Thursday, January 27, 2011

USA - New Blog Post Guidelines

by Andy


1. If the country name does not appear in the title, then write the country as the first word followed by a dash and your actual title. That way a person who would like to follow just the Guatemala, Ecuador or the Honduras trip can focus on the relevant entries. Also on the display on the side it lists the entries from the month, and a person can click directly to them, instead of scrolling down.

2. Identify yourself in the first line of text. First names are all that is necessary. This is helpful because we have multiple authors.

3. Photos only is fine too! Do no feel like you need to write anything if you just want to post photos and captions.

4. You can link to YouTube videos and other sites from the blog. Please feel free to link to other sites that are relevant to your photos or stories.

5. If you are posting from your hotel and are still on the trip, identify that by using the word "HOT" in the title. This will separate out the retrospective posts from the in situ posts.

This blog is really fun and I have been having a ball looking back at my photos and reminiscing. I really encourage everyone who went (is currently) on a Farmer to Farmer trip to post photos and stories. Last night I got to see some of the photos from the Guat trip and I was left wanting more.With multiple trips happening at about the same time of the year, we needed some guidelines for posting for clarity's sake. If you have other suggestions for guidelines, please post them as a comment.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

HONDURAS - Farmer Profile – Don Chico

Organic microbial fermentation fertilizer at Don Chico's farm

 Don Chico's home coffee plantation. Note that he has planted the coffee under pine trees, which is unusual for the area - mostly the pine is cut down and replaced with other shade trees

Don Chico's Front yard, complete with the Caja Rural's wooden shack, Don Chico's coffee-drying hoophouse, the Caja's truck, and Hector's truck with our backpacks

Don Chico (yellow shirt), daughter (to his right), wife (to his left), and grandkids and friend

Don Chico and Family

Don Chico's grandson posing for us in front of the house

The Caja Rural's Store

Don Chico posing for us in his coffee plantation

Coffee with Shade trees

The Caja Rural's meeting notes.

by Andy

During our recent trip to Honduras (Dec 31st to Jan 14th). We first met Don Chico (Francisco Alvarado) in Comayagua at Adalid’s house. He had come by to check on a coffee de-pulping machine that Adalid was fixing for him and we were there planning the backpacking trip to the cloud forest. Adalid introduced us because Don Chico is in the coffee co-op, and I started to tell him all about Farmer to Farmer. After a little bit, I figured out that he was in a hurry and we decided to wait for the whole story. Even through my cultural barrier, I could tell that he was a man on a mission. Later, when we stayed at his house, we discovered that this is his constant state. He is into everything and moving forward on all fronts.

This year, during our visit to Honduras I was determined that we would visit the community of El Sute, where some of our coffee came from last year. Last year when we came, several farmers from El Sute had walked 2 hours to join the meeting we had with farmers from El Tamarindo. So this year we decided to go the extra distance to see their farms firsthand. To get to El Sute, we took the road from Comayagua for about an hour of bumpy dirt roads all the way to El Tamarindo, then we continued on a new road for another 45 minutes through pine forests climbing up and up all the way to the communities of El Horno and El Sute. We had climbed a total of over 3000 feet from Comayagua and now at every turn we had a fantastic vista. When we got to El Sute, we stopped at the first house along the road and we were instantly greeted by Don Chico. We did not know it yet, but for the next 24 hours we would be under the spell of his frenetic hospitality.

Instantly we were brought up to see the compost piles. They had been working with the culture and growth of microorganisms to fertilize the coffee plantation and he was eager to show the results. Along with Zac and I, we also had Hector (an agronomist) and Adalid (the president of the co-op), and Don Chico was checking to see if he was doing it right. They talked about the finer points of organic fertilizer and then we went to see the hoophouse where they dry the coffee beans. Eventually we ended up in a wooden shack in his front yard, where we drank coffee and waited for the other farmers from El Sute to show up for a meeting with us of the co-op members.

Here in the shack we came to appreciate some things that make El Sute different from the other communities we have visited on the mountain. There was a blackboard on the end wall with the proceedings from a meeting of the “Caja Rural” of El Sute. The Caja is a mutual lending group, where the members each make an initial investment to build up capital. Then the members in the Caja use the capital to make loans and investments within the community. This benefits the recipients of the loans and over time builds the capital. On the blackboard we could see that the Caja members had investments in a pick-up truck, beef cattle, and organic fertilizers. Don Chico’s house appeared to be a center of both the Caja and the coffee co-op because the truck was parked outside and there were several grazing animals tied up in various locations around the house. Inside the shack was a Lenca flag. The Lenca are an indigenous group which historically occupied most of central Honduras. From Don Chico we learned that although El Sute and El Horno just recently got their first roads, the communities are very old, dating back to colonial and pre-colonial times. The people take pride in their native heritage, and continue to identify as a native community. This is in contrast to Rio Negro and some of the other mountain communities that have come about in the last 50 years as people move into the mountains to grow coffee. In fact, in El Sute coffee growing is relatively new. When I was there 15 years ago in the Peace Corps, the whole region was a patchwork of corn and beans and pasture, with very little coffee.

During our meeting with the farmers Don Chico powered up the generator so we could have electric light. After the meeting, piles of food were brought out and then we were offered a place to sleep in the same wooden shack. Although we had already made arrangement to stay in the school at El Horno, we were much happier here with Don Chico. The next day, Don Chico canceled his plans to go to Comayagua in order that he might take us to his coffee plantation. First he showed us the plantation by the house. We took numerous photos of his grandkids picking coffee, and then he brought us up the mountain to his other plantation. Along the way we saw the store that is operated by the Caja Rural. Each Caja member has to take a month off out of each year and tend the store. From Don Chico’s plantation we could see the whole valley. His coffee was dense and verdant, under an abundant canopy of shade trees. He and Adalid talked at length about managing the plantation, from fertility to pruning to managing the shade trees.  

