Just a few weeks ago I accompanied Todd Caspersen, Director of Purchasing and Rob Everts, Co-Director of Equal Exchange to El Salvador to attend the First International Gathering of the Small Farmer Symbol. We took advantage of the time in El Salvador to visit with our small coffee farmer coop partners and see how they’re doing. On the 2 1/2 hour drive out to Tacuba, in the western department of Ahuachapan, I was reminded by our driver, one of the Las Colinas Board members, that this year marked the 15th anniversary of our trading relationship with the co-op.
During those 15 years, much has changed. As far as I can tell, it is all for the better.
The 89 members of Las Colinas own the 500-acre co-op collectively, a form of land ownership that is fairly uncommon these days. Like many other agricultural co-operatives in El Salvador, Las Colinas used to be a large coffee hacienda; many of the 89 members, their fathers and/or grandfathers used to work there as day laborers picking coffee. Most people have heard about what the conditions were like in those days working on coffee, sugar, cotton and other plantations. In fact, throughout Central America, it was in large part due to the oppressive work conditions on large plantations that ultimately led workers to band together with unionists, and representatives of progressive student, women’s, religious, and other organizations to spark the populist social justice revolutions of the ’70s and ’80s.
In 1980, in a futile effort to stave off the impending civil war, the Salvadoran government passed an Agrarian Reform Law which turned over several hundred large plantations virtually overnight into worker owned and managed cooperatives. The trouble was that the workers were given the land (which they had to pay back), but no technical assistance, access to bank credits, or market information. In the 40-odd years since that time, most of the agrarian reform co-ops have gone bankrupt and have had to sell their land or been forced to give it back to the banks.
Las Colinas remains one of the few of those co-ops still surviving. Seven years ago when I first visited them, things were not looking so good. True, they were organized and running the farm themselves and the four or so containers of coffee they were selling to Equal Exchange was delicious and high-quality. But their processing equipment was old, (I remember thinking that the machinery looked like something you’d see in a Dr. Seuss book), the coffee trees were old, and the soils depleted. Of most concern, the interest on the agrarian reform debt was exceedingly high and was mounting each year. Despite the fact that Equal Exchange was paying high prices for their coffee, the members of Las Colinas could not seem to get out from under their debt.
In the past seven years, a lot has happened to instill a sense of hope about the future of this co-operative. Having direct relationships with their buyer has certainly had tremendous impact. “The difference between an unjust buyer and a Fair Trade negotiator is that we now have a stronger chance to negotiate and arrive at a fair price. We sit with Todd and there is transparency, responsibility, and justice,” Pedro told us. One of the most important things we have been able to do is to rearrange our financing with them in such a way as to help the co-op pay back it’s bank debt in a more timely fashion.
Through a grant from Catholic Relief Services, Las Colinas was able to purchase or renovate parts of their processing equipment. Today, they have a state of the art “ecological” mill which recycles wastewater used during processing back into the plant, helping both to conserve water and protect the soil and groundwater supply from contaminants. Instead of “dumping” the waste water into standing pools, they now use those pools, filled with recycled, clean water as fish farms. We saw six or seven which will soon be ready for harvest. The fish will help augment the families’ diets and will provide them with extra income. “Before we installed the new ecological mill, we were living with these smelly pools of water. It was pretty disagreeable and attracted many mosquitos. Now, our families will be eating lots of tilapia,” Pedro Ascensio told us as he showed us around.
Las Colinas is situated on the border of one of El Salvador’s last remaining forests, the National Park, El Imposible. Their land also contains a natural spring that provides water to thousands of people in the entire municipality of Tacuba. For this reason, the farming practices of the co-op serves a very critical role in protecting and preserving the area’s important natural resources. Seven or eight years ago, they undertook the rigorous process of transitioning all of their coffee to organic production and today all of their coffee is certified organic. It is also grown under heavy forested canopy. A new program involves the planting of 60,000 new coffee trees each year throughout the farm.If you take into account that the country of El Salvador is one of the most deforested countries in the western hemisphere, you can better appreciate the importance of Las Colinas in this respect.
At the end of our visit, I asked Remberto what the biggest difference has been in his life since the co-op was formed. “Years ago when this was one plantation with one boss, there was much exploitation. Life was really hard and there was no hope of fair compensation. Now, by being a co-op, if there are any gains, those gains are shared by all of us.”