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By Daniel Fireside, Capital Coordinator

For hundreds of years, Coffee was grown “organically,” without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides, and creating a rich and biodiverse ecosystem. A few decades ago, this changed. Synthetic inputs led to booming production, but the cost to the soil, water, and a warming planet have been paid most steeply by the farming communities. A growing number of small-scale farmers are trying to shift production back to its organic roots, but the expenses and barriers can be insurmountable for farmers on their own. In order to put coffee back on the path of sustainability, they need coffee drinkers and businesses in consuming countries not only to pay the costs of going organic but also to support the farmer’s most critical ally, the cooperative. This is the heart of Equal Exchange’s business model, although it’s one that has taken on a growing urgency as our natural environment faces increasing jeopardy.

Read more here.

Cooperation Among Cooperatives

A visit to Mexico brings together three parts of one complete cooperative supply chain—farmer co-op (CIRSA) to worker-owned co-op (Equal Exchange) to consumer co-op (Co-op Food Stores).

Solar-Dryer-Investment_sidebar

Learn More here.

We #SustainUSFWC because our Federation is helping build a #neweconomy.  Here’s some of the things the USFWC has done this year for co-ops. Help them grow by becoming a Sustaining Member today!

USFWC

Peasant Assembly of the Coordination of Latin American Rural Organizations and La Vía Campesina in Central America (CLOC-LVC-CA)

The Peasant Movement Defines its Position on the Climate and Food Crisis in Central America

The member organizations of CLOC-Via Campesina Central America, from Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, are together in assembly in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, this August 31st and September 1st, 2014. After carrying out consideration and analysis of the grave situation in the Central American countryside and the peasant movement in the region, we reach out to the Central American public, the governments of the region and the international community with the following conclusions:

1. The effect of climate change and the lack of preventive measures by the neoliberal governments in the last 20 years have combined to aggravate the food and climate crises in the entire Central American region, to such a degree that today we face a near-total loss of the first harvest of the year due to a severe drought. More than three million peasant families currently face insolvency and a complete inability to attempt a second harvest—without seeds, credit, or water. The immediate effects of this crisis are malnutrition, accelerated migration, and massive increases of school dropouts, as well as food hoarding and speculation by the private sector. Meanwhile, the main response by government has been to increase the imports of basic grains—leading to historic profits by importers and the destruction of national farm economies—as well as the rushed approval of new seed laws that fling open the doors to genetically engineered crops, gravely threatening our native seeds. The absence of public sector strategies for building food sovereignty means, in effect, that Central American governments have abandoned the possibility of supporting peasant production, public credit, technical assistance and farm diversification.

In the case of coffee, the coffee rust epidemic has arrived in the context of governments that abandon small farmers to their fate, thus multiplying their suffering and leading to greater unemployment and malnutrition among rural workers.

2. La Via Campesina in Central America affirms that the climate crisis is not temporary but rather a structural symptom of capitalism that threatens our region with permanent negative impacts and greater food insecurity.

3. The food and climate crises have no solution as long as public policy continues to advance contaminated seeds, the invasion of our territories by megaprojects related to foreign mining and energy industries, the concession of our common goods to transnational capital, and the forced acceptance of monoculture plantations of non-food crops that displace our families from our traditional lands and territories.

4. We categorically condemn the repression and criminalization of peasant struggle, including the murders, violent evictions, and legal persecution of peasants. We express our solidarity with the peasants of Honduras and Guatemala, who have suffered the most intense repression of their struggles, including the murder of our
friend Margarita Murillo earlier this week.

5. We reiterate our calls on governments and international institutions, including the Central American Integration System (SICA), the FAO and the FIDA to convoke a Central American Summit to urgently address the food and climate crisis, with the
participation of peasant sectors, small producers, rural women and indigenous peoples.

6. It is absolutely necessary to advance our concept of integrated agrarian reform. Within this framework of legislative reforms, it is critical that new proposed laws be approved, such as the legislation related to rural development in Guatemala, as well as the law of Food Security and Sovereignty in El Salvador, and the law of Integrated Agrarian Reform in Honduras.

Land reform and agroecology for people’s food sovereignty!
Globalize struggle, globalize hope!
September 1st, 2104
Tegucigalpa, Honduras

Read Part I here.

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.

Alex Flores and Phyllis Robinson meeting with the farmers on Montecristo

Alex Flores and Phyllis Robinson meeting with the farmers on Montecristo

Oscar, Antonio Lovo, and Reyes Cuperada

Oscar Vallardes, Antonio Lovo, and Reyes Cuperada

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.

nursery

shoot

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.”

Juan Parada

Juan Parada

road

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, Weaver’s Street Market, and Syracuse Real Food Co-op for being the first food co-ops to understand the value of this initiative and give us a resounding yes!

