The following post was written by Dary Goodrich, Chocolate Category Manager, and sent to us from Asuncion, Paraguay.
Never in my wildest dreams did I believe I would someday find myself in the country of Paraguay. In fact, when I was younger and not expecting that I would travel here later in life, I probably couldn’t have located it on the map (it’s bordered by Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia) or told you that it’s one of two countries in South America that lacks a border with the ocean (Bolivia being the other). Yet, Paraguay is the organic sugar capital of the world; which is how I came to find myself writing this from the city of Asunción.
Rob Everts, one of our Co-Executive Directors, and I, have just returned from two-and-a-half inspiring days with the staff and members of the Manduvira Co-operative. The co-operative is located in Arroyos y Esteros (Streams and Swamps), where they have had a strong presence since their founding in 1975. Initially the co-op was formed as a credit co-op with 39 members and over the years this continued to be their main focus.
Sugar is a tough business. It is mainly controlled by the mills that process the cane and do the exporting of the final product; in fact, it is these mills that gain the largest profit from the sugar industry. The mill that the co-op sold its sugar to was able to dictate prices to the farmers. In a daring move, given that there are no other mills the co-op could have sold to in the area, 500 members went on strike in 2003 and stopped selling cane to the mill until they could get better prices. It brought the mill to the negotiating table and Manduvira was able to get a much better price for its members.
This seemed to be a turning point for the co-op and its members, as they realized the power and strength they had in coordinated collective action. From there, the questions they had were why couldn’t they sell directly to the market and why shouldn’t the producers be able to control how much they get paid for their cane? It didn’t take long for them to get to work on this vision, and in 2005, they had worked out a deal with a mill about an hour and a half from the co-op to process their sugar cane for a fee—never losing ownership or control of the sugar. The co-op had done it and was able to sell directly to the international market. In 2005, La Siembra, a Canadian worker co-operative and our partner for our cocoa products, bought the first container of sugar directly from Manduvira.
But it doesn’t stop there; today, this co-op of 1,500 members has both a strong vision and strong leadership. So what’s next for Manduvira? Owning the first farmer-owned mill in Paraguay! Plans are in the works, land has been purchased, and they hope to break ground in February 2011 to build the mill! We’ll keep you in the loop on the progress and when you sip our hot cocoa or sweeten your coffee with a sugar packet, know that change is happening.
Click here to read a recent interview with Andres Gonzalez, General Manager of the Manduvira Co-operative.