Continuing challenges in coffee from a Peace Corp worker in the DR

Here is an inspiring communication from a Peace Corps Volunteer working in the mountains of The Dominican Republic. He contacted me a couple of months ago looking for advice on how to bring the coops coffee to market. I put him in touch with friends of mine who have been through the same coffee/Peace Corps experience so that he could get the best of their experience. This communication is between he (Charles) and Chris who did his Peace Corps work in Nicaragua. If you want a first hand report from the mountains of the DR in real time, a report with real facts and real frustrations and real commitment and a read that will expose you to a world both harsh and beautiful, read this young man’s words and if you are so moved, send him a word or two of support. It is young men like him who represent American ideals best. charlie.seltzer@gmail.com.

– pk

DR from peace corp Charlie.jpg

“I am 17 months into my Peace Corps service and helping a coffee cooperative in the Southern, Dominican Republic. The
cooperative is located in a rural mountainous municipality, Peralta, of roughly 15,000 that are dispersed in 7 communities. Coffee, like many mountainous communities in the Dominican Republic, is the most important aspect for the economy and environment in Peralta; more than 2,000 families depend on coffee for their income. As the case
throughout the coffee producing world, poverty is high amongst coffee growers; a survey done by the Dominican Council of Coffee (CODOCAFE) revealed that 9/10 coffee producers live in poverty in the province of Azua (where my community is).

To improve this situation, CODOCAFE has a project (PROCA´2) (that will end this December) to improve coffee growers standard of living by increasing the quality and competiveness of Dominican coffee. The project has several specific objectives but the underlining one is to have coffee producing organizations (OPCs) throughout the country that are able to support small scale growers so that coffee is profitable and sustainable. The project facilitates the organizations get new plants, credit (maintenance, rehabilitation, harvest), extension services, infrastructure improvements, repair roads, diversification, and promotion of the high quality coffee. Unfortunately, this project will end because it has helped the OPCs a lot and before they didn’t have these opportunities.

The cooperative that I am working with, San Rafael Inc., serves the small and medium sized farmers and offers extension services, credit (very small amount), mutual service (they help out with funerals), and commercialize the coffee. However, it is not necessary to be a member in order for the cooperative to purchase your coffee. The cooperative has roughly 200 members but only 100 or so are active (pay the monthly quota) and about 70-80 participate in the monthly assembly. The cooperative has many problems but the lack of trust, organization, and a vision have impeded the cooperative’s (community’s) development. The cooperative is the only community organization that offers these services but they have struggled to gain the trust of the rest of the community and educate the importance of being organized.

My objectives with the cooperative are very broad and vague. Unfortunately, my work has not been the most efficient but that is the way work is in the Dominican Republic because of the lack of organization and stability. After doing a needs assessment, understanding the circumstances more and talking to lots of people we have determined that the main problems for the coffee are age of trees, age of producers, harvesting without defined criteria, and market and credit access I have been supporting the CODOCAFE with the PROCA´2 project. What I have been working on is:

1. Organic transformation. We applied and received a working capital
grant to transform and certify farms. Hopefully by next winter, the
2010-11 harvest, we will have organically certified coffee to
distribute.

2. Nursery. A fundamental problem is the age of the trees and the
producers have to travel roughly two hours to purchase plants (very
few, if any, have nurseries on their farms). The cooperative is
establishing a nursery of coffee (tipcio y caturra, dos variedades de
Arabica), avocado, lemon, and maderables in the community. This will
definitely help the production of plants, but it still will be
difficult to plant the trees because the nursery is still far from
most of the farms.

3. Youth. The average age of a coffee grower in the Dominican
Republic is 55 years old and the youth are very detached from the
coffee production. To address this we are now training the youth in
organic coffee practices and cooperative management. If the youth
have interest, through CODCAFE, we will offer them credit, plants, and
extension services.

4. Diversification. Due to the decline in coffee profitability and
potential to harvest other products, there is a lot of interest in
diversification. The community wants to diversify with citrus,
avocado, zapote (a local exotic fruit) and macadamia nut. The problem
with diversifying with avocado is the area is very vulnerable to a
particular plague they haven’t efficiently developed a system to treat
them yet (avocados are still very new in the Dominican Republic,
especially in my community). Other problems with the avocado are the
lack of road access, the knowledge of the necessary technology, and a
very crowded market. More challenges for diversification are the lack
of infrastructure and the high altitude. After speaking with
agronomists and an organic fruit broker, the best strategy for
diversification would be getting organically certified lemons, they
grow well and the organic market is not very crowded. However, no
feasibility study has been done yet, which is a SERIOUS problem for
the coffee growers: the lack of relevant information.

5. Institutional Strengthening. All of the other issues would be
easier to be addressed if there was a strong institution, and we are
trying to create a well-managed cooperative. It is difficult because
they do not have the practice or much interest in receiving management
training. Also, the cooperative struggles with corruption and lack of
transparency, although unintentional much of the time. .
Unfortunately the cooperative does not think that their struggles are
attributed to internal problems; they believe they only need more
grant money. I assume weak producer organizations are a problem
across the coffee producing world.

I do not have an agriculture background and this is my first job out of undergrad, so I am learning as I go. Although very unorganized and our results have come slowly, it has been an amazing experience working with small scale coffee producers and I am very excited to continue to learn more. I have talked to my director about extending for another year and he has given me the green light, but we will wait and see.

Besides the coffee, I am working with the youth groups and the public schools about HIV/AIDS, unwanted pregnancy prevention, and environmental education. These activities have been a lot of fun and I would like to see if we could include the cooperative more.

You asked about finding a balance in my experience and that has been my biggest challenge. These communities need so much help in so many areas and it is so hard to neglect them. I feel guilty not supporting the public education or youth of my community but it comes to a point where it can be overwhelming trying to find a balance between project,
learning Spanish, self-growth/discovery, and maintaining and building relationships.

Anyway, thank you very much for your email. I have read “Confronting the Coffee Crisis” and found it very inspirational and helpful for my project, especially the section about Community Agroecology Network. I would love to learn more about your recent projects, especially in the area of research. What are you all working on now?

As I mentioned earlier, I do not have an agriculture background, so all this stuff is new to me. Do you have any suggestions about starting organic transformation projects? What are some successful examples in other countries? The problem with the projects in the DR is that they all have been started by donations and they are not very well managed. What are your recommendations for increasing consumer awareness of our coffee in the USA? I am thinking of contacting the fair-trade student organizations on university campuses?

Thanks a lot for your email and I hope we can stay in-touch.

Best regards,

Charlie

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