Update on Cirila of Rio Negro
by Andy Gaertner 15 Jan 2016
Doña Cirila is a single mother who is a member of the COFEACOMA coffee co-op and she lives in the area of Rio Negro. Many years ago when we first started to buy coffee from the co-op, we visited many of the farms and took notes and photos. The first year, the only person in Rio Negro who we didn't visit was Cirila, because her house is far from the town center. But the second year we made the effort and it became clear that if we were going to help anyone in Rio Negro, it should be her and her family. Her house was a full 45 minute walk down a muddy footpath. Her children were ill clothed and barefoot. She is a small woman with a quiet dignity.
We thought that by buying coffee from her at our higher prices, it might be a way out for her and her children. But Cirila has only sent a little coffee to us over the years. Her coffee farm is lower on the mountain, so the coffee matures about a month earlier than the other growers. By the time the co-op is gathering the coffee for export, she has usually finished her harvest and she has had to sell it right away to middle buyers because she lacks the infrastructure and space to dry and store her coffee, and because she needs the money right away.
So even though we have not gotten any coffee from her, we knew that we needed to stay connected to her and her family. Farmer to Farmer and our friends Deb and Pete from Stoneledge Farm in New York contributed a bunch of money to cover most of the costs of installing a micro-turbine so that she could have electricity. It was a hard fought project, with help from Adalid and Hector, but in the end it was finished and we had a great visit with a Farmer to Farmer delegation where we were able to dance to the music from a music video on Sirula's TV and drink a cold beverage from her refrigerator. By that time her house had doubled in size and things were looking up.
All the while when we were inspecting the micro-turbine water system over several years, Doña Cirila's kids would be there, especially two boys who seemed small for their age. It was the boys who took charge of making the system work and when we would arrive, we would always be impressed with inventions that they had made with the electrical system.
It has been four years since we last visited Cirila, and earlier this year something happened that made it very important that I make it to her place this year. There was a rainstorm that came on very strong and didn't stop. In the middle of the night Cirila found her house filling with water. There had been a small mudslide and a ditch had diverted water into her house. The rain was pouring and she went out with her family and opened up a exit for the water. Soon after that her phone was ringing and she found out that her daughter had not been so lucky. A whole hillside had slid down on top of her house and she and her husband were buried alive.
During our visit this time, Doña Cirila was quiet and mostly we talked with her son about the turbine and the electrical system. We went down and saw the system and then she brought out a limeade and we spoke some more about the prices of coffee and such with her sons. After a while, I went into the kitchen and our friend Marta was listening as Cirila told the story of the terrifying night when her daughter died. One of the only good things from that night was that her daughter's two children were staying with Cirila and they both survived. We got to take their photo and give them some American candy. The children looked well and happy, playing with their cousins.
The deadly mudslide came at a time when things were looking up for Cirila´s family. Her son had just finished building an adobe house just up the hill, and they had just paid a bulldozer to bring a dirt road access to Cirila's house. The good coffee prices from the previous year had allowed Cirila to enclose her kitchen in adobe blocks, effectively doubling the size of her house. There is a cement floor in the original house and she even has satellite tv. There is an improved cook stove that does not fill the house with smoke, but instead has a good chimney. Her family has a motorcycle too.
Our visit found her on the edge. Things could continue to improve. With the road access and electricity, her life has changed. The boys who were running around trying to help with the turbine project have become young men, with scraggly beards and children of their own. They have the vision of improving the electrical system in order to provide electricity for the four houses that make up the family's growing complex. They are planning to build a coffee processing station down next to the turbine in order to use the power of the turbine to directly power the depulping machine.
But things might also stay the same or get worse. New roads are hard to maintain, and Cirila's road is barely passable as it is. The electrical system is cobbled together and aging. We looked at it with Hector and it needs a reset soon, because it is burning through pulley belts. Coffee prices are low, and Cirila will not have any coffee to sell to Farmer to Farmer this year again at our high prices because the little system that she had set up to dry coffee has been ruined by the weather a couple years ago. She now has ten grandchildren, including the two orphaned children of her daughter. We sent some money right after the event, but that money only went so far.
It was good that we visited. Hector arranged to trade some 3 inch PVC pipes that they need to expand their system for an electric motor that they won't need when they move their processing station down to the turbine site. They spoke a lot about electricity. It was amazing to see the level of inventiveness of her sons and the resilience of Doña Cirila, of course. I hope that my visit helped her know that she is not forgotten. She said that she hopes to send coffee next year. I hope she does too.