Read Part 1 here.
A Brief History of Aprainores (continued)
The situation was bleak, but the Fair Traders stood by Aprainores. A plan was put in place. Alex Flores, who had been working at the co-op for the previous year, was asked to take over its management. He had studied agronomy and business management in the U.S. and they believed that he possessed the necessary skills to turn things around. More importantly, Alex had grown to know the farmers and he cared deeply for them and their organization. Alex made a commitment to the farmers to help them succeed and promised the buyers that he would pay back the debt.
It was a remarkable turnaround. By 2012, Aprainores had consolidated their co-op. They now had 55 members, Fair Trade and organic certifications, and a processing plant that employed 30 women from neighboring communities; the only source of employment in the area. They had two long-term Fair Trade buyers and each year, Alex has paid off some of their debt, along with the interest. The farmers supplement their income by fishing, growing corn, beans, and other subsistence crops. They still find work as day laborers on neighboring plantations. No one is quite making a living, but they have survived.
Equal Exchange launches Fair Food: 2012
In 2012, Equal Exchange reaffirmed our commitment to small farmers and Authentic Fair Trade. Having built a successful model in coffee, we decided it was time to replicate our work, applying what we had done and what we had learned to a new product category. Throughout the world, nut and dried fruit co-operatives have formed to provide economic livelihoods for small farmers. In food co-ops, ethical consumers buy these products without information or knowledge about the products or the producers. Sadly, much of these nuts and dried fruits are bought off the commodity market: sales of these products do nothing to support alternative trade organizations with social missions, nor do the profits don’t even benefit small farmers or their associations.
Our conclusion: it is time to make the connection between small nut and dried fruit producers and consumers in the North by building and strengthening these co-operative supply chains. When we tried our first sample of cashews from Aprainores, we knew we were on our way! Aprainores had already committed their harvest, but we managed to buy every last pound they could sell us. Within three weeks, the cashews had sold out. Our instincts were right on!
We signed a contract to purchase twice that amount the following harvest and began working with another remarkable co-op, the Fair Trade Alliance of Kerala (FTAK) in India so we could have a year-round supply to keep the bins stocked. But as luck would have it, in March 2013, smack in the middle of the harvest, Alex called to tell us they had been hit by an unusual weather phenomenon; for three days, hurricane-like winds swept through eastern El Salvador. Occurring just at the time the cashew trees were in blossom, the winds knocked the budding flowers and incipient fruit off the trees. The processing plant was also damaged. Aprainores had lost 70% of their harvest.
There would be no cashews from El Salvador that year.
It was disheartening. I travelled to El Salvador to see the damage and talk with the farmers. In a meeting on the island, the farmers couldn’t hide their discouragement. Alex, looking pretty weary himself, explained to them that it would be another year without profits. He reminded them that much of their hardship was due to the significant debt they were carrying; nevertheless, he tried to encourage them: in seven years, they had paid off more than two-thirds of the debt; a few more years and they would be in the clear.
I was worried. Really? Was there nothing that could be done? They’ve worked so hard; their product is so good and certainly has a market. Surely, between all of us working to support small farmers, democratic organizations, alternative food systems, and co-operative supply chains, we could figure this one out. Fair Trade is about relationships. These farmers had given up twelve years of their lives to fight for social justice; they couldn’t just fail because of a three-day wind. Could they?
Taking Action: Co-ops Supporting Co-ops
Back at Equal Exchange I got the support to make something happen. Alex met with the co-op leadership and they put together a plan. The path forward became clear. The cashew trees had been planted in the 1970s; while still producing, they were aging. The farmers didn’t have the resources to plant new trees; they could barely find the time to keep up with the day to day farm renovations necessary to get their farms to full production. If they had more technical assistance and more staff, they could affiliate dozens of cashew farmers living in the area and have even more cashews to sell in the future. The loan needed to be paid off. The co-op needed a revolving loan fund to provide credit to the members. In this way, the farmers could make it to the harvest, without having to borrow money from the coyotes that then snatch up their cashews come March.
We were in agreement, Equal Exchange and Aprainores. Earlier this year, we wired the first round of funding, with which they built a nursery, hired an extension worker to manage it, and installed an irrigation system. The farmers chose seeds from their best trees and planted them in the nursery. During our visit, we saw the 5,000 seedlings that they then grafted with shoots from their strongest cashew trees. With luck, the trees will begin producing in three to four years.
And so, on that insufferably hot March day, Oscar and Alex excitedly showed us around the farms. We saw where each farmer had cleared land in preparation for the new seedlings that they will plant. We spent the day visiting the farms and meeting with the farmers. They were still cautious, but I could sense excitement and optimism as well.
As we walked around the island, Oscar told us the story of how he had joined the guerilla movement at the age of nine. He had seen his entire family killed by army soldiers right before his eyes. Lifting his shirt and showing us where he had taken a bullet during the 1989 military offensive, Oscar told us he was feeling optimistic. The presidential elections had just occurred in El Salvador and Salvador Sanchez Ceren, one of the five military commanders of the FMLN had actually won! Oscar told us, “it’s been a long journey, and we never thought we’d see this day! Now, we’re ready for the next stage of our struggle for economic and political rights here in El Salvador. This time, it’s not happening with weapons but with cashew nuts.”
Addendum: Closing the Circle: Food co-ops join the initiative
Equal Exchange continues to build our Fair Foods program, searching for the right products and producer groups; working with our food co-op partners to build this new supply chain. Farmer co-ops; Equal Exchange; food co-ops: all three partners are necessary to do this work and to do it well. There are no formulas to follow when trying to create an alternative food system to the one we have now. We all know that the deck is stacked against small farmers, Alternative Trade Organizations, and progressive food stores. So we need to trust each other and support one another; after all, we are all innovating, taking risks, making mistakes, and learning as we go.
A new idea emerged: Since we are all in this together, why not invite our food co-op partners; and their consumers; to join us in this initiative? What better way to build support for small farmer co-ops, educate and engage consumers in the food system; and find ways to strengthen relationships throughout the supply chain? The idea: a pilot program to support small farmer co-ops initiated by Equal Exchange with participation from food co-ops that will involve financial, educational, and cross-cultural components.
We have only just begun this work and we are so excited and so proud of the enthusiasm and the commitment we have received already. Hats off to Berkshire Co-op Market, River Valley Market, Seward Community Co-op and Weaver’s Street Market for being the first food co-ops to understand the value of this initiative and give us a resounding yes!
Photos courtesy of Equal Exchange. Photographers: Julia Hechtman, Mark DiMaggio, and Becca Koganer.