would let them leave and no jobs that would help them stay. 
   If you were sitting in your crappy shack with your kids getting eaten alive by mosquitoes coming in through the holes where the windows would go if you had the money to buy any, what would you do? Those of us from drug-consuming countries like to frame the selling of drugs as a values issue, but it’s just another way to make a living in a place like this.
   A dangerous way to make a living, mind you: Narco-traficantes have a way of settling scores that leave women, children and countless young men dead, as two recent incidents in the Moskitia proved yet again. It’s a business with a terrible penchant for violence. The presence of the industry in Honduras is not benign, but I suspect it’s too well-integrated and perhaps even too essential to the country’s economy - and certainly to the economy of the Moskitia - for anyone to put a stop to it.
     Whatever the solution, it won’t involve sending armed troops into this fragile region to do battle with the “bad guys.” I don’t know if the lines were ever clear, but they certainly aren't anymore. 

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

If you can't bend, you'll snap

“Flexible and adaptable” is more or less the mantra for a Cuso International volunteer. My experiences yesterday brought that home to me yet again, for about the 254th time.
    For reasons that I think have to do with building relationship, it has taken a very long time for the other regions of the organization I’m working for – the Comision de Accion Social Menonita (CASM) - to call on me for help with various communications issues. It seems that because the practice here is to hire people who you already know, or who someone else in the organization knows, it takes a long time for people to warm up to some random stranger who drops into the country with big ideas about how communications can be improved.
    At any rate, the regions didn't really start seeking me out until I’d been here for more than a year, and even then only when I showed up at some big CASM event and they could talk to me face to face. (That’s another thing I've learned: There’s a strong cultural preference for face-to-face communications regardless of how much access a person might have to technologies like Facebook and email – or even phone calls.) Paul and I have also been putting up our own money to be able to travel to the different regions and do work for other CASM offices, and at this point I've done five such visits.
    So by the time of the annual CASM retreat late last month, I was fairly well-known among the regions and newly popular because I’d made a 10-minute video for the Copan office. All 7 regions are hot for a video, which meant I’d soon gathered quite a crowd of CASM staffers around me asking when I could come to their region to do the same.
    The most urgent request was from CASM Colon, which works in the magnificent, isolated and challenging Moskitia region on the Caribbean coast. That team has some major communication needs coming up before the end of the year, and they urged me to come as soon as I could. I’m very fond of the region and the team, all of whom are the kind of passionate, enthusiastic, slightly crazy people you might expect to work in a difficult area like the Moskitia.
    I arranged to come for a week. I had other projects going on in Copan and one coming up in San Pedro Sula, so I had to do a fair bit of organization to get everything in line. I left Copan this past Sunday for the 9-hour bus ride to Tocoa, and lugged my backpack into the Colon office bright and early yesterday presuming that we’d be leaving first thing for the Moskitia, as it takes another 4 or 5 hours to get there.
    I knew it was going to be one of those “flexible and adaptable” days when I discovered upon arriving at the office that the co-worker who was to take me into the Moskitia was, in fact, still in the Moskitia. Nobody knew when he was returning. Nobody knew the plan, or even if there was one. I tried to phone him but couldn't get through, so eventually I just settled into other work and waited to see what would happen next.
    Mario arrived around 11 a.m. and said we’d be leaving for the Moskitia the next day. We agreed to meet at 1 p.m. to talk about the plan. I carried on with my work – the good thing about communications is that all the tools and work are right there inside your laptop – and practised my newly honed skills in patience and managing expectations.
     Of course, the meeting didn’t happen at 1 p.m., but sometime around 3 p.m. Mario and I got together and I learned that the expectation wasn’t that I’d stay for a one week, but two. Two and a half, really, by the time I got back to Tocoa and eventually, Copan.
    I hadn't packed or prepared for that much time away, or organized my life back home for a long absence. But what can you do? I learned some time ago that throwing tempestuous little fits about not being informed about anything gets you absolutely nowhere here. I could have stomped out and caught the first bus back to Copan, but that would have meant leaving the CASM team in the lurch when they really needed me – and after months and months of effort to convince them that they needed me.
    And in truth, Mario wasn't treating me any differently than any other member of the team by springing that surprise news on me. The crazy lack of planning, organization and keeping people in the loop is just how they do things here. “Flexible and adaptable,” I muttered to myself, then smiled at Mario and said, “Sure!”
    So here I go, off to the Moskitia. We’re actually leaving tomorrow now, the date having been rejigged to accommodate other work the office needed from me before I leave. Part of me is still a little ruffled about the whole thing, but another part is excited to have such a grand opportunity to explore a part of the country that even most Hondurans never get to see. This will be my third trip into the Moskitia this year, and the most extensive one in terms of the travel – all by boat – we’ll be doing while there.
    If you’re someone who likes to know the plan ahead of time, forget this work. I've always thought of myself as someone who goes with the flow, but my Honduran experiences have tested me time and again. and revealed to me just how much I appreciate an organized, thoughtful and well-planned approach to work projects.
     But I figure that years from now, what I’ll remember from this time will be the adventures in the Moskitia, not how Mario just presumed I could adjust my schedule on a dime to adapt to his plans. Onward into the endlessly surprising future, flexible and adaptable all the way. 

