I've always dreamed of experiencing international cooperation, meeting with South American men and women, and I was curious about their environment and their way of doing things. And then in April, the Société de coopération pour le développement international, the network of cooperatives for development – leverage for economic and social development, asked me to lead two training workshops on corporate governance for coffee and cacao producers in Tingo Maria and in San Juan del Oro, Peru. I hit the jackpot! I prepared my presentation and a few exercises, gathered together relevant documents and off I was on an amazing adventure.
From Lima, the country’s capital, we drive 11 hours to reach the Tingo Maria cooperative. We must cross the Andes up to an altitude of 4,800 metres, then head back down to the jungle. At 3,000 metres, I must deal with sorroche, altitude sickness. I am short of breath. I am nauseous. It’s cold and the soil seems barren. A handful of people with leathered skin live in these high grounds, amongst dispersed alpacas, battling the mountainside for meagre crops of potatoes. But the mountains. These majestic mountains, some are green, some brown, red, grey and white. Nature reigns supreme atop the mountains, which are as beautiful as they are merciless. I fight relentlessly against sorroche and try not to miss a single second of this awe inspiring landscape as it unfolds before me. It requires all my energy. I take refuge within myself. Leave me alone! The altitude affects my social skills, sorry!
A few hours later, on the other side of the Andes, we begin our downward journey and life begins again. Villages are more populated and increasingly active, vegetation spreads across the land. It’s easier to breathe. I can speak again. We’re approaching the jungle. The Amazon. Dense, damp and alive with sound. The producers I am to meet in Tingo Maria are coffee farmers with parcels of land at more than 800 metres in altitude while cacao farmers are below the
800 metre mark. Their cooperative has chosen to espouse international certifications for fair trade and organic products, which will improve their financial situation. It is undoubtedly working. The cooperative developed strong export markets and continues to expand.
Back in Lima, we begin the second portion of our mission. First, we must fly to Juliaca, located along lake Titicaca. Once again we are at high altitude, 4,000 metres. But this time we must spend the night. A sleepless one at that. The next day we are on the road to San Juan del Oro. I must be dreaming. I feel like Kathleen Turner in the movie Romancing the Stone. The road is mud-filled, a series of bumps, rocks and holes where there is barely enough room for oncoming vehicles. It feels like a bizarre obstacle run. I am overwhelmed. It will be 13 hours before we cross the 309 kilometres that will lead us to San Juan del Oro. Think about it: we complain about the state of our roads in Quebec, yet we have no idea.
We are housed in premises that belong to the cooperative. There is no electricity from 10 pm to 10 am. No hot water either. This expedition should definitely fulfill my craving for adventure. Since I am only here for a short time, I am already thinking of how much fun it will be to recount my exploits and share my pictures! But what will certainly linger in my mind as a moving experience is the daily harshness of life for our hosts. We are told that some producers must travel several kilometres, their load of coffee on their back, to deliver it to the cooperative since there are no roads leading to their land. They used to deliver their coffee on the backs of mules, but buyers complained. “We don’t want coffee that smells of mule!” they said. Unbelievable. Yet, the coffee produced in the areas surrounding San Juan del Oro is an altitude cultivated coffee of superior quality, I am told.
Once home, I review my trip and come to a few conclusions. When food products cannot be produced locally, it is well worth it to encourage fair trade and enable producers from poor countries to get their fair share. They need it. Another thing: cooperators operating in developing countries, regardless of what we may sometimes think, do not have an easy time of it. I applaud them. And I raise my glass of pisco for a toast. Salud!