It is exciting to see the synergy between the Caja Rural and the coffee co-op. It is also thrilling to meet someone as serious about his community as Don Chico. We will definitely be back.

HONDURAS - Farmer Profile - Dona Cirila

Dona Cirila

The harvest of the gringos!

Adalid showing off the de-pulped gringo coffee
By Andy

We recently went back to Rio Negro, Honduras during the Farmer to Farmer trip in early January of 2011. When we visited Rio Negro in January of 2010 we had had the goal to visit every member of the coffee growing co-op in the community. It had rained the entire time we were there, and there was one family who we decided not to visit. We were wet, cold and tired and they told us that to visit Dona Cirila would be an hour straight down the mountain on a muddy trail of slippery red clay. We declined. This year however, the weather was bright and dry, and since we had visited most of the other farmers in the previous three years, we had all afternoon at our disposal.

After a pleasant hour-long downhill hike we finally came to the coffee finca of Dona Cirila and her family. What a relief. The lush green plants were thick and as we pushed our way down to her house, the dogs came out to greet us. Her house of red clay adobe was fronted by a patio of packed red clay. Children of all ages were engaged in various activities that sort of shifted focus to us as the horde of Gringos tumbled out of the green onto the patio. Dona Cirila came right out and shook hands with us and we started to get her story.

First off we learned that we made the right decision to visit her because last year she had waited all day for us and this year had been expecting us much earlier in the day. She is not the type of person who I would want disappoint. We learned that Dona Cirila is a single mother of ten children and four grandchildren, all of whom were milling about as we talked to her. Her husband had left her 7 years ago and now he lives elsewhere in Honduras and has a new wife with four children. At least she was able to keep the farm. She told us how her children have to climb that hill every morning to go to school in Rio Negro and how all supplies have to be carried in and all the coffee has to be carried out on the shoulders of her and her children. Each one has to carry as much as he or she can when hauling out the coffee.

We learned that her oldest son just graduated from grade school and he would like to continue to study, but that would cost at least $500 per year and she would lose one her best workers. We could see how prized of a worker he is because while we were talking, he was running a hand-crank coffee de-pulper. Soon our interest shifted to this boy and the machine. We had seen coffee de-pulpers that are run by generators and also those run by hydro-power, but this was our first hand-crank de-pulper. Zac took a turn cranking. We asked Hector and Adalid what it would take for Dona Cirila to have a hydro-power for de-pulping coffee and for electricity. It turns out that they have already done a study and calculated the number of PVC pipes that it will take to bring enough water with enough head to run the turbinita, which Hector and Adalid would donate.

Jeff and Ana were outfitted with baskets and Adalid took them out to learn how to pick coffee. While they picked, I played some soccer with the young boys and Dona Cirila prepared some incredible coffee for us. I left Dona Cirila’s house with a deep sense of respect for her life and what she has to do every day to keep her family going. Her children were happy and playful despite the obvious difficulties. She herself presents an implacable and dignified surface. I cringe a little when I think of how it must appear to have six Gringos show up and start taking pictures. Our immediate impulse was to start asking for numbers for how much it would cost for her son to go to junior high or how much to pay for the PVC tubes. The visit to her family stimulated something in us, a sense compassion and anger at the whole situation, and our first thought is what can we do to help? I am not saying it is a bad impulse to want to help, but that can cast us into the two-dimensional roles of helper and helpee. I was glad that it took so long for us to get there, because that meant that we were inclined to stay a while. In that while we settled in and met her kids and talked some more. Over the steaming cup of coffee she became a little more three dimensional. Farmer to Farmer is a about relationships of solidarity and dignity.  We can also see the potential that Farmer to Farmer paying a fair price for coffee can have to impact the lives of all the people in this family.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Guatemalan adventures from Margee

Bicycle powered coffee depulping machine

Woman selling home made lotions

I thought I would just give a brief description of several of the experiences I have had while here, in order to give people an idea of the huge variety of learning opportunities available on the trip. I will headline them, so you can skim through and read the parts that interest you.

Reconstructing homes after tropical storm Agatha; starting home enterprises

While in Antigua early on, we hooked up with Franklin from As Green As It Gets in a small village a few miles out of the city. We were able to visit people in their homes who have received help from that organization, seeing the cement block construction of one family's home, the small home businesses several young people were getting started (hand creams and lotions made from shade tree products from the coffee fields, totes made out of burlap coffee bags, apprenticing to learn construction work, handmade aprons and herbal teas in paper boxes, and lip balm). It was really heartwarming to hear the young people present their products to us and see how empowered they seemed to feel. We asked lots of questions, and bought some of their products before we left. Being able to talk a little with their families and get an up-close look at their homes and lifestyle was really special.

