El Triunfo: Birds, Coffee and Relationships

By Todd Caspersen, Director of Purchasing
Photos by Joe Driscoll, Equipment Guru

It's our first morning up in the mountains. We roll out of our bunkhouse just as the sun crowns the surrounding peaks, making the river and mist glow. It's going to be a beautiful day in the forest. I run up to the cookhouse eager for hot coffee to thaw the night's cold; it's the coldest I have ever been in Mexico. Frost clings to the grass until the rising sun turns it to cold fresh water bound for the river.

The previous day we hiked 12 km through coffee plantations then pine, oak and liquidamber forests, into the largest cloud forest in Mesoamerica, to Campamento El Triunfo. The camp is managed by CONANP, and the park guards are from the surrounding coffee growing communities--a great mechanism for community engagement.

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The cookhouse has a long, dark wood table that has coffee and a small snack to prepare us for our early walk; breakfast will come later. I am eager to hear from our guides the plan for the day, as the details of this little adventure had been vague all the weeks prior to the trip, and continued to be up until this moment. Jungle forays are frequently short on details.

We have two guides: Ramiro, the park ranger, and Dr. Guitchard, the subdirector of the Biosfera El Triunfo. They say we will have two walks in the forest and two activities at the camp, and then rushed us out the door to catch the early morning bird activity. We're told to walk quietly and use all of our senses. We’re looking for tapirs, deer, boars, tepezcuntles, pumas, jaguars, quetzals, horned guans, wrens, swifts, warblers and migratory song birds, many of which are from New England. The forest itself is an amazing, complex symbiotic ecosystem; the trees host hundreds of species of epiphytes, bromeliads, insects, amphibians, and birds. It is incredible what is on, and in, just one of the huge trees seen all around us. In these conditions trees can actually develop a soil-like substrate in their canopy.  Listening to birds all around us, our guide clues us into the different bird sounds and points out the small wrens and warblers hopping about near the forest floor eating insects in the lowest level of the forest structure. We see tapir footprints in the soft mud, tapir feces along the trail, wild boar footprints, signs of rooting, and pack trails leading deep into the forest. We continue.

I linger behind and observe the group moving quietly through the forest together, all looking for the same thing: a special bird. As I watch, I remember the first time I went hiking with farmers. It was three years ago at El Imposible in El Salvador. It was there I realized what a valuable relationship-building tool it was to hike with your partners; common goals are important. I have been trying to include these types of trips into our sourcing activities and walking with this group is a great example. Our group has cooperative leadership from three different co-ops that work together in the buffer zone communities of the El Triunfo biosphere, two Equal Exchangers, a bank lending officer, two biologists, and park guards. In this context, commerce is not the medium of exchange, and we are not the principle actors. The forest and its inhabitants are center stage.

After an hour of hiking we spot the prized horned guan in a tree right by the trail. What a fantastic bird, he clicks and clacks his beak to a sort of two-thirds beat. Lying on the forest floor with fellow cooperators, witnessing this amazing bird together, was a great trust, knowledge and enthusiasm building experience for the whole group. I hope to experience something this special with other partners, in future trips.

We walk back through the forest, one of the largest catchments of fresh water in Mexico, and marvel at our good fortune to share this place and protect it through the on-going development of a sustainable coffee trade within the buffer zone communities.

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Today, I'm back in my office. I drink a Mexican Medium Roast from a small French press. I'm certain I taste notes of clouds in my cup.