Ridin´The Intag Express

Last we left off, Lex and I were infirmed for three days in Otavalo, largely confined to a small room with pots of ginger tea, freshly squeezed mandarin juice, a new (to us) fruit called pepinos, and multiple episodes of Treme. Sunday, we decided to pop some decongestant pills and board the windy bus over a high-altitude Andean pass, into the absurdly lush, forested hills of the Intag region.

While in Otavalo, we picked up a copy of the ¨Intag Newspaper¨ in a small cafe, Casa Del Intag, dedicated to selling products produced in the Intag region. Thumbing through the bi-monthly publication which is translated into English online, we learned that a great deal of environmental organizations and agricultural cooperatives exist in the region. The paper also provided additional detail on the ongoing threat to the area at the hands of large mining companies.

We decided to take the Sunday bus to Apuela, a small village of a few hundred people in the heart of Intag which is home to DECOIN, an environmental organization, as well as AACRI a producer-owned coffee cooperative. The bus was FULLY packed, even by South American standards, and by my informal count, no fewer than three different children began vomiting from the persistent winding, dropping and climbing over three-plus hours to Apuela. While Lex had her eyes closed to combat motion sickness, I (somehow immune to this condition) gazed out the window at the magnificent scenery. The road to Intag descends through cloudforest unlike anything we had seen before. Indeed, this part of the Andes is referred to as the “Choco-Andean” corridor and is considered one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. The precipitous drops provided outstanding views of the valleys below. Although we are now in the dry (read–relatively drier season) I did see evidence of previous landslides dropping pieces of the road hundreds of meters below. Although this sort of thing used to freak me out a few months back, now—like riding a bike in New York City—it’s just a bit of added excitement to our transit routine.

Safely off the Pukehound, we settled into las Cabanas Pradera, a set of five hand-built wood cabins with bathrooms and hot water set in a small bit of land behind one of the shops in town. We were the only guests, so, it was just us, the chickens and the owner’s three dogs hanging around. Although this is our first mention, we have been naming many of the dogs we’ve encountered along the way. “Boof Carlyle II”, a completely spastic puppy of four months, was an entertaining neighbor for a few days. We shall remember him fondly, alongside the enigmatic outlaw “Gary Busey” of Coroico, Bolivia, the regally ruffled “Rufus” of Sucre, and others.

Apuela, although tiny, serves as an economic hub for the surrounding towns, with a weekly Sunday market. While visiting the market, we picked up some Guaba which, as you can see from the picture in the slideshow below, is a large pod that grows on trees local to the region. Pry open the pod and there are huge black seeds encased in a furry, mildly sweet flesh that is eaten raw. We picked up a few and although we enjoyed the fruit and its bizarre appearance, it does not go down as one of our new favorites. The new fruit of the week is, without a doubt, the delicious pepino! We will provide pictures of these in the future, but they are not, as their name might imply, a form of cucumber. Rather, they are a semi-sweet, round, orange and yellow specked fruit with a taste that is someplace in between a cucumber, a cantaloupe and a pear. Pretty yummy, right? We’ve been trying lots of new fruits and will start posting more of them as we go.

Our visit in Apuela began in much the same fashion as our stay in Otavalo, which is to say lying in bed, waiting to recover from whatever has been ailing us. We took a few trips into town, but with DECOIN closed Mondays and Tuesdays, we were a little unsure about what our next step might be. While walking to the town square for lunch on Monday afternoon, we noticed somebody stirring in the AACRI office. Later that day, we met with Edmundo, the elected head of the association, who informed us that the following day he would be giving a tour of their processing facility for a group of German tourists and that we would be welcome to tag along if we wished. While in Edmundo’s office and over the course of the following day’s visit, we learned a great deal about the cooperative as well as some interesting new perspectives on coffee production.

AACRI is comprised of 400 small-plot farming families spread throughout the Intag Region. It was created twelve years ago after a particularly notorious chapter in the region’s ongoing conflict with mining companies, to provide a more sustainable form of income for the people. The cooperative developed around the cultural concept of “Minga,” which is a form of reciprocal assistance between neighbors. They have a democratically elected council of leaders and, unlike many rural organizations, have structured themselves so as to share responsibility and decision-making equally between women and men. In addition to coffee production, they work with farmers to increase reforestation efforts and the association works with partner organizations to maintain a biological corridor connecting areas of primary forest that might otherwise be disrupted by agricultural production.

