Human Impacts Institute in Panama: Cucuà Coffee

On behalf of Human Impacts Institute, I recently traveled to Panama and Costa Rica for an international exchange program funded by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Professional Fellows Division. The Economic Empowerment Program (EEP) administered by the University of Connecticut’s Global Training and Development Institute is also a collaboration with the University of Peace in Costa Rica. This is Human Impacts Institute’s second time participating in the exchange. The EEP took professionals in the social entrepreneurship, environmental, community development, and health sectors in the Northeastern United States and countries in Central and South American including Costa Rica, Panama, Columbia, and Peru to partake in an NGO job shadowing exchange program. As a Professional Fellow I traveled to Panama to job shadow Alberto Pascual. Alberto owns is own NGO called Fundación Communidad that confronts sustainable and community development in Panama. Latin American Professional Fellows were provided a small stipend from the U.S. State Department to initiate a project that economically empowers local communities with the hopes that a long lasting project and international collaboration would form. Below are a description of Alberto’s amazing project and my impressions of it.

Alberto’s project for the Professional Fellows Exchange is a coffee project titled, Cucuà Coffee. Alberto is working with an indigenous community in San Miguel Centro, high in the hills of the Coclé Province and is helping them create a coffee brand. The indigenous community, called the Cucuà, naturally grows coffee around their community (which consists of 30-40 families). They received organic coffee seeds from an organic farm years ago and instead of creating a planation of coffee crops in tiered rows and columns, they simply spread the seeds around their town as if to say “if this works, great. If not, that’s great too”. And, wow, did it work! Coffee plants, huge and vibrant coffee plants, grew everywhere around the community, naturally. The Cucuà are able to have coffee plants spread throughout their community because they live in higher elevations away from urban life and have a nice sized river that runs through the town- no irrigation necessary. I was simply amazed. When Alberto told me that we were going to see naturally grown coffee I pictured rows and rows of short shrub-like plants, shaded by large trees with a simple, non-invasive irrigation system. What I saw was nothing like that. As someone who is interested in pursuing a career directed towards sustainable agriculture and nutrition, this sight was fascinating for me. Yes, sustainable agriculture IS real AND possible. The Cucuà lived with the land, not on the land.

More than the coffee itself that amazed me was the Cucuà community. They are truly amazing people. Alberto chose to not show me any pictures of the Cucuà people or neighborhood beforehand so that I could experience it for myself. However, he did tell me that they had no electricity and received most of their income from their handicrafts and agricultural products (coffee). What I pictured in my mind, as a young adult from the Midwest traveling to an indigenous community in the mountains of inner Panama (a country I had never travelled to previously), was not what I experienced. The Cucuà have no electricity and only one pay phone for the whole community. Though they live a life that by many would be considered ‘behind the times’, I found them to be very forward thinking and possessing a modern mindset. I came to this conclusion after meeting Jose and Maria of the Cucuà. Jose heads an organization called Asociación Cultural Y Ecologica Cucuá. This organization was created by the Cucuà to preserve their culture and advance in a way that is beneficial for the entire community. All of the Cucuà children go to a nearby school (up and down a lot of very large hills) during the day so all members are literate. During the day, while the children are at school, community adults gather in the community center and create their handicrafts, which they have won many national awards for. In present day, it is common for indigenous community members that live like the Cucuà to flee to the city for work opportunities. However, most find themselves living in the slums surrounding the city often living and working in horrible conditions. I found the Cucuà very modern in the sense that they treated their land well and with respect and found opportunity for growth and financial well being in their community. Alberto’s Cucuà Coffee project will aid the Cucuà, helping them acquire economic stability. The community is happy to work with and develop a relationship with Alberto as he has the community’s best interest in mind. In the past, the Cucuà has sold their coffee crop to larger organizations that have given them only a very small portion of the product earnings. Alberto’s organization, however, will be returning almost full profit back to the Cucuà. After the first round of coffee was sold to Alberto’s inner circle, he and Jose have decided to take steps to improve the coffee production process. Alberto hopes to secure funding to acquire a solar generated grinder and roaster to quicken production. With the next round of coffee to be sold, Alberto will also be placing the new branding, that Alberto has designed himself, on the coffee bags.

Further down the line, Alberto will be working to acquire proper health codes so that he can sell his product in shops. It is our hope, after the Professional Fellows Exchange Program, that we continue to collaborate on the Cucuà Coffee project and to hopefully bring the brand to coffee shops in Brooklyn, NY. Keeping our fingers crossed!

Melanie Griffin, Outreach Coordinator

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