Phyllis Robinson with Matt Novick, Art Ames, and Daniel Esko (left to right) of Berkshire Co-op Market, the first co-op to join with us!

Phyllis Robinson with Matt Novick, Art Ames, and Daniel Esko (left to right) of Berkshire Co-op Market, the first co-op to join with us!

Photos courtesy of Equal Exchange. Photographers: Julia Hechtman, Mark DiMaggio, and Becca Koganer.

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.

Alex Flores, General Manager, at a farmer meeting

Alex Flores, General Manager, at a farmer meeting

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.  Read the end of this story here.

 

“During the war, my comandante told me that we were fighting for a house, a piece of land, and a business. Today, I have a house; some land; we co-own our business; and, my comandante … is President [of El Salvador]!” Oscar Valladares, former President, APRAINORES

 

Oscar Valladares

Oscar Valladares

It was a hot, muggy afternoon this March and my colleague, Mark DiMaggio and I were touring the cashew farms on the Island of Montecristo. March is one of the hottest months of the year in El Salvador. The end of the dry season is approaching; the air is thick with humidity and it feels like any moment the skies could burst. But the cooling rains never really come; not until April or May. On this particular day, the temperature had reached 106 degrees.

Despite the weather, our spirits were high. After a long run of bad luck, it seemed like things might finally be turning around for the 55 members who comprise the small farmer cashew co-operative, Aprainores. The harvest was looking good; the weather was co-operating; the processing plant was up and running; and Equal Exchange had just agreed to fund a five-year project to help the members renovate their farms, plant new cashew trees, and strengthen the productive and organizational capacity of the co-op.

We had driven down the coastal highway from San Salvador earlier that morning with Alex Flores, Aprainores’ general manager. At the office, we picked up Oscar and hurried down the long, dusty road, past the herds of slow-moving cattle, and the kids on bikes in their blue and white school uniforms. When we arrived at the banks of the Lempa River, Oscar jumped out and arranged for a motorized launch to take us out to the island. We had to go quickly: Montecristo is nestled between the Lempa and the Pacific Ocean and river crossings must be timed with the tides.

The boat ride was particularly spectacular on that day. The skies were clear and the San Vicente volcano, Chichontepeque, could be seen rising magnificently in front of us. As we approached Montecristo, we spotted egrets, blue herons, and other birds searching along the sand bars for food. Montecristo has been designated a national reserve, and its estuaries and mangrove swamps shelter numerous species of birds, as well as turtles, iguanas, armadillos, and other wildlife.

birds

volcano

heron

mangroves

A Brief History of Aprainores

Prior to 1992, Montecristo, the neighboring island of Tasajera, and what is now two repatriated communities on the “mainland,” were all part of a 175-acre cashew plantation belonging to one German landowner. The plantation was just one of many large landholdings along the southern coast of El Salvador and the landless class that worked on these cotton, sugarcane, and coffee plantations, worked under difficult conditions and received little pay. When efforts to organize for change were repeatedly met with repression, the country exploded in a twelve-year civil war.

The Bajo Lempa, as the area is called, was a highly conflictive zone during the war and the population suffered greatly. Montecristo, with its thick mangrove jungles, provided excellent cover and both sides used the island for temporary shelter and from which to launch military offensives. The village was burnt to the ground; the local population forced to flee; and the plantation abandoned.

The war, which claimed roughly 75,000 lives, officially ended in 1992. As part of the Peace Accords, a Land Transfer Program was established. through which the government bought large tracts of land and transferred small parcels to eligible ex-soldiers, FMLN insurgents, and civilians displaced by the war. The cashew plantation was parceled out and the land apportioned to groups of ex-FMLN combatants.

With the war behind them, the recently established residents now faced new challenges: how to earn a living for themselves and their families. In 1995, they formed a dairy, cashew, and sugarcane co-operative, but without market access or technical assistance, the co-op eventually failed. They decided to refocus their efforts on the cashews, which were beginning to gain attention among some Fair Trade organizations in the North. In 1999, financial assistance was acquired to build a processing plant. Three years later ten farmers formed a new co-op, Aprainores, specializing in organic cashews for export.

Things were looking up. Aprainores’ cashews; sweet, creamy, and delicious; were in demand. Fair Trade co-operative organizations established relationships with Aprainores and the members were learning to build a business. But in 2005, the co-op and its Fair Trade buyers received a serious blow. The general manager had skipped town. It took a long time to get over the shock and unravel what had happened. When, they finally did and accounts were settled, they discovered that he had left them in serious trouble: they were $350,000 in debt.

Read Part 2 here.

Photos courtesy of Equal Exchange.  Photographer:  Julia Hechtman. Photo of Mangroves: Mark DiMaggio

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