The tour we accompanied was organized by a German direct-trade coffee importing firm, whose president presented the opportunity to his customers to travel to Ecuador and learn where their favorite coffee comes from. Needless to say, this wasn’t the typical group of tourists. Throughout our South American journey, people have gawked at the Aeropress and have met our traveling coffee production gear with slightly bemused expressions. On this day, I was challenged on the taste merits of the Aero-brew, and questioned as to why I did not bring a hand-grinder with me. Lex and I enjoyed the conversation and did our best to repel the image of America as a land of watery, bad coffee-drinking cowboys.

Although there were some differences in technique, much of the process explained during our tour was similar to what was detailed in the Cafe Munaypata post. Having said that, it was interesting to see how different people hold diverging opinions on matters pertaining to drying methods, moisture content, plant cultivation, roasting temperature, and other technical details. Even more interesting was learning about how the cooperative educates farmers on the selection process and how they have worked to raise the quality of their product over the years. As mentioned above, all decisions are made democratically, even the setting of purchase price. Each year, the cooperative votes on the price paid to farmers for the different grades of coffee produced on the farms. During the harvest season, the farmers bring a weekly haul of post-fermentation “pergamino” beans to the processing facility to have the quality inspected and graded by the cooperative staff. There, it is decided what price the farmer receives and although there are disputes from time to time, the process is considered transparent and fair. This is a huge change from the days of shady middlemen with loaded scales, paying wholesale prices set by the wildly speculative and unstable commodities market in New York.

Still, there are nefarious forces at work in Apuela. Just a few doors down from AACRI, mining companies have set up shop as coffee buyers. There, they don’t care what kind of coffee comes through and are always willing to pay just above whatever AACRI will pay. Nobody is sure what they do with their product and it is widely considered a not so subtle ploy to break one of the few reliable economic engines of the region. As a result, AACRI have had to set an exclusivity code within their membership that bars the sale of product to outside buyers.

The history of abuses, coercion and threats by mining concerns in the Intag region is long and storied. Nowhere is this truer than the small, remote village of Junin. In 1997, threatened with the destruction of their community from environmental degradation, the people of Junin staged demonstrations against the Mitsubishi Company, then the lease-holders to mining rights. Faced with threats, intimidation and eventually violence at the hands of hired groups of armed “representatives” from the firm, the people of Junin eventually prevailed in evicting the miners from their land. Mitsubishi left, but there have been others angling to come in.

In recent years, the community set aside a large area of forest as a nature reserve to attract tourists and provide an alternate source of income. We read about a rustic forest lodge type arrangement near Junin, but despite multiple searches on the internet, could not seem to find updated contact information for the community. While in Apuela, we asked around and eventually got a number for the Ramirez family, who currently act as liaisons for the community tourism enterprise. After a few unanswered attempts from the lone public phone in Apuela, earlier today we managed to reach Alirio Ramirez to plan our visit. Tomorrow, we board the bus from Otavalo, headed further into the Intag region to the town of Garcia Moreno where we will be met by Alidio to be transported in his truck another hour up the lone dirt road to Junin. We are looking forward to experiencing the remote, beautiful forest and learning about the struggle in Junin directly from the community. We’ve wanted to go to a “lodge” in the cloudforest since entering Ecuador and a trip to Junin seems like a great way to learn about the natural surroundings while supporting people who are on the frontlines in the battle for conservation.

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About andesnotthemint

Alexis, Mark, 2 seasons, 1 continent, a very long mountain range.
This entry was posted in Ecuador, Food, Intag, Mark, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Ridin´The Intag Express

  1. mom wyman says:

    Unbelieveable experience……..
    thanks for sharing it in such well written, interesting detail.

    love mom w.

  2. Jared says:

    I hadn’t heard of AACRI before this. It’s heartening that the local producers have organised themselves so efficiently and identified the ugly schemes of the mining corporations. Looking forward to hearing about Junin.

  3. Jared says:

    Also I think we’ll be keeping an eye out for those Pepinos, they sound pretty tasty!

  4. Pingback: Mixed Bag In The Intag? | Andes Not The Mint dot com

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