We were lucky to get a chance to bring Marilu Lopez Padilla, Coopbam smallholder producer and Women’s Committee leader, onto the Foxhole for a conversation about the challenges created by Covid-19, her role in Coopbam’s formation, and her leadership in the creation of Coopbam’s Women’s Committee.
Marilu is an exemplary member of Coopbam, a cooperative founded with help from environmental group Conservation International to help support and protect the forested coffee farms within the Alto Mayo Protected Reserve in Amazonas and San Martin, Peru. From its founding, the group’s core focus has always been how to marry coffee growing with the enrichment of both the land and the community, rather than stripping the environment of resources in order to farm it. Marilu speaks to how the cooperative structure and the role of women in communal economics serve that mission, as well as the challenges they face perennially and this year in particular.
Ali Newcomb: Hi everyone, I’m Ali Newcomb, director of Red Fox Sourcing Company in Peru and Mexico. I’m here with Carina Barreda, who helps manage quality for Red Fox in Peru. Also joining us is our very special guest, Marilu Lopez Padilla from Coopbam in Amazonas, in the North of Peru. After a break, we restarted the Foxhole last month with the new concept of focusing directly on the people who produce the coffee that we all enjoy so much and letting them speak directly to the people who drink their coffee. Right now we are right in the middle of Peru season and so we wanted to invite someone from our supply chain in Peru. Marilu is a crucial member of Coopbam, the group with whom we started our work in the North of Peru. Marilu, thank you so much for being here and sharing your time to tell us your experience.
Marilu Lopez Padilla: Thank you Ali, I’ll introduce myself as well. My name is Marilu Lopez Padilla, I am from the committee of Beirut, in Amazonas. Thank you for having me here.
Ali: Marilu, Coopbam has a very different history than many other cooperatives in the sense that it is in a protected forest, and because of that, it has a key focus on protecting the local ecosystem. Could you tell me a little bit about the history of Coopbam and how it started?
Marilu: Before Coopbam, I didn’t have any stable customers for my coffee. We would sell to whomever would arrive ready to buy it. Sometimes it was for really low prices and sometimes for higher prices. Often, we had no choice but to sell to whomever would show up.
One day, Edwar, the promoter for the Beirut committee, appeared when I was washing near the road and he said, I think you sell coffee. I said that I do, but just a little, and there aren’t any dried coffee beans at the moment. Then he told me that he knew a buyer looking for dried coffee to be able to sell and that I could take advantage of it. He hadn’t explained the buyers yet and I didn’t know what a cooperative was at that time, but thanks to Edwar I started to understand that they were planning to open a cooperative and were looking for coffee to start it.
He explained the details and since then, we have been working with trust. Now I say it again, in front of Edwar (who’s holding the camera), I can’t distrust the cooperative because I am always sure that it is truly cooperative and they do it for all of us, and amongst all of us, so we are all united—that is why I trust the coop.
Back then, before we established that trust, Edwar came to take my coffee and as I waited for results and payment, I kept asking him when he would pay me. He took my coffee and days went by. Soon, they did pay me and the cooperative officially started the following year in 2017. By then, it was more known in the area and many wanted to become members and build committees. Our coffee had a guaranteed market from the cooperative, and we continued and continued and I always believed in my coffee, and I still believe in it.
Carina Barreda: Marilu, from when you started working with Coopbam to today, how has your coffee production changed? How do you see your development?
Marilu: I am very happy with the development from the beginning to now. We learned things from the cooperative like managing planting, how and when to fertilize, to do everything on time and to be on top of the harvest so we can get a good product and to not to abandon the farm: the to-do’s of the farm.
Ali: In the Beirut subregion, what are your biggest producing challenges, especially for producing quality?
Marilu: When it comes to the harvest, we have to be really on top of it. Once it starts ripening we have to be there consistently. If not, when the winter comes, the coffee starts falling. In Beirut, parrots will come eat the coffee once it’s ripe—that is a big difficulty for us because we have to be ready to run over quickly and scare them away no matter what else we’re doing. It means we have to pay attention constantly.
Ali: It seems like you do a great job managing the parrots and everything else. This year, the world is upside down and I think there have been more challenges than ever, no? I know Peru had one of the longest quarantines in the world and I know that in the rural areas, additional preventative measures were taken. Can you tell us more about how things are there both on a daily basis and also the challenges that have arisen over the course of the season?
Marilu: We had many difficulties because of the pandemic. We are farmers, country people, and many say that in the countryside people live happily, and that is true in some ways, but not in others. Yes, we are less anxious because we are in the countryside. On the other hand, we have difficulties and we need help as well: sometimes for our children, other times for the house, and sometimes for other things like not being able to go out and shop for what we need. During the harvest, it was difficult because we needed to go out to other fields to help with labor there, but we were surrounded by policemen, rondas campesinas (groups of peasants that patrol to keep the countryside safe), and the army.
To this day, we have the army nearby. From my house, you can see the army—they are always paying attention, they don’t allow people from outside to come in.
