The following article was written by Phyllis Robinson and Lilian Autler of Grassroots International.
Anita Cecila Garcia Cruz, of Confianza community
Member of the CEPCO General Assembly (photo courtesy of Grassroots International)
Times are tough for rural communities in Mexico right now – as they are for small farmers throughout the world. Fair Trade coffee co-operatives have long offered their members concrete benefits – higher prices, credit, social programs, political clout, access to international solidarity networks, etc. These benefits have enabled many participating farmers to improve their economic conditions and their quality of life. In today’s economic climate, however, small farmers are taking the proverbial “one step forward, two steps back.” International trade agreements, national agriculture and economic policies that favor agribusiness and multi-nationals over small businesses and local communities, are making it harder for farmers to stay on their land, afford basic food staples, and care for their families.
Perhaps today more than ever, the chances of survival for a small-scale farmer are greatly multiplied if, rather than going it alone, they join with others to form a co-operative. If that co-operative happens to grow organic coffee and is certified Fair Trade, even better. Alternative Trade Organizations used to boast the slogan “Trade not Aid,” conveying the message that Fair Trade could change the balance of power and enable small farmers to find market niches and compete successfully in the marketplace. There’s something powerful in that message, but unfortunately political and economic power seems to be increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few; not the other way around.
And so, Fair Trade co-operatives cannot rely solely on the export of their products to transform the lives of farmers and the communities in which they live. It takes a multi-pronged approach: export of their crop as well as strategies to diversify income. More and more common, diversification strategies are also now focusing on the need to increase food security in the communities. Social and environmental projects are often carried out by farmer co-operatives and are supported by a variety of national and international non-profits, religious and community-based organizations. Leadership development for women and youth are also important activities through which participation in the co-op is strengthened. Trainings and technical assistance round out the package of benefits that co-ops provide their members.
CEPCO, the Coffee Growers Association of Oaxaca, Mexico, is one of the coffee co-operatives striving to improve the situation facing rural farmers. It was founded in 1989, in the midst of a severe crisis in Mexico’s coffee industry. Originally formed through the efforts of more than 7,400 small coffee growers, today CEPCO is the largest association of small coffee producers in Oaxaca. They coordinate 39 regional organizations of small, community-based coffee producers in seven indigenous regions and are also very involved in regional and national social movements that address poverty and marginalization in indigenous communities.
CEPCO’s primary objective is to build a permanent organization of small producers with the ability to resolve the needs of its members. In order to help the farmers develop economic security, CEPCO works with them to improve their coffee production and processing techniques, as well as develop marketing strategies for coffee sales. CEPCO has partnered with Equal Exchange for over a decade. Annually they sell us 8 – 10 containers (over 350,000 pounds/year) of organic green coffee beans. While CEPCO is focused on the production and marketing of coffee, the multi-ethnic organization also works with its members to strengthen and empower their communities, and address issues of social justice, cultural autonomy and grassroots democracy.
In addition to coffee production, CEPCO is trying to foster local food security for families by establishing family gardens with women’s groups organized through the co-operative. Toward this end, the co-op has created a Women’s Vegetable Garden Project that sustains demonstration gardens in different communities; helps hundreds of women to establish family garden plots; distributes a variety of vegetable seeds; and provides training workshops and ongoing technical assistance to the women.
Grassroots International, a long-time organizational ally of Equal Exchange, has been supporting CEPCO’s efforts to organize women. In 2008, Grassroots International granted $20,000 to CEPCO to help them implement the next phase of this project.
To date, eleven collective plots have been established which serve as training grounds for the women, as well as a source of vegetables for the communities. The women learn organic farming techniques including the use of organic fertilizers, composting, the design and layout of the garden parcels, integrated pest management, and the planting, care and harvest of the vegetables.
According to CEPCO and GRI, the use of organic methods has significantly increased in all agricultural activities since the beginning of the vegetable gardens project, as has the communities’ understanding of why these methods are important for the production of healthy foods.
Significantly, many of the women have been applying this new knowledge not only to the management of their own gardens but also to other crops such as corn and coffee. For example, the women have learned techniques to control pests and diseases using plants, ashes, soap and oil, and have also begun to identify plants that grow in their own communities that could be useful as bio-insecticides.
To date, 170 backyard family gardens have been established in 15 communities where the women apply the techniques they learn in their trainings and have practiced in the demonstration plots. This year, CEPCO plans to replicate the vegetable gardens in other communities and train women to become extension agents responsible for following up with farmers and bringing this information to other communities.
According to a progress report written by Grassroots International, “… the garden project has been met with enthusiasm by both the women’s groups and other community members, who have benefitted from the availability of fresh produce. The project is motivating women to take on more active roles in their communities, in their regional organization, and in their families. They are taking their own needs into consideration and are sharing their opinions and their organizing energy. The women’s husbands and children have also been supportive of this project.”
Anita (pictured above) is one of the women who described how she has grown through her participation in this project. Anita is married and has three children. Before CEPCO established gardens in her community she had a small vegetable garden and raised chickens, buying additional food in the local market when she had cash. She used chemical pesticides and fertilizers in both coffee production and in her vegetable garden. Now she applies the organic techniques she has learned in production for her family and for the market. Anita is now a leader and represents her community in the CEPCO General Assembly – one of just a handful of women in this role.
“This project brings us great benefits. What I most like are the technicians (all female) who always are offering us new knowledge… Through this project, I have met lots of new people. I like to learn new things. I have the desire to learn new things.”
Other women have reported similar benefits:
- That the training and materials (seeds, tools) gave them confidence that they are capable of producing food for their immediate needs;
- That learning and putting organic soil and pest management into practice has improved the environment and their health;
- That they have learned to value the work of women by working with other women and together producing something of perceivable value for the community;
- That training local technicians is important because these people are a community resource and help communities plan and design projects;
- That greater confidence is helping them to overcome social barriers such as resistance from family and community members;
- That increased confidence is leading them to participate more and take on leadership in other activities such as community meetings, other projects organized by CEPCO, CEPCO’s general assembly, voting in national elections, etc.
As is the case with most of the Fair Trade co-operatives with whom Equal Exchange works, there is no single solution to the many challenges facing small farmers. In the case of CEPCO, the organization has a multi-layered approach to its goal of member empowerment. Selling high-quality organic coffee to the Fair Trade network is a large part of their strategy. The co-operative is also involved in political organizing to advocate solutions to the rural crisis vis-à-vis the Mexican government. And increasingly, CEPCO is realizing the importance of efforts, such as the Women’s Gardening Project, to provide direct benefits to the members by diversifying their income sources and increasing their families’ food security.