Making tortillas with Rosa

Stove on the third floor - making tortillas to sell

This year's corn crop

Smiles with F2F youngest scholarship recipient

Land purchased by F2F for the cooperative - Matt translating

Visiting the weavers cooperative

Here in Santiago we visited Rosa and Francisco's home and 'tienda', with their son and son-in-law's mechanic shop next door. Up on the third floor/rooftop, Rosa was making tortillas. She explained the ingredients and process to us, told us about the ways she sells and uses them each day, and let us all give it a try (and a taste). The smokey stove was an issue for our eyes and lungs, even with all the fresh air around up there, so you can imagine what a problem it must be within smaller, more enclosed rooms. Later we all crammed into one of the pick-ups that serve as cheap taxis, along with what already looked like quite a lot of people to us. As Rosa said when she saw our surprise at riding for that long so squeezed together, "Haci la vida aqui"--this is life here). We rode out to a piece of land Farmer to Farmer purchased for the cooperative. We hiked quite a way up through other people's coffee farms, until we came to an extremely rocky slope with what was left of the corn stalks already harvested. There is still part of that land unplanted, because it takes so much time and labor to clear the rocks, and they have to pay members of the cooperative to do that strenuous work, labor which also keeps them away from their usual daily work. The acre or two of land is typical of what's available, and yet quite expensive. This year the crop was mostly ruined by extremely heavy rains. (Lake Atitlan is between two and three meters above normal, and you can see the mudslide areas in stripes down the mountainsides.) At the meeting during which we gave out scholarships the day before, they showed us the two bags of rather poor ears of corn they will share--the total harvest from that piece of land this year. Brenda (speaking in Spanish) and Paul did a nice job of presenting the scholarships at that meeting, with clerical help from Hannah! Matt and Zach have been excellent translators/interpretors, so both parties are able to catch a lot more of the subtle details of the conversations. The fondness these people have for Jody specifically, and for Farmer to Farmer in general, was obvious. Students who were able to be there ranged from a 5 yr. old little boy to a young woman in law school. They all seemed really pleased to receive the scholarship envelopes. After the meeting we went to the weavers workshop and store, and bought some of their work. Some of you reading this, may be the beneficiaries of these shopping sprees! (note to friends and family of Amy: she gets the prize! Amy finds something wonderful to buy everywhere we go, sometimes feels bad about trying to get a lower price, and is really happy to spend her money helping these people make a living.)

Learning about other projects

One day while here in Santiago, we went to ADISA, a workshop for physically and mentally disabled people. It is run by an association of parents and friends of people with disabilities. We were all impressed with what they were doing with such limited resources. The director of the program showed us around and we saw how each person was completing a step in making the products they sell. We were glad to purchase the bowls and other things they make from recycled newspapers. Amy asked the client who took us into their showroom, if any of the pieces available for sale were made by him. He replied, "we all make them all--everyone has a part to do." Hayley was especially interested, as she also works with disabled people--she returned the next day to get more!

Down the road from our Pasada is a children's library, and (started just this week!) a preschool for local children, started and overseen by Amanda Flayer, with Mayan women employed as the head librarian, traveling librarian to area schools, and teacher. Amanda and I (Margee) are planning to meet, in hopes that I can offer some tips and share ideas from my many years of preschool and child care work. She is really trying to 'do preschool' in a creative, less structured way than what people here would more typically think of as schooling. Since preschool is not very common anyway, it is all a new idea to parents, but Amanda says they seem to be reacting positively. The library is important as a support to the education of the Mayan children, since they do not have books at home or opportunities to read outsideof school. There are resources for 'investigation' (research), as well as the school text books available for the kids. Another set of shelves has story books, concept books, and children's literature. They have 'baby and mom' activity times scheduled weekly, and the space is available for community use too. Donations of Spanish books and books with both Spanish and English would be really useful to them, as would any arts and crafts materials. I'm thinking it might be a great opportunity for individual school classes, child care centers, or local libraries to take on as a service learning project!

We briefly visited the hospital here, and received an email update from their volunteer fundraiser, letting us know how much they still need additional help. For example, they have 40 cleft palate reconstruction surgeries scheduled for May, and need to get the in-patient area, where those surguries will occur, completed by then. To find out more, their website is Several people we talked with shared their excitement over the opening of the Hospitalito at the end of November. Farmer to Farmer has been donating to them in the past, but currently does not have the capacity to continue that support. Please consider donating individually with a note specifying that cause, if you are intersted.

We may still fit in a visit to an elder care program. It's a day program where elders can come during the day to receive a good meal, some company, and a little extra care. Many older people without families live alone, and others must be left alone, while their families are off working--a problem we have in the United States as well, of course, but the living circumstances are more severe for these people.

San Lucas Toliman

Paul already told you about the tour of the various projects at San Lucas. I was especially impressed with the way the man in charge of the reforestation project spoke. He was a natural poet--his deep love for his work and for the earth just poured from his entire being! Casey was at San Lucas as a volunteer for a few months a couple of years ago, and it was nice to get more detailed explanations from him as we toured. Father Greg has been there for over 40 years, and his efforts have clearly had quite an impact. He saved many lives during the 'time of terror', and somehow survived that period himself! He is very intent on making sure all of these projects are led by Mayans and that the mission serves the people through Mayan decisions. Only three 'gringos' were currently on staff, although groups come to visit and learn regularly. One thing Paul did not mention in his earlier blog, is that young adolescents, who otherwise are on the street trying to get money anyway they can, have been allowed to come work at the mission to help feed their families. Using hand tools, they learn some basic skills, and often keep coming for years and years. The building that stores the coffee there, was actually built by this group of youths, and had already been expanded from the time Casey was there (sometimes working alongside them). San Lucas also has beehives and produces honey, but that building was already closed for the day by the time we got there.

Thank you, Jody!

Just want to say that it is really generous of Jody to give so much time and energy to these trips. We have experiences one would not get as a simple tourist, and she works really hard to help individuals see the things that interest them. She has more energy than I do, that's for sure! The ongoing relationships that she maintains with such sincere joy and compassion probably do as much good as our Farmer to Farmer funds from afar. She is a great ambassador for us!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Foods of Honduras

Celebratory tilapia after making it safely home from our backpacking trip.

Ana and Pete savoring the chicken picnic.

Hernan after making baleadas for two hours straight.

By Andy

Every time I return from Central America, I go through a week or two after I come home where I eat rice and beans and tortillas as often as I can. I crave avocados and long for a real banana. It is as if my body wants to stay in the tropics for just a little longer. In honor of my lingering cravings and as the Wisconsin cold keeps me inside the house remembering my trip, I offer a report on the food of Honduras.

