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Archive for January, 2013

Heading back to Chiapas

Next week, a group of us at Equal Exchange are going back to Chiapas to visit CIRSA (the Indigenous Communities of the Simojovel de Allende Region), one of our favorite small farmer fair trade coffee co-op partners, which I wrote about last October.

In preparation for the trip, someone just reminded me about this short video which was made by Daniel Steinberg, former Community Brand Builder after our 2008 visit.

I recommend watching it if you haven’t yet seen it.  Even if you have, watch it again!  Daniel did a great job capturing our visit, our partnership with the co-op, and Equal Exchange’s mission to support Authentic Fair Trade.

We’ll be writing more from Chiapas next week… stay tuned!

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Read Part I here.

On the island of Montecristo

On the island of Montecristo

In the Aprainores office with Don Leopoldo Alfredo Abrego, member of the Oversight Committee. “Back then, it wasn’t easy.  Today, well, we’re not swimming in money, but we’re doing okay.”

In the Aprainores office with Don Leopoldo Alfredo Abrego, member of the Oversight Committee. “Back then, it wasn’t easy. Today, well, we’re not swimming in money, but we’re doing okay.”

Alex Flores, General Manager

Alex Flores, General Manager

I’m going to end this series of posts today, simply with a photo collage of some of the Aprainores producers.  Click on any photo to enlarge it. Remember, when you buy Equal Exchange cashews, these are some of the folks who you are supporting!

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Don Leopoldo and his wife, Maria Eliza

Don Leopoldo and his wife, Maria Eliza

Juan Parada Santana

Juan Parada Santana

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juan parada santana4jpg

Maria Los Angeles Mendez

Maria Los Angeles Mendez

Margarita Gladys Carbajal

Margarita Gladys Carbajal

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Luis Alonso Oriana

Luis Alonso Oriana

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Maria Idalia Velasquez

Maria Idalia Velasquez

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Carmin Soulin

Carmin Soulin

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Santos Segundo Fernandez Palacios

Santos Segundo Fernandez Palacios

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Patricia Granado, Secretary

Patricia Granado

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Oscar Valladardes, President

Oscar Valladares, President

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Maria Dolores Martinez (Nina Lola), Secretary

Maria Dolores Martinez (Nina Lola), Secretary

"Sometimes we laugh, sometimes we cry."

“Sometimes we laugh, sometimes we cry.”

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Reyes Cuperada, son of Juan Parada

Reyes Cuperada, son of Juan Parada Santana

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Alberto and Tono

Alberto and Tono

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Photos courtesy of Equal Exchange.  Photographer:  Julia Hechtman

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Read Part I here.

Juan Parada Santana

Juan Parada Santana, Aprainores Member

The Peace Accords and the establishment of new communities and cooperatives

On January 16, 1992, the Peace Accords of Chapultepec were signed and the twelve-year Salvadoran armed conflict was declared over.  Despite an average of $1.5 million in aid/day that the United States supplied to the Salvadoran government during the height of the war, a military victory over the FMLN had not been possible; the war finally came to its end through a series of agreements signed at the negotiating table.  Although the war was officially over however, most of the underlying economic conditions and inequalities which had caused the conflict had yet to be addressed.

The unequal distribution of resources, such as land ownership, was one of the most profound causes underlying the civil war.   The Peace Accords attempted to address this by establishing a Land Transfer Program.  They created a fund to enable the government to buy up tracts of land from large landowners, many of whom had fled the country, or had been killed during the war.  The land was divided up and then transferred to a long list of those who had directly participated in, or been adversely affected by, the war:  demobilized FMLN combatants, ex-soldiers, returned refugees, displaced campesinos, and others who had lost significant numbers of potential wage-earning family members.  Each of these individuals was to receive 3 ½ manzanas (approximately 6 acres) per person, most to be held in co-operative ownership.

Throughout the Bajo Lempa, dozens of new communities and cooperatives sprung up and the beneficiaries began receiving legal title to their land: the returned refugee communities of Nueva Esperanza and Ciudad Romero; former plantations, such as La California and Salinas del Potrero were given to the former workers who’d stayed behind during the war; the communities of La Canoa, El Pito and dozens of others were given to former FMLN combatants and their families.  The huge cashew nut plantation, formerly owned by the German, Luce Draico, was divided up and turned into four cooperatives; the producers who now form part of Aprainores live in Los Naranjos (where Leopoldo Abrego has his farm) and the island of Montecristo.

The communities located in the Bajo Lempa region of Usulutan.  Most of this land was settled by communities of demobilized FMLN guerrilla, campesinos affected displaced by the war, returned refugees, and occasionally, groups of ex-soldiers, as part of the Land Transfer Program of the 1992 Peace Accords.

