“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
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.
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