During September and October 2016 Tony and I travelled through Central America on a fact finding mission to see first-hand how the products we see on our shelves are sourced.
Starting in Belize and ending up in Costa Rica, it was an amazing adventure.
Nestled right in the heart of Central America sharing its boarders with Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua is Honduras. We were particularly interested in visiting Honduras as its biggest exports are mainly agricultural products such as coffee, bananas and meat - which are known to be high risk sectors for modern slavery. Low pricing, unrealistic time scales of production and high customer demand all lead to pressures on local businesses, which in turn can lead exploitation of local workers.
As we travelled down to Honduras we found that it was not as popular for tourists as its neighboring countries and had a bad reputation as being dangerous and unfriendly. Most people when travelling in Honduras skip straight through to the Bay Islands of Utilla and Roatan, usually via a small town called Copan, with the promise of white sandy beaches and world class diving. To be honest, being a Scuba Diving Instructor myself the biggest pull for me was to the Bay Islands as it was all I had previously known of Honduras.
We had set up a tour with Carlos to visit his home and coffee plantation known as Finca El Cisne. Founded in 1885 it has been owned and run by the same family right up until the present day, which we found out was very common in Honduras. Generations of families keep the land that was passed down to them and carry on the business. Carlos told us that since the beginning of Finca El Cisne they had always prided themselves on being dedicated to sustainable agriculture; starting with the production of shade grown Aribica coffee along with basic corns and beans and growing over the years to also produce meat, dairy and even spices.
We began our tour with Carlos driving us from Copan to his home about 40 minutes away. Set amongst 200 hectares of farm land, it was stunning. Once we arrived we were introduced to members of Carlos's family and presented with a cup of coffee produced on the farm. Needless to say it was delicious! Carlos and his family also have coco plants and produce chocolate which of course we had to try.
The first stop was the stables where we met our lovely rides for the afternoon! Carlos usually makes his way around his land by horseback so we saddled up and off we went. We followed a beautiful trail through the farm land stopping off at various points to examine the coffee bushes. Coffee bushes can live 15-20 years and don't get harvested until 3-5 years old, or when the beans are mature and red in color. All of the bushes are grown with the protection from sunlight by the larger trees providing a canopy, which is how shade grown coffee gets its name. Farms that use shade from large trees are usually more 'eco-friendly' as they provide sanctuary to migrating birds and other wildlife.
On this particular farm the bushes are planted in sections in accordance to age. We first visited the 0-1 year old bushes, then onto the 1-2 year old, 3-4 year old and 4 years plus. By sectioning the bushes this helps the family keep track of which plants are due for harvest, which is only once a year usually between September and March over a period of 3-4 months depending on the individual farm or region.
Because of the harsh landscapes, vegetation and hills nearly all of the work from planting to harvesting has to be done by hand as machines cannot get to the majority of the coffee bushes. Members of the local community come out at harvest time to pick the coffee beans. This is a tradition that many farmers still use instead of labour from the north that could be cheaper.
The local pickers are paid on the total weight of the coffee beans they collect. Each average bush will provide 1 pound (just under half a kilogram) of coffee beans. Depending on the speed of the worker it can take a long time for them to pick just a few bags worth of beans. Once the beans have been picked they are cleaned and then laid out to be dried naturally in the sun.
Once the process is complete and the beans have been dried, they are collected up ready to be exported. Most of the coffee beans are sold all over the world, then roasted and ground when they reach their final destination. Until 1984 only 10% of the coffee was being exported out of Honduras due to political instability and lack of shipping methods. Today, coffee is one of Honduras's most exported commodities.
I don't know about you, but I definitely drink a lot of coffee and like most people I didn't really think about its origins. After our fantastic trip in Honduras it is definitely refreshing to see how sustainable these farms are, but unfortunately this is not the case in many different countries around the world.
I hope you have found this article interesting and look out for more articles on our fact finding missions around the world.