Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Farmer Profile: Dona Cyrila

Cyrila, center, white shirt, with her family.
The rain has been pattering on the metal roof all night. I am completely wiped out by some awful flu, and I snuggle under two sleeping bags, trying to get warm. The morning has come to our eco-hut in Rio Negro, and it is still raining. As I go up to Avilio and Betilia's house for breakfast, the path is a little muddy river. I have on all of the clothes I brought with me to Rio Negro, topped with my rain pants and rain coat. Added on is a scarf and a stocking cap that Betilia found for me, to stop me from shivering the previous evening. As I warm up with a mug of Betilia's special tea (chopped onion, garlic, chamomile and honey), I come to two conclusions. First, we must visit Dona Cyrila. And second, I must stay back in bed and take care of myself. So that is how I sent our whole crew down the treacherous muddy path to Dona Cyrila's house in the pouring rain, without me.

The reason that we must visit Dona Cyrila is that Farmer to Farmer has developed a special relationship with her and her family, and to travel all the way to Rio Negro and not go the extra hour's walk to visit her would be wrong. Our special relationship started when the organic coffee co-op was just starting out and there were many excited coffee producers in Rio Negro, all ready to send coffee to Farmer to Farmer. At the time, there was a Peace Corps volunteer in Rio Negro, Gabe, and he helped the coffee co-op gather the coffee and distribute the payments for the coffee. Cyrila always warranted special attention, because as a single mother with many children, it was important to include her and make sure she got the benefit of the high prices that Farmer to Farmer was offering.

Four years ago when we visited Rio Negro, Gabe took us around to visit each of the dozen or so coffee farmers who sent coffee. The only one who we did not visit was Cyrila, because it had rained so much and we were cautioned that the trail down to her place would be a muddy mess. So the next year, we made double-sure that we visited her place. It was worth the effort. It was an hour-long walk down a footpath through coffee farms and overgrown land. At one point some very mean dogs menaced us and at another point the trail seemed to go straight down a steep ridge, so we ended up grasping roots to steady our descent. We had lost a total of about 1000 feet of elevation from the center of Rio Negro. We marveled that her children climb this trail daily to go to school and that they pack the coffee out on their shoulders up the steep trails. When we got to her house, her own dogs came out to bark fiercely at us. What were we getting ourselves into?

The day we visited Cyrila three years ago it was like stepping back in time. She had her many children and grandchildren living in a small adobe house with an outdoor open-air kitchen next to the house. This was basic existence. A big bag of rice was the sole extra expense that we saw, outside of the food that her family grew. That year we were told that her children sometimes stay home from school to run the manual coffee de-pulper. On that trip we had seen many small-scale hydroelectric turbine projects in Rio Negro, and an idea started forming in the group of gringos and Hondurans. Between Farmer to Farmer and a generous donation from some of the trip-goers, we would fund the PVC pipes needed to get water to Cyrila's place, and our Honduran friends Hector and Adalid would donate a home-made turbine and the help and know-how to install it. Thus, we would help bring electricity to Cyrila and her family, and maybe help her kids go to school.

The next year (two years ago) was going to be a working year. We would purchase the PVC pipes and the gringos and Hondurans would install the system together. Great plan, except that Cyrila's neighbors had denied her request to use an unused spring on their property to provide the water to run her turbine. Dona Cyrila needed to get the water from a high elevation, because she needed enough pressure to build up as the water descends, in order to push the turbine paddles. This was a bummer, but Hector and Adalid devised a different strategy that required more volume of water and a shorter drop in elevation. This meant higher diameter, more expensive PVC pipes. So we didn't do any work that year, but we did visit her family, and we checked in with her and reassured her that we had not forgotten about her. Before we left Honduras, we went to a hardware store and bought a big pile of PVC. We left it to Hector and Adalid to install the system, along with Dona Cyrila's family.

Last year when we arrived at Cyrila's, the place had a radically different feel from two years prior. She had doubled the size of her house and there was a shiny new tin roof on her whole house. The covered outdoor kitchen looked improved too, and there was a light bulb shining over the stove area. Even the dogs seemed to like us better. A peek inside the new section of the house revealed a refrigerator and a tv and stereo system. We took the short hike to see the turbine in action and the catchment dam on the river near her house. Hector, Adalid, and friends had spent a week earlier in the year on the project, and Cyrila's children had helped a lot. Her boys were giving us the tour and you could see that they understood their power generation system inside and out. After our tour of the system, Cyrila treated us to an incredible meal and then we were given a demonstration of the tv and stereo system. The kids played a music video, while we all danced. Cyrila talked about how electricity had changed life. Now the neighbors all come by in the evenings to watch tv, and she has a little business selling refrigerated goods.

It would be a mistake to assume that Cyrila's life has changed so dramatically only because of her relationship with Farmer to Farmer. In fact, because her low elevation coffee is ready often a month or more before Farmer to Farmer starts buying, she usually has to sell most of her coffee to intermediaries at lower prices. Two things combined to improve her conditions. First, global coffee prices spiked up dramatically three years ago. That's where the addition to her house and the appliances came from. And distant second, we helped facilitate some home-grown electricity. I am currently concerned that the global dip in coffee prices this year will have negative effects on Cyrila and her family.

You, dear reader, can see how very much we needed to visit Cyrila this year. Our relationship of solidarity and friendship has grown over the years. If I were not at death's door (I have since fully recovered, thank you, and I credit my recovery to Betilia's tea and some powerful Honduran antibiotics) and if the weather were not dreadful, I would have scampered down the trail at the head of the line. Instead, I sent the whole group without me. Alex, Corrin and Becky, all with ties to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, carried the gringo torch, while Hector, Hernan and Adalid went to inspect the turbine and help with rumored repairs. And my Honduran goddaughter, Xochitl went as a translator, along with her mother Pris and her aunt Marta. A big group! The trail was a predictable muddy mess, and more than one person decided it was safer just to slide down on his or her butt. Cyrila's dogs barked wildly at first, but soon they accepted the visitors. It turned out to be a long visit. The rumored repairs required a full disassembly and removal of the turbine in order to fix a problem with the ball bearings. Cyrila treated everyone to another meal, containing the best fried bananas of the whole trip. Alex got the interview, with Xochitl's help, and the results of the interview will soon be included in this profile.

Many hours after they departed Betilia and Avilio's house, our travelers returned from Cyrila's to greet me. They were wet, muddy and exhausted. I was sorry to miss the visit, but also as soon as I saw them, I knew I had made the right decision.

The coffee that Dona Cyrila sent in 2013 was mixed with two other producers from Rio Negro. Their coffee scored highest of the lots that we had sampled, receiving a 79.5 on the 100 point cupping scale. This gives it an "excellent" rating. Rio Negro's coffee has flavors of "fruit and chocolate. with a clean, nice body."

The misty walk down to Cyrila's

This is no road. It is the old footpath that people used to use before there was a road.

Inspecting the river, where the water comes from for the turbine.

The PVC pipe crossing the river.

Adalid, Hector and one of Cyrila's sons (yellow) inspecting the turbine.

Mud and rain.

Xochitl, Alex and Becky - getting ready for the interview.

Cyrila's grandkids.
fried bananas

Outdoor kitchen

so strong

the family

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