Thursday, August 15, 2013

Bananas and Chocolate...Ecuadorian Style

One of the basic premises of Heifer International is that of "passing on the gift". In the case of livestock that is the simple matter of gifting the first offspring of your cow or chickens to someone else so that more can benefit. On this study trip we have seen the concept expanded to include the funding of co-ops and creation of "seed money" to start and expand farming practices to become better adapted for the world markets today.

Wednesday we travelled high into the cloud forest of Ecuador to visit a small town engaged in banana and cacao production. The local farm association met with us to present to us what they had done and their goals.

The farm that we visited was high on a hill, up a steep slippery muddy trail, that led to the family home and banana processing location. There were also a motley group of barking dogs... The farm contained both cacao and bananas inter grown with other... However the primary crop was bananas.

Interest rates, for farm expansion, are very high for farmers... And Heifer offered a bargain rate with 9% interest, a 9 month free period, and a 9 month repayment time. The farmer we visited had taken a loan to purchase chickens, to develop an irrigation system for banana production, and to receive training on production of organic bananas and how to grow "fair trade" fruit acceptable for the world market. He was also able to sell eggs locally, and to grow and sell baby chicks. The interest on the loan will be available to provide loans to others... And this is the form of passing on the gift to others.

We learned a great deal about the processing of bananas prior to foreign export. Unless the fruits in a certain level of unripeness... The fruit is not suitable for shipping. Once ripening has begun the fruit would be over ripe upon delivery to the U. S. or to Europe. Sample bananas from each bunch are examined to assess suitability. If free of flaws, the large stalk of bananas is cut into small groups of fruit, washed, dried, and packed into Inspection continues at points along the shipping sequence and inferior fruit will be rejected.

Cacao farming in the location is not yet highly developed. The Large pods grow from the trunk of the small trees. When they become red in color, the fruit is ripe and the seeds can be harvested. The large seeds are removed and spread on an open air cement surface to dry. This process requires constant stirring. Once dry the seeds can be slowly roasted to prepare the raw material for the making of chocolate. The women in this village are developing a cottage industry of making chocolate candy with a wonderful intense chocolate flavor. In addition they are developing a line of banana and various fruits slow cooked to make a product akin to apple butter... The favors are wonderful and quite unique.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Artisanal fishermen

Artisanal fishermen must go out in their boats every day to catch fish which they sell to "intermediaries" (middle men) and must accept what ever price is offered.There are 5000 families dependent on this type of fishing in the coastal town we visited today. Heifer project is assisting the fishermen to form co-ops that permit the fishermen to combine their daily catches and to be in a better bargaining position when they sell.
The coop group shares a pier surrounded by the homes of the fishermen. We divided into small groups of 3-5 and each group went out today with a fisherman. One member of each group could translate for the others, the boats are open fiberglas boats about 4-5 meters in length, and about 1.5 m wide. They are powered by an outboard motor. The fisherman has one helper, and once we reach the fishing location he lets out 1000 meters of fishing net. The net appears to be about 2 meters wide. After a 15 minute wait -we travel back to the start of the net and pull it in, removing fish as they go. On a good day they can expect to catch 500 pounds. Today it was misty, and fish tend to be inactive on rainy days. The work is very hard, and the fish piled up more slowly today.
There are many problems with fishing in this manner. Large commercial fishing boats come into a harbor and remove a huge volume of fish all at once. The official fishermen's association is powerless in dealing with the law breakers because of kickbacks and bribes. Some fisherman become so indebted to the "intermediaries" that they dare not join the coop for fear of having their debt called in. Still and all the best chance to develop a voice is through working together through the co op. Frequently women are involved in leadership roles in the coops. Women also hunt for and sell conchs that they finds the mangroves that grow beside the sea. Both conch meat and the shells are sold through the coop.
In addition uncontrolled fishing, especially by commercial boats, is damaging the sustainability of fishing In this area. The government Has established laws, but the "big boats" pay the fines and continue their practices.  The fishermen we spoke to felt a strong need for policies to protect undersize fish that commercial boats simply destroy.  Commercial fisherman are required to stay outside an 8 mile limit...and this to is disregarded.