Bananas and Plantains. We ate bananas or plantains with just about every meal and often in between. Ripe plantains can be sliced thin and deep fried to make a crispy chip called a “tajada de plantano.” These are shelf-stable and can be sold in plastic bags to bus travelers or flavored and sold in foil packs like Doritos. Really ripe plantains, “maduros,” can be fried, baked or boiled and served soft and slightly mushy for breakfast with a little crème fraische. Somewhere in the middle in terms of ripeness, a plantain can be sliced round and then flattened to form a round a crisp quarter inch thick “toston,” which literally means 50-cent piece. Green bananas can also be fried as “tajadas.” These we ate like French fries with fried chicken or fish. Of course we also ate bananas the normal way. Is it me or do they taste better when they haven’t travelled 1000s of miles? One of the yummy treats in the fresh banana world is the “datil,” or finger banana, which is slightly larger than a man’s thumb and very flavorful.

Juice. Every day our hotel served a fresh juice, water and sugar mix called a “refresco natural.” This is ubiquitous in Honduran restaurants and shops, the only question is what kind of refresco natural they will have. We were offered “mora” (like a blackberry), hibiscus flower, passion fruit, pineapple, papaya, orange, cantaloupe, watermelon, lime, naranjia (a weed in the tomato family but tastes like an orange – sort of), horchata, mango (from frozen mangos because sadly they were not in season), and something called a “nance,” which is like a mushy yellow cherry-like fruit. People in Comayagua are under no delusions that their tap water is drinkable, so all restaurants use bottled water to prepare beverages and ice. This makes me happy because I could drink the refrescos naturales all day with confidence. One variation on the fruit juices was the homemade wine made by our host in Rio Negro, Avilio. He makes a big batch from sugar and whatever fruit is available and buries it for a few weeks in a clay vessel to ferment, followed by bottling in used rum bottles. One night we put away six bottles around Avilio’s big homemade table. Smooth.

Beans and Tortillas. If a Honduran eats a meal that does not include red beans and tortillas, it is as if he or she has not really eaten. Every meal includes a small stack of corn tortillas. We found the best tortillas in the mountain communities where they raise and grind their own corn. These tortillas are a little thicker and are just better tasting than the city tortillas, which are often pressed thin by machines in the tortillerias or made from MASECA commercial mix. An El Salvadoran variation on the tortilla that has become street food all over Honduras is the “pupusa,” which is corn tortilla dough surrounding a melty white cheese and then fried in front of you on a very hot griddle. On the road home from the airport, we stopped and drank some sweetened corn gruel with cinnamon called “atol,” which for Deb was the food high point of the trip – it did hit the spot. Beans come in many variations, but are necessary on every plate for breakfast, lunch and dinner. You can find them boiled, fried whole, mixed with rice and spices, liquefied, liquefied and then fried, and I’m sure I missed some variation. Our friend Jauna invited Zac and I to her house for some traditional Honduran food and served us “catrachas,” fried tortillas smeared with thick bean paste and topped with a crumbly white cheese. We could have eaten those all night. Probably the most uniquely Honduran street food is something called a “baleada.” A baleada is a fresh hot flour tortilla smeared with liquefied beans, topped with thick crème fraische and folded in half. From there you can get variations that include fresh avocado slices, fried eggs, crumbly cheese, and different types of meat. Our friend Hernan made awesome baleadas for us for the good-bye party. I ate 5. When we were waiting for Deb and Pete in the airport, we saw a Honduran arriving from Miami and his family handed him a baleada as if to say “you are home.” 

It is hard to tell how much meat normal Hondurans eat, because our special circumstances as visitors means that we are constantly being offered meat to eat. We are also eating in restaurants quite often, which are meat heavy. I didn’t mind. On New Year’s Eve, Priscila made a baked chicken that had been baked in something called “naranja agria,” a special type of orange which people use only for cooking. Then on New Year’s we had a chance to eat “nacatamales,” which are spiced pork tucked inside of a corn dough and cooked in a banana leaf. Special treat. On the day we made bocashi fertilizer at Hector’s farm, Adalid’s family made something called “carne asada,” chunky grilled beef strips. The meat was tender and pleasantly charred over a charcoal fire. We had salted strips of beef up on the mountain in El Sute – they lack refrigeration, but the reconstituted beef can be intensely flavorful, like thick beef jerky. Tilapia can be found everywhere, the result of ever-increasing fish farming in the Comayagua valley. On the day we returned from the hiking trip on the mountain, we all headed to a place right next to a fish pond for fried tilapia and green banana tajadas. Likewise chicken is affordable and available in innumerable variations. The most memorable for me was the rotisserie chickens we brought with us for a picnic on the way up to Rio Negro. A close second was the chicken at “Pollolandia” in La Entrada on the way to Copan.

A special mention must be made of Betilia, who made all of our meals in Rio Negro. She cooks incredible food over a wood-fired stove. There is a large variety of vegetables (including our beloved pataste/chayote), with flavored rice, beans, special roasted meats, and always the best tortillas and refrescos naturales. We were WELL taken care of! Betilia’s coffee wins the award for the best I had in Honduras, but really since we were hanging out with coffee farmers the whole time, we were never far from a good cup of coffee. In fact the comment from one of our travelers was that if we sat down anywhere for long enough, someone would inevitably hand us a cup of coffee. Just watch out if you don’t like pre-sweetened coffee.

A second special mention must be made of the food on our backpacking trip. On the fifth day we lunched on all the best of the leftover lunch items. We had flour tortillas, with bean paste, avocados, crumbly white cheese, Spam, and peanut butter, in various mouth watering combinations.  Yes Spam!

Thanks for reading and now it is time for lunch.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala

Photo Paul canoeing on Lake Atitlan
By Paul Helgeson

Yesterday we arrived at beautiful Lake Atitlan after a six hour trip from Huehue that featured spectacular mountain scenery. We are staying at the Posada de Santiago. This morning the early risers took to the Pasadas canoes to joined the local fishermen in thier dugout canoes on the lake.

