Last week we had the pleasure of visiting with Gilbert Ramirez, a Fair Trade coffee and sugar producer from a cooperative in Costa Rica called CoopeAgri. It was incredibly inspiring to learn about the impact of Fair Trade in this region, and how the small farming community of Pérez Zeledón continues to grow and thrive through the Fair Trade model.
Born and raised in one of the most lush and diverse ecosystems on the planet, Gilbert's story of Fair Trade in Costa Rica is one of great pride and impenetrable hope for the future.
Building a life around Fair Trade
In 1962, Gilbert Ramirez’s father and grandfather founded CoopeAgri, a small coffee and sugar cooperative in Pérez Zeledón  in Southern Costa Rica. Gilbert was born and raised on the lush grounds of CoopeAgri, but was eventually encouraged by his parents to pursue an AA in Accounting. With unwavering support from his family, Gilbert now holds an MBA along with the position of International Operations Manager at CoopeAgri. Dispite his success, Gilbert has never forgotten his roots. He explains that at the cooperative "there are no titles." Everyone works, and everyone has a deep respect for the land and its people.
Environmental sustainability—the key to survival
In speaking with Gilbert, we found that Costa Ricans don’t feel as though environmental sustainability is as much of a question as it is an answer. For the farmers of CoopeAgri, it is a response to climate change, the key to unlocking sustainable means of coffee and sugar production, and most importantly, a way to survive. “And that”, stated Ramirez, “is because the producer (or farmer) sees the direct impact of climate change everyday.” From flash floods, to hurricanes, to droughts; paradisaical Costa Rica is no more immune to the ugly temper of Mother Nature than is anywhere else on Earth.
Since becoming Fair Trade Certified in 1994, CoopeAgri has addressed some of these issues by expanding the amount of social and environmental programs from ten to more than forty-five. The people’s sincere commitment to the environment can be seen in the way they’ve managed to cut energy usage by fifty percent, protect 200 hectares (almost 500 acres) of forest, devise a rain water collecting system, and turn one hundred percent of their coffee pulp into organic fertilizer. CoopeAgri’s sense of responsibility towards protecting the environment stems from an authentic desire to help – the earth and its people. Fair Trade helps make this possible.
It's all for the people
From caring for the environment to ensuring that trade runs smoothly; everything Gilbert does seems to come back to a concern for the wellbeing of his people. This is one of the reasons why CoopeAgri boasts dozens of programs dedicated to projects in housing, health, recreation and education. In order to ensure that the people's voice is heard on these matters, a general assembly (Committee CoopeAgri) convenes annually to vote on new social and environmental programs. In the last ten years of working with Fair Trade, the assembly-approved medical facility has been able to attend to over 110,000 patients and 70 families in need have been provided with housing. To Gilbert, it's not simply about putting a bandage over a big problem, it's about creating lasting, sustainable, community-oriented solutions for a better tomorrow.
This is exemplified by programs such as “Lederes de Futuro” (or Leaders of the Future), a skill-building program that has already given over 1,700 kids and teenagers the tools they need to become future directors and missionaries of CoopeAgri’s “culture of saving.”
The Impact of Fair Trade
"All of the people in CoopeAgri understand the true importance of Fair Trade. This is because we've had more results in the past ten years than in the last forty," said Gilbert. By purchasing Fair Trade Certified products from small farming communities like CoopeAgri, farmers and farm workers around the world are better able to respond to the needs of their people, their product and the environment.
Gilbert's is just one of many powerful stories that demonstrates Fair Trade's ability to drastically transform lives. "Since Fair Trade, we have more personalized business... We are not anonymous anymore."
No matter how you take your coffee, behind every sugar packet and every grande latte, there is a story and there are people. Next time you shop simply think before you drink--and support hard working farmers and workers like Gilbert by making small changes to the way you buy.