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

A dog's life in Copan: Would they have it any other way?

Beagley, probably my favourite (but don't tell the others)
I grow fonder of free-range dog culture with each passing day. Dogs are so much more civilized and resourceful than I would have expected when left to their own devices, and I love seeing how they organize their world when it's all up to them. 
    Whether stray or owned, the majority of Copan Ruinas dogs roam the streets as free agents. Unlike the highly regulated dog environment of Victoria, these dogs live largely without human interference. There is no dog catcher, no local SPCA, no enforcement of things like leash use, park access, poo pickup and random canine wandering. It's a dog's world down here.
    They organize their territories through rules I can't decipher, but which have the effect of keeping fights to a minimum. They are never aggressive to humans, even though some have every right to be given how they're treated. Some travel great distances in their daily rounds. Others stick quite close to home, whether that’s a real home or just the neighbourhood a particular dog frequents.
    Having served up a whole lot of dog food and ear scratches to a parade of canine passers-by since we arrived here, I've gotten to know something about them. It seems to me that the majority love their freedom. But they also crave affection from people, not to mention rely on them for food. Perhaps that’s why they’re the coolest dogs I've ever met – independent by necessity but at the same time sweet and friendly. Food brings them running in a heartbeat, but even the skinniest ones will pause in their eating to relish the feeling of someone reaching down to pet them. 
    I could tell you a couple of dozen sad stories by now of bad things that happen to dogs here,
Crazy Pup in her favourite hidey-hole under our bed
including the municipality’s quiet poisoning of dogs in the town centre. Last week I lifted a heavy chain from the neck of a sick, scabby little dog that had miraculously managed to escape imminent death tied up and forgotten somewhere without food or water, and thought again of how unbelievably cruel life can be for dogs here.
    But I suppose that’s the price of freedom. The dogs of Victoria lead such well-fed, comfortable lives by comparison. But they can’t wander downtown and scrounge chicken bones from a tourist. They can’t squeeze under a barbed-wire fence and chase cows. Having your own big bed and steady food source inside a nice Oak Bay house is one way to live, but Copan dogs know the pleasure of another way.
    As I write this, the neighbour’s small dog – pregnant with her second litter this year – is lying at one end of the kitchen table. At the other is a charming street dog we call Beagley. She has just arrived home with a big cut across her nose, perhaps from barbed wire. (A woman who I talk dogs with mentioned the other day how great it would be to mount a web cam on Copan dogs and unravel some of the mysteries of their adventurous lives.)
A stormy night brings 3 indoors.
    Beagley and the pregnant Coquetta are regulars, but at least another 3 or 4 dogs come by our place every day for food. Most have owners, but few seem to get enough to eat (or drink) regardless. We lost two regulars in the latest round of municipal poisonings, in which poisoned meat and milk are set out in the early-morning hours to claim the life of any dog that happens by.
   There’s something sad in how excited the local dogs get at the prospect of dog food and a bowl of water, but I love that they come around. My father always used to say that he’d never met a dog he didn't like, and I’m the same way. I found it odd during our holiday back to Canada last month when I could no longer pet passing dogs; their owners would inevitably yard them away from me with a firm pull on the leash. But there’s no denying that the dogs back home looked way healthier than any Honduran dog.
     Our visitors are going through about 25 pounds of dog food every month now, and some get flea treatments, worm medications, and even temporary birth control (an injection twice a year) if they've really worked their way into our lives. It’s not cheap on a volunteer stipend, but it’s worth it for all the lovely new friends.
    At times Paul and I talk about bringing one of the dogs back to Canada with us. I bet Beagley would love her own dog bed, not to mention biscuits and a greatly reduced chance of getting pregnant. But I've also seen her roaming happily around Copan’s downtown park, clawing bits of food waste out of garbage cans and hanging out with her many friends. I know how she loves her nights on the town, and visiting the houses of all the other gringas who she has charmed.
    Would Beagley willingly give up freedom for certainty? I just don’t know.