This afternoon we piled into the back of one of the Toyota pickups that are a favorite form of mass transit here in Guatemala. Our first stop was the new Hospitalito in Santiago - a beautiful new building that replaces the hospital destroyed some five year ago by mud slides. After another 40 minutes ride on mountain roads we arrived at the San Lucas Mission. We toured several San Lucas projects.
The first was a project where new housing is being built for people that lost their homes as a result of heavy rains (Agatha) in June of last year. Nearby is a building that will eventually house a womens center . Then we walked through San Lucas medical clinic. The tree nursery was impressive with several varieties of trees grown for refosrestatin of the mountainsides and shade for the coffee. The final project we saw was the coffee project. At five oclock, each day, the

delivering the coffee

growers start bringing the days harvest for processing.

The heavy bags of green coffee beans are carried up the mountainside to the new processing on the mens backs. The coffee is weighed, moved by water to a huller, then to fermenation vats. After a couple days the beans are laid out on drying floors. The whole process is extremely labor-intensive, but the San Lucas produces high-quality coffee. It was a great visit!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Visit to APUFRAM in Honduras

A student at APUFRAM showing off his artwork depicting the coffee harvest.

By Andy

During my recent trip to Honduras, we had the chance to visit a boarding school called APUFRAM. As we arrived at APUFRAM, darkness was falling and our group was hungry and eager to get home to Comayagua. I was also anxious because our driver needed to be back home, and our friend Hernan was waiting for us and he had prepared food for the whole group. We had decided to stop at APUFRAM because Zac remembered that there was an art studio full of incredible student paintings and Deb and Pete were looking for a painting to become the label for the coffee they were going to sell. Also, Adalid’s three kids had all been students there in the past year and we had grown close to them and wanted to see where they went to school. I wanted to be in and out in ten minutes, but this was not to be the case.

We pulled in to the school store and Hector informed us that we would be met by none other than Padre Emilio. To meet Padre Emilio and hear his story is to witness the results of a simple plan executed over the course of more than 35 years. When he came to Honduras he realized that the opportunities for rural youth to attend school beyond the elementary level were few and far between. All of the junior high schools and high schools were located in big cities, and rural people who wanted to send their children would not only give up a valuable farm hand but also be burdened with the costs of housing and feeding their child far from home. In fact, according to APUFRAM more than 90% of Honduran adolescents do not go to school beyond sixth grade. Padre Emilio saw this and realized that these people did not need a hand-out, but rather they needed an opportunity, a hand-up. He founded a “boys and girls town” near Flores Comayagua. APUFRAM is essentially a boarding school for poor rural young people. The families must pay something, but the cost is based on what they can afford to pay. The students help keep costs down by balancing their studies with work.

As Padre Emilio switched to English, he told us that the work component was not just to help make the program more affordable. He repeated several times that the entire program was designed to help the young people to help themselves. The work is deliberately diverse and this contributes to the students feelings of competence. The students farm to raise and prepare their own food, they have a carpentry shop to sell goods and learn a trade, they have a retail shop and a repair shop. The students work for 4 hours and study for 4 hours every day. He told us about how in his estimation by making advanced education available to rural young people, that at least fifteen people would be positively affected in a chain reaction. He spoke of how many of the students go on to University and how most of the current staff are actually alumni of the school. Padre Emilio took a break from telling us about the school to ask us about who we were and where we are from. When I mentioned that we were from rural Wisconsin, he spoke of his own rural root in Salina, Kansas. How he easily adapted to the simple life of rural Honduras when he arrived 40 years ago because he was raised in the country. He went on to praise the work ethic of the young people who come to the school in Flores. He talked about how people love the work and are grateful for the opportunity. He spoke about how there are almost never any fights, and he ascribed this to the rural upbringing of the young people. As we looked around we saw cheerful young people and the buzz of intentional activity.   

As a Montessorian, I quickly recognized that Padre Emilio had inadvertently set up the ideal Montessori environment for adolescents. In having a rural boarding school with a focus on productive work, he has exactly matched the developmental needs of the age. Adolescents need to be brought into society through experiences of making a positive contribution to a community. The boys and girls of APUFRAM make a daily contribution to the community and to their own education. When a person is in an environment that meets his or her developmental needs, it tends to have a “normalizing effect” on the behavior of the person – meaning that the person will exhibit positive social traits and work productively. My guess is that Padre Emilio’s observation that there are no fights and that the students love their work has as much to do with the fact that the school has a normalizing effect on the student body as it does with the rural upbringing of the kids.

Have you ever avoided something because you knew that to see it would challenge you to change something about yourself? For years I have avoided seeing Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, because I don’t want to stop driving and move to a solar-heated straw bale house. Looking back, there is a part of me that would like to have missed the visit, because to visit APUFRAM is to be confronted with a picture of what is possible when vision, compassion, intelligence and resources come together. Once a person sees what is possible, the question becomes “what is stopping you from realizing an equally big vision?”

Monday, January 17, 2011

GUATEMALA - UPC Coffee Cooperative

By Casey

Today we visited the headquarters of the UPC cooperative in La Democracia, outside of Huehuetenango. Our group received a wonderful tour of some of the farms of families participating in the cooperative. We traveled far up into the hills to see and learn about the beautiful farms these hard working families have cultivated. The farmers were doing great at using by-products and recycling waste in sustainable ways. The one waste product that was not able to be reused was what is called “honey water” (aguas mieles). It is a watery sugar by-product created from fermenting and husking the coffee fruit. A farm we visited was running the liquid into a trench in the ground which solves the problem of honey water running into the river, causing environmental harm. However, Zac and I were wondering if there is any other use out there for this by-product. If anyone has any ideas or knows of ways coffee farmers are already using this by-product, please leave a comment on this webpage. Here is a video made last year of the UPC...