The communities located in the Bajo Lempa region of Usulutan and San Vicente. Most of this land was settled by communities of demobilized FMLN guerrilla, campesinos affected displaced by the war, returned refugees, and occasionally, groups of ex-soldiers, as part of the Land Transfer Program of the 1992 Peace Accords.

Julia and I visited Montecristo to meet with the producers and tour their farms.  Once at the office and processing plant in Los Naranjos, you drive another hour or so to the end of the road and then contract someone to take you by boat up the Lempa River to the island. If you go a bit further, you get to the Pacific Ocean.  It’s important to time the trip well, as the river becomes too shallow to cross in low tide.

Both the islands of Montecristo and Tasajera had been deserted during the war, and the houses and buildings destroyed.  Because of their location and the thick mangrove estuaries which cover the islands, they were very strategic during the armed conflict.  Although many campesinos snuck back to the islands to fish, no one lived there permanently.

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I remember visiting Tasajera a few years after the war ended.  One family had returned and had rebuilt their house and some cabanas.  The island was mostly populated at that time by wild horses and white, sandy beaches.  I don’t remember how these friends of mine had learned about the island; perhaps they had known the woman who invited them to come out for a relaxing day and a delicious meal of seafood, rice and beans.  But I do remember accompanying them several times: contracting the boat, arriving at the cabanas, swimming in the ocean, and mostly lounging around on the hammocks under the gigantic cashew nut trees.  In 1995, these same friends of mine got married on Tasajera and the entire wedding party arrived in motor boats for a beautiful ceremony followed by an afternoon on the beach.

And so, it was particularly exciting for me to get back on a motor boat, and head to Montecristo.

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Here’s a few photos of the stunning ride over to the island.  Don’t forget to click on them for better viewing!

The San Vincente Volano (in the afternoon light)

San Vicente Volcano in the afternoon light.

San Vicente Volcano in the morning light.

San Vicente Volcano in the morning light.

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Since the war ended, Montecristo has been repopulated.  Thirty-five families now live on the island which has also been made into a wildlife sanctuary to protect the mangroves, the flora and fauna. wildlife2

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wildlife1 It is prohibited to cut down the mangroves, and there are protections for the turtles and crabs.

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Alberto Echavarria

Alberto Echavarria

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Photographs courtesy of Equal Exchange.  Photographer: Julia Hechtman.

Read Part VII (final story) tomorrow!

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Read Part I here.

I think it’s time to interrupt my story, to show you the nut harvest, collection, and processing steps… start to finish.  What’s so remarkable about Fair Trade is that it gives us such an amazing opportunity to tie so many threads together: history, economics, politics, individual stories, relationships, and the product itself.  I want to share all these aspects and how they connect to each other through my last trip to El Salvador.  But since we are fortunate enough to have such beautiful photos; and since the cashews will be arriving at our warehouse any day now; I’m going to focus today’s post on a photo essay of the product… yes, it’s finally time for cashews!

We arrived at Aprainores just in time to see the last of the season’s cashews getting sorted, bagged, boxed, and prepared to be sent to the port to be shipped to Equal Exchange’s west coast warehouse in Portland. Although it was early for the next harvest , we were able to see a few cashew nut fruits beginning to bloom. Click on any photo for a better look.

On the Farms

Cashew nut tree farms on the Isle of Montecristo where 15 members of Aprainores live.  The trees are 80 - 100 years old.

Cashew nut tree farms on the Isle of Montecristo where 15 members of Aprainores live. The trees are 80 – 100 years old.

These trees were all planted by a german landowner, Luz Draico, who owned the island, a neighboring island, Tasajera, and what is now two communities on the mainland, La Canoa and El Naranjo

These trees were all planted by a german landowner, Luz Draico, who owned the island, a neighboring island, Tasajera, and what is now two communities on the mainland, La Canoa and El Naranjo.

The harvest typically begins in late December.

The harvest begins in December.  First, little purple flowers bloom.  About a week later, the nut appears.

First, little purple flowers bloom. About a week later, the nut appears.

Next, what appears to be a brown stem, is actually the fruit beginning to grow.

Next, what appears to be a brown stem, is actually the fruit beginning to grow.

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The fruit ripens approximately six weeks after the flowers come out.

Cashew fruit can by yellow, red, or a mixture of the two.

Cashew fruit can by yellow or red.

