Owning and operating 3 organic coffee farms in the Boquete region of Panama has given our company the wonderful opportunity to transform the environment and the lives of farm-workers for the better. Our farms are examples of the most sustainable and socially responsible farming in all of Panama.
On all our farms, we strive to restore a bio-diverse, natural shade canopy that shades our organic trees. Shade and organic coffee farming slowly develop the rich, complex flavors of the beans as well as protects the health of the farm workers and environment there. Our farms have clean worker housing, sanitation, kitchens for our workers, and we have built small schools for the children.
Yet now through one of our farms, Finca Santa Maria, we have also experienced a tragedy, as the story below, written by Pete Rogers, illustrates. It opened our eyes to Panamanian politics and the continued marginalized existence of the Ngobe indigenous Indians who live there.
Santa Maria - A Little Girl's Life - by Pete Rogers
A fragile soul caught in the hands of fate when morning comes it will be too late - Martina McBride, "Concrete Angel"
I didn't know the girl. She was only 1 and a half years old, but now our lives are intertwined forever.
Her mother walked 5 days from the mountains above Bocas del Toro on the East Coast to our farm on the Western border with Costa Rica. She was looking for food, had no money and a needed help. She was desperate. Her husband (although Ngobe Indians rarely do an official ceremony to marry for life) had worked on our farm part-time helping plant coffee trees. How her mother decided to leave the home and find him, and how she knew where to go, we will never truly understand. All we know is her mother started walking.
She walked for 5 days along trails like the Ngobe Indian trail that is pictured here. Food was very scarce when her mother left and almost non-existent during the walk. I am sure her mother carried the little girl most of the time as she was in the late stages of starvation and would have been too weak to walk. The little girl also suffered from severe worms and parasites which made it impossible for her body to recover from starvation as the worms absorbed valuable nutrition before her fragile body had a chance to use them.
I am sure most of those 5 days were a blur of time to the little girl as her body began to shut down. We learned she was feverous and non-responsive when mother arrived on our farm looking for her husband. Unfortunately, he was not there.
The Ngobe Indians travel around the countries of Panama and Costa Rica looking for work. They follow the crops harvesting where there is work and moving on if there is none. As it turned out, her husband had been squatting on our farm without our knowledge. He had been camping in a remote corner with no housing or facilities. The only good news was that they did eventually find each other.
When the little girl died we are not sure, possibly 1 day, not more than 3. But by the time we found out, it was too late. Then, an International Labor Union learned of the death, and it began the process of suing us for the death of this little girl due to other unfair living conditions. The T.V. stations picked up on the story as did the newspapers. In an email to the President, the Minister of Labor blamed us for killing the girl through typical barbaric acts of coffee farmers. A legal whirlwind started and 15 counts were filed in court against us.
Weeks later, after many grueling days in court, we prevailed on every single count that was brought against us. We won because on all our farms, we pay workers well above the minimum wage and we add to their social security. We have new, clean worker housing, clean water, showers, and bathrooms. We build and/or repair schools for workers' children and provide them with the school supplies they need. We are, in fact, an example of the good, not the bad side of coffee farming. But of course, none of these facts mattered to the Union. They had seen an opportunity to seize the spotlight for themselves.
What bothered me most during the court case was that everyone seemed to forget that a little girl had died. She will never have the chance to swim in a river, walk to Bocas or learn her culture like the Ngobe girls (pictured above) who live on our farm, Finca Santa Maria. The Indians in Panama seem to be a forgotten race, used when needed, cast aside when not.
I know I won't forget this little girl. I'm committed to continue making living conditions better for the less fortunate with her memory as my guide.