The treat of the day came at lunch when we pulled to the shore and the fisherman set up a charcoal burner and lit it. We pealed and cut up green bananas for frying, he cleaned and filleted fish, made a delicious tomato, raw onion, and lime salad...and we cooked and ate the freshest most wonderful fish dinner that you can imagine!
When we returned to shore the fishermen's wives had prepared an incredible fish stew with tropical root vegetables. We each got a large bowl - so tasty!
The families we saw today are rich in relationships with family and friends...They work hard...and are subject to the whims of the market and the middlemen who control prices...but thanks to Heifer they have a new voice through their co op organizations,

Heifer Project I

When you think of Heifer Project you may think of the catalogue you get in the mail every's your opportunity to donate pigs, heifer cows, chickens and ducks to help change the lives of poor farmers worldwide. For the rest of this week we will be visiting Heifer project sites to learn first hand by observing projects supported by Heifer. For over 65 years the focus of the work by Heifer project has been to improve food security for hungry families. In addition having animals generates disposable income that can support education and medical care of family members. Some families generate income to improve their homes with a waterproof roof or a cement floor.

Heifer continues to support these goals that have benefitted so many...but in addition Heifer has grown in its awareness of other community wide needs that need to be addressed. It is as though Heifer continues to mature and seek to provide better support to groups seeking to have a better life as the economic systems of the world become ever more complex.

Development of co-operative marketing systems empower local farmers, fisherman, and herdsmen to speak with a stronger economic voice and to receive a more just profit from their work. Often the awareness of new systems is already in place...and all that is needed is guidance and support to make the new system a reality.

There is a wide gap in Ecuador between the 5% upper financial class and the large group living in poverty. (The urban rich have 177x more income that the 80% of the population that falls into the rural poor group. There are also differences in availability of benefits to the poor in urban and rural settings. . There are some government programs designed to help everyone - for example bottled propane gas is available to all at a highly subsidized price. The price of gasoline is subsidized at a bargain price. But the root causes of poverty has not been resolved.

Ecuador has within its borders vast oil riches and minerals...unfortunately these riches are often below rain forest. The rain forest benefits all mankind as a gas exchange mechanism, but no countries are coming forward to buy the forest at a rate equal to the wealth underground. The current government has the attitude that as long as one child must live in poverty or go without education or food,the priority is to sell the oil and minerals ...and forget the rainforest..this is one of the great conundrums facing Ecuador. They overlook that the rainforest is a non renewable resource ...and once gone from the is gone...

The current government had a 90 % approval rating in the last they are in a position to develop policies as they see most benefiting the people.

There is also a conflict of interests between family farms and the displacement of camposinos that occurs when large "factory farms" are created.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Independence Day in Quito

The 10th of August is a big deal in Ecuador! It marks the first attempt by the Peruvian people to establish a free and independent nation (1810) from Spain. Sadly the first attempt failed.

This afternoon and evening the streets were packed with strolling pedestrians, a sound stage with amplified sound (the sound overs at least a 3 block radius) had been constructed in most plazas. The street-food salespeople are offering a myriad of choices, but ice cream is the clear favorite. There is a real carnival atmosphere this evening. Later tonight we can expect competing fireworks exhibitions from various locations in the city. We are curious about the large police presence in the streets. Early this morning we sat in a plaza listening to a patriotic concert when a large contingency of young communists entered the plaza carrying red flags with sickle and hammer. They placed 2 large floral wreaths beside a commemorative statue and did what they could to interrupt the music...then they left to take their message elsewhere.So apparently there are some political issues under the surface. Most were very young and appeared to be more interested in causing a commotion than by real political interests. There are however strong reactions to foreign imperialists who seek to take their countries weath (forest products,oil, and minerals).

Judy and I have a rule when we visit a new city. We need at least 3 days to develop a sense of the city. It takes that long to build an internal map of the place in my brain, to figure out the tram system, and to feel comfortable with the money system.

Quito is a large city ...and we have only seen a fraction. But the people that we encounter are friendly and eager to help. If I ask strangers for directions they go out of the way to give us what we need Some are curious to know where we are from and how we like Ecuador. My Spanish is far from fluent -but I am pleased that I can generally communicate what I intend to say...and sometimes my grammar is correct!

Like the cities of Eastern Europe here we often find large rather plain looking wooden doors that open to the street... But inside we discover a fine patio with access to a collection of shops, offices, and residences... All using the same entrance to the street. It makes exploring the city full of surprises as we fall into unexpected locations... People here seem to value education as a way to improve their lives and the lives of their kids. Overall, the standard of living for most people here is quite good. We also notice that prices are often on par with US prices. Economists would call this a developing nation, not a third world nation.