Sunday, January 16, 2011

GUATEMALA - Antigua and Common Hope

On our first day in Antigua, Jody, Margee, Brenda and I visited an organization called Common Hope. Started by a couple from Minnesota, Common Hope works with Guatemalan families to support education, among other things. By holistically supporting families economically, educationally, and through psychological and health services, Common Hope assists affiliated children and their families as they go through school. Additionally, Common Hope links Guatemalan children with a U.S sponsor who supports their education and receives letters in return. Jody and Brenda were able to meet with the children they have sponsored while Margee and I went on an excellent tour of the organization. We truly enjoyed learning more about some great organizations in Antigua and are looking forward to meeting with the coffee farmers of Huehuetenango tomorrow!


GUATEMALA - Mayan Hands

Leaving Antigua with a full minivan heading for Huehuetenango - the Guatemalan adventure begins to unfold. The first stop is a small Mayan village and a meeting with the Mayan Hands women. They were formed in 1990 during the civil war when many were widowed and some were orphaned as children. They weave baskets from pine needles making things to sell to earn money. I was moved by their pure innocence. They giggled and laughed as we all told our stories. The children were curious and friendly. I am continually moved by the strength of the human spirit.

Guatemala Delegation - Climbing a new mountain!

We´ve had a few days to connect with Farmer to Farmer friends (As green as it gets) in Guatemala´s old capital, Antigua and are now off to Huehuetenango and Santiago Atitlan! We´ll be visiting master weavers and ironing out our next shipment of organic Guatemalan Coffee from a women´s cooperative in Huehuetenango! We hope to post photos soon but the bus is leaving!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

HONDURAS - Rio Negro

by Andy

Just about every time I come to Honduras, I pay a visit to the mountain community of Rio Negro. Consisting of just 80 houses, Rio Negro does not even make it onto google maps, but the community has had an exaggerated role in the development of the National Park.

When I was here in the Peace Corps, one of my free time activities was to go and visit other volunteers. Those of us who came in at the same time had a special affinity for each other, having bonded through several months of sequestered training in language, culture and technical skills. Luckily when I discovered that I was to be assigned to Comayagua, I learned that one of my training class, Bill, would be actually living in one of the communities in the buffer zone of the park. Bill was assigned to Rio Negro and his goal was to help install drinking water systems for four different communities near Rio Negro. Bill hit the jackpot in terms of Peace Corps sites, partly because he landed in the house of Don Maximo Velasquez, both a loving family and the center of life in Rio Negro. At first during my service I would go up to Rio Negro to hang out with Bill and visit him, but almost instantly I realized that Rio Negro could be a starting point for visiting the cloud forest part of the National Park.

I would bring friends from Comayagua to Rio Negro and Bill would take us to see the dams and pipes of the water systems of the communities he was helping. We noticed what was obvious to everyone in Rio Negro already, that the creeks near Rio Negro were beautiful. To follow the creek up to the place where the communities draw their water was to walk through marvelous 20 year-old cloud forest in then process of recuperation. There were tree ferns, orchids, palms, and wildlife. Right along the creek there were remnant trees from the original forest, massive towering trees that carry vines and bromeliads and other life up to the canopy. The creek itself was crystal clear and rushed in and around polished boulders, some impossibly large. When we finally get to the place where the community draws its water, we realize why they stopped there. There is a waterfall that is at least 100 feet tall.

We picked out Rio Negro as a place to start bringing people to the Park. One of the goals I had was for as many people from Comayagua as possible to get to visit the cloud forest on the mountain that has been looming over them for their whole lives. Once people visit the cloud forest, they return with a new energy to protect it. Rio Negro was perfect because the creek creates a microclimate that brings the cloud forest down to an accessible altitude. Of course, there were other benefits. The view is fantastic, the people are friendly, and if you want to climb the mountain there are trails that take you up to the ridge where the old growth forest is. We brought high schoolers, business people, gringos, teachers, and everyone was transformed by the experience. It was like discovering a treasure in your back yard. People could see the direct relationship between the forest and water, especially drinking water. When the National Park was to receive a grant, we instantly thought of Rio Negro as a possible site for a visitors center. When there was a national call for people to go on an Ecotourism course in the U.S., I thought of Avilio, Don Maximo´s son and one of the most animated people I have ever met.

When my family came to visit, of course I brought them to Rio Negro. My father opened my eyes to a new type of tourism that I had not thought about yet. Agricultural tourism. As enchanted as he was with the forest and the waterfall, he was thrilled to see the entire process of coffee production. He had been drinking coffee for his entire adult life, and had never really experienced the other side of it. For him it was like meeting a long time pen pal, face to face. Avilio and I talked for hours about the tourist potential of Rio Negro and how if people could make money from the forest in that way, they might not cut it down.

Now flash forward fifteen years. Avilio has three eco-huts that he built to house tourists. Other people in the village have constructed their own eco-huts. The visitors center is about to be inaugurated. The people make incredible artisan goods to sell to tourists. The attention to the watersheds has meant that there is still a significant and growing forest cover above Rio Negro, where in other communities the destruction has advanced considerably. There is a tour guides collective, which functions by having them take turns leading people to the waterfall. Many of the guides have learned English. The families have been trained in how to prepare food for tourists. Rio Negro has found its way into various guide books like the Lonely Planet. There is a steady and growing trickle of people coming to Rio Negro. It has fame throughout Honduras.

Our trip was exactly what one could hope for from an eco-agro-tourism perspective. It is thrilling to look back and realize that I had a hand starting everything that has happened in Rio Negro.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

photos from rio negro, honduras!

Riding in the pickup on the way to Rio Negro.

Andy with Donn Natalia, Don Max, and Avilio

more photos available at!/album.php?fbid=2741456214701&id=1206312977&aid=8068636&notif_t=photo_album_comment

let us know if you have questions for farmers here in honduras and with farmers and weavers with our next delegation in guatemala!