And while that has created difficulty, maybe it has been because of that, and thanks to God, that we are all still safe and there haven’t been any cases of this illness in our area. We are still taking care of ourselves, respecting the protocols as the president mandates. He asks a lot of us, our people, and we don’t understand much about it. But we all take care of ourselves and we are in the front, fighting it as well as continuing our jobs at home and at the farm, for our own good, for our families’ health and ours.
Ali: Well, it makes me happy to know that you haven’t had any cases of the virus in Beirut but it sounds complicated as well; so you haven’t left Beirut?
Marilu: No, we’ve stayed here. For example, we haven’t been able to attend a cooperative meeting since March. I’m a representative in the administrative council where we usually have many meetings, but none since March. Schools are now virtual here and my little girl is about to start her first year in elementary school. She is here studying virtually from home, and my son is also studying college virtually in Chachapoyas University. We are all here, all together with them.
Ali: How are you doing with the virtual school? Do you attend via TV? On the radio? How is it held?
Marilu: I am going to tell you this but it’s going to make you laugh—I don’t have a TV. The signal doesn’t reach here, so I don’t own a TV. The virtual classes that my little girl has to attend, I borrowed a radio so she could listen. I can also listen so I can help her with homework. The signal isn’t very clear but we make anything possible. We make it work.
Ali: So besides producing coffee, you have become a teacher.
Marilu: Yes, I work a bit as a teacher, a bit on my farm, a bit taking care of my house, doing all the chores and doing a little bit of everything.
Carina: What help or benefits have you received from the cooperative during these last few months, related to the pandemic?
Marilu: They have brought us baskets with staple goods and supplies. Thank God we have been able to get something, I am very thankful. It has helped me tremendously.
Ali: Marilu, can you please tell me more about your work in the Women’s Committee at Coopbam?
Marilu: We coordinate between the women of different regional committees to be able to expand and diversify our communal livelihood. Some members wanted to do other work like crafts and planting vegetable and fruit crops; it is so essential for the health to have fresh vegetables and we prioritize it when planting in our orchards. So that was our idea: different committees for different projects, for example, a committee for creating vegetable plots, another committee to make artisan crafts, and another committee to raise poultry, all of this to generate diversified sources of income.
Because as women we always think, the most important thing is not to lack anything at home. As a group we had plans to do many more projects through different committees this year, but as you know, this pandemic came and delayed a lot of that. I’m sure that as soon as this passes we are going to continue improving and conversing about many projects we will do. And the committees agree as women, to do it and fight to be able to go on.
Carina: How did the idea come up about building this Women’s Committee? Who was the person who managed or who pushed for the development of this committee and what was the goal?
Marilu: Well, the cooperative always talked about this, during our trainings. There are men who are married to coop members, but not all the men are members of the larger cooperative—sometimes the husbands aren’t the members, the wives are. In my case, I am by myself, but I am a member and I am also the president of the Women’s Committee, and I manage this role differently from being a cooperative member, but it is equal.
That’s what gave us the idea, because we have women who are coop members but we wanted to broaden the group to include the non-member wives of the men who were coop members. We all wanted to do something for our lives and our finances, we are always in need of things and that was our agreement: the women who want to work united to do jobs cooperatively and get better at them. For example in 2018, our women’s group grew and sold over 200,000 seedlings.
A lot of us in the community are happy that we are producing all that we are, as committee members. Like those seedlings: in order to grow a seedling, it doesn’t happen from one day to another. You have to be on top of it: fighting, working, group by group every day, just like that. That was our idea, so we could improve our livelihood. That is why we formed groups in Beirut, Vilcaniza, Yambrasbamba, by Aguas Verdes, and other places.
Ali: What is your favorite part of being a coffee producer?
Marilu: What makes me happy is having you as a set market of clients to buy our coffee. We have our buyers and believe in them, and you also put their trust in our product that goes to you. We always try to improve our product and see the best way to have it delivered to you with quality.
Ali: Would you like your daughter Ani to be a coffee producer when she grows up?
Marilu: I would love that. My daughter has learned about coffee since she was small, she has a bright mind. She likes to harvest the ripe fruits; she knows what to pick and what to discard. You won’t believe me but she already bites into the dried coffee to assess the moisture. When she bites into the dry bean, she says it’s already hard, or it’s already dry. I know with time she will learn more and that she will like it.
Carina: What other objectives would you like to achieve in the near or far future either in terms of coffee production or other personal goals?
Marilu: My goal is, that with the help of God, with the production that we perform here, I want my son to keep studying and finish with the profession he is pursuing, for my son and my daughter to keep studying always. Right now it’s very worrisome with the whole pandemic but we are fighting it as best we can with virtual schooling.
Ali: Thank you so much Marilu. Do you have any questions or comments for us?
Marilu: Just to thank you and thank God for giving us this day to be here with you and you with us. Let it be the first time we do this but not the last. The only thing I would ask you is, once the pandemic is over hopefully you can come visit us again.
Ali: Oh yes, I am looking forward to it and Carina as well.
Carina: Yes, absolutely.
Marilu: Thank you!