May 23, 2007

Cooperatives, Coffee and Coke

On the outskirts of San Salvador, visible from almost every point in the city, is the San Salvador volcano. It rises about 6,000 feet above the city. Its sides are green and lush and it is quite beautiful on the days that you can see it, i.e. days when it is not hazy or clouded over. Yesterday we got a chance to get on this volcano. The occasion was a ¨field trip¨we usually make in the afternoons to see some political or cultural aspect of El Salvador that we would not see otherwise. We took two buses and a taxi to get to a ¨cafe finca¨on the slopes of the volcano. A finca is a cooperative farm, and this one harvests coffee.

The first thing I noticed was the amazingly colorful flowers that grew out of the hillside. The most amazing purples and yellows and reds were visible. The climate here is tropical, and if El Salvador wasn´t the second most deforested country in the Western Hemisphere (behind Haiti), there would be a rainforest almost as lush as the ones in Costa Rica. The second thing I noticed were the security guards. As usual, this business was protected by security which wielded sawed off shotguns. What most intrigued me however, was the size of the shot in the shells. It was huge. I´ve done some hunting in my younger life with a shotgun. The shot in the shells I used was mostly small pellets meant to kill birds. The shot in these shells were meant to stop something big. Something like a man, or a large bear. Literally, being shot with one of these shells would kill you.

This cooperative farm was established in the early 1980s when the ruling government, trying to defuse some of the guerilla´s reasons for fighting the civil war, passed land reform laws that limited land holdings to a certain amount of hectares per individual. Of course, the ruling party that passed the laws was made up of the very same people that owned most of the land. So, what do you think happened? Bingo, even as they were passing the law they were working their way around it. They basically put individual pieces of land to individual members of each family -- for all intents and purposes it was still owned by one person but in law, by several. Some plots were set aside to redistribute, and some of these plots, like the cafe finca, became cooperative ventures. So now, the cafe finca sits on about, I think 1600 hectares of land on the volcano. It supports roughly 600 families, many of whom care for the coffee trees and pick the coffee beans when they are ready.

The government does not like such cooperatives, and makes trouble for them legislatively when they can. Right now, they are poised to have a law passed that will make further trouble for the cooperatives. But, this cooperative serves more than just as a source of income. It is one of the last vestiges of rain-forest in the city. It serves as a safe harbor for many species that would not have a place to live, or a safe refuge during migration. As such, it is an island of tranquility in the midst of busy, hectic San Salvador.

Oh, and in case you don´t think that Coke is evil, and sometimes I am ashamed I drink it, Coke bills itself as ¨Buena Fuente de Hidratacion.¨ A good source of hydration. Hmmm....I always heard that sugar and caffeine actually dehydrated you. So, Coke sells itself for Salvadoran health.


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