HONDURAS - We´re back from Rio Negro

Today we are back in Comayagua after three days on the mountain in the community of Rio Negro. We visited coffee farms, saw microhydro projects, had meetings, went to the waterfall and ate and drank a lot of good stuff. Photos and stories to come soon.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

HONDURAS - Making Bocashi Fertilizer

by Andy
Me having lunch in front of the coffee nursery during Bocashi day.

Adalid's Family (Front to Back): Dariela, Cindy, Suyapa and Melvin
Yesterday we went to visit a piece of land owned by our friend and guide Hector Oviedo. Hector is a tireless thinker and worker for sustainable development in his country. He is a person of principals and purpose. He was my best friend while I was in the Peace Corps here. At the time Hector, who is trained as an Agricultural Engineer, had just lost his job with the state-run agricultural service because his political party had lost the recent elections. That meant he had plenty of time to hang out with me and hike around on the mountain and talk about protecting the forest and sustainable agriculture. Since then, his life has revolved around numerous projects, all aimed at improving his country.

Hector has done trial plots of organic agriculture, he has a business installing microhydro turbines for electricity, and he has a machine that make economical blocks for building houses out of packed earth and cement. Five years ago he bought a property close to Comayagua, with the intention of setting up a demonstration organic farm. It is in the hills, where pine and oak mix with other species. The land is hilly and some parts are degraded from over-use. But there are beautiful forests and a small creek that flows through, and Hector made a decision to do everything he could to rehabilitate it. He started by not cutting down any trees and allowing the forest to recover.

Now it is 5 years later and pine trees are sprouting everywhere and the creek area is lush and shady. After aborted attempts to grow lychee trees and some other crops, Hector is setting up a small plot of coffee. He wants to do it organic from the very start. The nursery was started using a soil mix that is part charcoal and part worm compost. He has thousands of plants lined up in a shady spot near the creek, all ready to plant. As we pulled up, he had 4 people digging holes to plant the coffee plants. Our job was to make bocashi fertilizer to feed these new plants after they go in the ground.

Bocashi is a type of compost that Hector learned to make in Costa Rica. It is a Japanese invention that involves fermentation, sort of like making yogurt or sauerkraut with soil amendments. When we arrived Hector had set up the piles of the ingredients and and had a flip folio of paper to teach us how to make the fertilizer. Adalid and his family were there and they had set up a sort of camp kitchen and were roasting meat and cooking beans. It was a fertilizer picnick. Hector started by talking about how a Japanese volunteer had come to vegetable growing region of Costa Rica, where they were using a lot of chemicals and still having problems with pests, disease, yields and weeds. After the introduction of bocashi and other organic methods, an organic movement started, which was rooted not so much in trying to get higher prices, but rather in the health of the plants and improved yield. We were all intrigued.

Hector gave us the recipe for bocashi, and then we got to make some, followed by a great lunch. The basic recipe is to take a source of dry manure (chicken and goat) and mix it with a source of carbon (coffee hulls) and some soil and then start adding the extras. There were three bags of ground charcoal, a bag of rice germ, a bag of agricultural lime, a gallon of molasses, and also a bag of finished bocashi as a starter. You mix it all together with enough water for 50% moisture and then you mix and monitor over then next 7 days. Essentially you have made a big pile of pickles for the earth. Not only does the bocashi add activated minerals, but the main function is to improve the microbial balance in the soil. It is sort of like an acidophillus pill for the soil. As an organic grower myself, I am certainly interested.

After the work and lunch, we toured the rest of the farm and learned about weeds and which ones are good or bad for the coffee.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

HONDURAS - The gang is all here!

Yesterday was a transition day for us. I picked up our laundry in the morning while Zac went to San Pedro Sula to meet Jeff and Analisa. Later, Hector and Adalid and I went to Tegucigalpa to pick up Deb and Pete. We all were reunited last night here at the hotel and ate huge quantities of food at the hotel restaurant accompanied by cerveza with lime. Alll is well.

Today we are going to Hector´s farm to make Bokachi fertilizer for his coffee plot. Looking forward to a nice picnick.

Friday, January 7, 2011

HONDURAS - In the Cloud Forest

 A typical cloud forest view

In the morning before the clouds cooked off

Melvin, Hernan and Che Barnes in front of a massive fallen tree

Bromeliads and vines cover the trees in the cloud forest

Looking up at a cloud forest tree. Notice that the lateral branches are literally covered with aerial plants.

By Andy

We got back yesterday from our camping trip to the cloud forest and I can honestly say that it was one of the best experiences of my life.

Our plan was to cross the mountain from the southeast corner of the Comayagua Mountain National Park starting in a place called El Horno, hiking up to the cloud forest on the ridge and then following the ridge to the center of the Park in order to hike down into Comayagua, which is straight west of the mountain. On the way up we wanted to visit coffee farms of the people in the organic coffee co-op, but my main plan was to spend a good chunk of time in the cloud forest. We succeeded.

The way the mountain ecosystem is stratified means that in the valley there is a tropical dry forest. As you go up the mountain, this gives way to a pine and scrub-oak forest, which gives way to a pine and sweetgum forest, which is replaced by cloud forest as you get closer to the top of the mountain. The cloud forest is a rich jungle-like ecosystem which receives both abundant rain and horizontal precipitation when the clouds come in and all of the vegetation captures the moisture and the drops fall to the soil. The forest has many types of ferns, palms, moss, orchids, bromeliads, bamboo-like plants, and vines - all are capable of capturing the moisture from the clouds. Where rivers and creeks flow, there is generally also a corridor of broadleafed trees extending down from the cloud forest through the pine. This stratification is dependant on temperature and moisture. In different areas of the mountain the point where ecosystems change is higher or lower, depending on moisture. The rains in Honduras generally come in from the Carribean in the north, so on the north half of the mountain the cloud forest starts at about 1500 meters above seas level, while in the dry south, the sweetgum and pine extend all the way up to 1800 meters. The presence of the cloud forest is why the Mountain was declared a National Park, both for the diversity and because the cloud forest captures and stores gajillions of gallons of water. Where it has not been cut down the cloud forest consists mostly of giant trees, all covered with plants of many types. It is a magical place, and I was looking forward to being there for a good long hike.

