My job is like anyone else's. There are days when I sit down at my desk incredibly excited. And then there are times when I feel like I'm just checking things off the to-do list, not terribly in tune with how it all fits into the bigger picture.
But I'm luckier than most. Just as the shortest, coldest days of winter hit Boston, the coffee cherries in Central America and Ethiopia begin reaching their peak red color. That's when I get to do my favorite work—visiting with Oxfam's coffee partners in Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Ethiopia. Each coffee harvest, I reconnect with the farmers who Oxfam America campaigns for back home.
Whenever I visit with coffee farmers and explain that I've come to learn more about their lives I'm always greeted warmly. These visits get me motivated, although, if truth be told, the visits aren't always uplifting.
This harvest I visited a farmers' cooperative in southern Ethiopia. Though I was welcomed by a group of 15 farmers and their families, the conversation was grim. The coop had fallen on hard times. Though the world price of coffee was up, the families I met were struggling to make it on $300 a year. In two hours there wasn't a single smile on anyone's face and I drove away struggling to imagine how these people were going to make it.
Just a few weeks ago I returned from Guatemala. The volcanic mountains surrounding Lake Atitlan create some of the best coffee-growing conditions in the world. Yet last October the farmers I met with saw Hurricane Stan wash enough mud and boulders down from these mountains to cover houses and wipe out coffee farms. I met people who lost it all and found myself struck by the fact that these farmers—people who were already struggling to get by—were struggling even harder this year because they were on the wrong side of geographic circumstance.
But both in Ethiopia and Guatemala I was amazed to find—as I always do—something inspiring. This harvest, my favorite experience was a walk with Don Antonio Cavajay Ixtamer, president of the cooperative La Voz que Clama en el Desierto (the voice that cries out in the desert). Antonio took my colleagues and me on a walk through his coffee farm where Antonio estimates 80 percent of his land was damaged. We saw coffee trees buried in infertile silt and stumps marking the places where healthy coffee trees once stood.
At the far end of Antonio's farm we emerged from the trees left standing into an area that looked like a dry river bed covered with boulders, some larger than Antonio. He explained that this area had been covered with coffee trees but was inundated with rocks and mud that slid down the mountain during Stan.
It was hard to fathom the force that was required to do such damage to the farm and I asked Antonio if he would ever be able to recover the land. Without missing a beat, Antonio replied "Si se puede. Si se puede." (Yes we can. Yes we can.), and proceeded to explain how he and his sons would remove the rocks, fill trenches, and build stone barriers to divert water before the rainy season begins in May.
Antonio hopes to have the recoverable portions of his land replanted within three years. I don't know whether he'll be successful, but if he falls short, it won't be for lack of motivation and hard work.
Some won't be successful—I know that. But so many of the coffee farmers I meet share the same spirit as Antonio that I've returned to Boston inspired and ready to do what I can to support them. As a result of my trip, Oxfam will provide farmers with $100,000 they can use to help rebuild after Stan.
Despite all the challenges I see, there are farmers who don't give up. As long as they're willing to fight, then I'm willing to fight, too. Some wins are big, some incremental, and sometimes we don't win at all. But as long as Antonio and other coffee farmers are saying "Si se puede" then "Si se puede" it is for me, as well. Yes we can. We have to.