The first day we spent driving up to El Horno, skirting the south side of the mountain through the dense pine forests of El Tamarindo, where we met with three of the farmers from the coffee co-op. Once in El Horno, we went to an area on the edge of El Horno called El Sute, where we met with 8 farmers from the coffee co-op and stayed at the house of Don Chico (Fransisco), who is the leader of the co-op in the El Sute. The next morning we spent hiking to visit three different coffee farms in El Sute. Beautiful! Then after lunch at Don Chico´s, we got our gear together and hiked back to El Horno to meet up with our guide, Melvin.

Our group consisted of myself, Zacarias Barnes, Adalid (President of the coffee co-op), Bayron (who works with ECOSIMCO, an NGO working to protect the park), Hernan (my friend from Comayagua), and Melvin (who lives in El Horno and works sometimes as a park guard). Six men with backpacks, tents, a big pile of food and a desire to climb the mountain - it sounds like a recipe for trouble. Climbing up from El Horno I got my first taste of what the hike would be like. As we climbed through pastures and pine trees on a well travelled path I was soon breathing heavy and sweating profusely. My pack was full and the path was steep. We climbed 300 meters in about 20 minutes and we soon had a spectacular view of the valley. For the next hour we climbed and hiked upwards and laterally across the mountainside through thick forest regrowth and pastures, until finally we reached the ridge that we would follow for the next three days. The temperature had fallen by several degrees and soon we were in a dense broadleaf forest. Finally! The first day in the cloud forest was like visiting an old friend. I was back with the tree ferns and purple orchids and the bromeliads of all sizes. Moss covers everything and the thick cap of organic matter made the soil bouncy. We camped and although the wind blew and it got cold, we were warm with the fire.

In the morning I noticed that the cloud forest we were in was actually secondary growth. Our guide, Melvin, explained that the owner abandoned it and focused on other land that was more easily accessible. The forest was only about 30 years old. I was amazed at how quickly it had regained the appearance of a cloud forest. During that day we soon found ourselves in virgin forest. The distinguishing feature was that There were fewer trees, but most of the trees we saw were enormous. They were also covered with aerial plants. Sometimes the aerial plants would grow so thick on the branches that the branches would fall off and land on the ground, blocking our way. Sometimes whole trees would topple leaving a gap where light streams in. Then we would get a chance to see what the canopy was like. It seems that the aerial plants can create an ecosystem of their own up in the canopy. They trap and store water, and as leaves decay, a sort of soil is formed on top of the branches. This happens to the point where when we see a fallen branch, it is often more plants and soil than wood. I love this image of plants growing on top of plants on top of plants and I just wanted to stay in the forest primeval marvelling. But it did not last long. The ridge is a dry place and we were out of water, so we climbed down into a valley and found water, and then located a trail that led us through abandoned fields and some corn patches and pasture. As thrilled as I was to see how quickly the forest regenerates, I was equally disheartened to see the burned stumps of the recently cut forest.

After we left the deforested areas, we entered the nucleus of the park and soon we were back in the primary old growth forest again. Walking along the ridge was slow going, because there were often massive trees that had fallen and there was no trail to begin with anyway. Melvin led the way, hacking at the undergrowth and advising us on the best route to climb over or under fallen trees. He can cut a trail with his machete as fast as we could walk. Quite amazing. Our second campsite was more protected than the first, and we had a nice fire again. Our fourth day we spent entirely in untouched cloud forest. We never even saw signs of human existence, such as evidence of cut undergrowth or clear trails. Sometimes Melvin would scout for us and I would just marvel at the beauty. Bayron, who had been working to protect the park for three years, had never been this far into the center of the mountain. He and Adalid and Melvin kept talking about how if people could only see the marvels that we were seeing, they would have to protect it. They also were hatching plans to create a network of trails following the ridges, with marked campsites and park guards in every community. We tossed around the idea of having a place that would rent out tents and sleeping bags and drop tourists off in a mountain village, where guides could lead them to the primary cloud forest. There was a lot of dreaming about what it would be like to have a well-developed national park. It was awe-inspiring to be in the midst of such an extensive forest. That day we reached our highest point, 2360 meters above sea level. The afternoon sun came through the trees on the summit while we relaxed and ate chocolate and checked to see if we had cell phone service.

In looking back on the trip I notice how much I identify with the mountain and the cloud forest. I have emotionally and mentally adopted the entire mountain. I rise when I see recuperated forest and I sink when I see a clear-cut. My heart swells as I walk the ridge looking for a quetzal, and I die a little bit inside when I hear that hunters recently killed a jaguar (or was it a puma?) in the outskirts of the park. In retrospect, I am taking a dualistic view on things. My brain likes to divide things into good and bad. I cheer for one team and wish ill upon another. This is a dangerous stance to take. As an accidental dualist, I place things and people into categories based on what they remind me of. I am quick to judgement and once something has been judged it loses its vitality. It becomes a thing that I know about that I can either hope for or fear. My challenge is to keep an open mind. In talking with Melvin, I got a deeper understanding of the complexity of the situation. I want to save the forest by removing as many people as possible. Obviously protecting the forest is good. But many on the people deforesting feel the rights of ownership, and although the state has declared the land a national park, it has not indemnified anyone. People need to eat, and my own idea of what a national park is might be getting in the way of what a national park could be. Maybe it is not an on-off switch, with people kicked out of the park completely. I don´t have answers, just awe and questions.