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Once ripe, the fruit falls to the ground. (It’s very important not to pick the fruit off the tree or it will damage the following year’s harvest.) The farmers pick the fruit up off the ground, remove the cashew nuts and bring them back to their houses where they dry them in the sun for three days before sending them in motor boats to Aprainores for further processing. The farmers keep the fruit to make a refreshing drink for their own consumption.

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Leopoldo Rafael Abrego, on his farm in El Naranjo

Leopoldo Rafael Abrego, on his farm in El Naranjo.

At the Processing Plant

 The nuts are collected on the farms, dried outside for three days, and then brought to the plant for processing.

The nuts are collected on the farms, dried in the sun for three days, and then brought to the plant for processing.
Here, they are put through the sorter and separated by size.

Here, they are put through the sorter and separated by size.

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The nuts are steamed in the oven to loosen the shell, about 50 minutes.

The nuts are steamed in the oven about 50 minutes to loosen the shells.

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Once out of the oven, the shell is cracked open and the nut is removed.  They are separated into whole, half, and split pieces.

Once out of the oven, the shells are cracked open and the nuts are removed.

Don Leopoldo showing how it's done.

Don Leopoldo showing how it’s done.

Now the nuts are placed in ovens to remove moisture.

Now the nuts are placed in ovens to remove moisture.

The ovens shown in the previous photo are being replaced with these new solar ovens which will be used during the next harvest.

The ovens shown in the previous photo are being replaced with these new solar ovens which will be used during the next harvest.

The nuts are cooled overnight and then are given to these women to remove a layer of film.  The women come from the local communities.  This plant offers one of the only forms of employment in the area.

The nuts are cooled overnight and then are given to these women to remove a layer of film. The women come from the local communities and this plant offers one of the only forms of employment in the area.

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Alex asks one of the women to bring us some nuts so he can show us what the film looks like and what the nut underneath looks like.

Alex asks one of the women to bring us some nuts so he can show us what the film looks like, how they remove the film, and what the fully processed nut looks like.

The film is easily removed by rubbing the nuts carefully between your fingers.

The film is easily removed by rubbing the nuts carefully between your fingers.

The women then sort the nuts into wholes, halves, and pieces.

The women then sort the nuts into wholes, halves, and pieces.

Finally, they clean them, remove any impurities, and do a final quality control check before bagging them up.

Finally, they clean them, remove any impurities, and do a final quality control check before bagging them up.

Once cleaned and sorted, they are bagged up according to whole nut, half nut, and pieces.

Once cleaned and sorted, they are bagged up according to whole nut, half nut, and pieces.

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The bags are weighed, wrapped in aluminum, and vacuume-packed.

The bags are weighed, wrapped in aluminum, and vacume-packed.

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Oscar Vallardes, President, Alex Flores, General Manager, Leopoldo Abrego, Oversight, Rudy, Quality Control

Oscar Vallardes, President, Alex Flores, General Manager, Leopoldo Abrego, Oversight, Rudy, Quality Control

The boxes have been packed up, inspected, and are waiting to be put on the container and taken to port.  Our first shipment!

On Monday, read about the producers and their organization!

Photos courtesy of Equal Exchange.  Photographer:  Julia Hechtman

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Read Part I here.

The Lempa River, Armed Conflict, Refugees and Repatriations

In November 1989, the FMLN launched a major offensive in the hopes of sparking an insurrection across El Salvador which would once and for ever end the devastating civil war.  The Salvadoran military retaliated viciously.  One of the most famous incidents, which drew international attention, shock, and outrage, was the brutal and audacious cold-blooded massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter.  The Jesuit priests had long been outspoken advocates of a peaceful settlement to the war and the need for social justice in the country.  Pulled out of their beds from their rooms at the University of Central America where they lay sleeping, and shot repeatedly in the head at close range, the soldiers wanted to make their point that they were killing those they accused of being the “intellectual authors” of the Salvadoran Left.

I was living in Somerville, MA at the time of the massacre, where 6,000 of the 20,000 Salvadoran refugees who had migrated to the Boston area were now trying to rebuild their lives.   A group of local Salvadorans had formed a committee to provide assistance to the refugees, educate North Americans about the realities of the conflict and the struggle for justice in the country with the goal of supporting their countrymen and putting pressure on the U.S. government to stop funding the war. There I was one day, volunteering in their office, when I was asked if I could pick someone up at the airport.  The guest was Miguel Ventura, a prominent Salvadoran priest.   Miguel asked if I would mind setting up a projector, as he had just been given some slides before leaving the country which he wanted to view.  It turned out to be a box of photos of his closest friends and colleagues, the assassinated Jesuits, who had just been massacred at the UCA.  I turned my head away to avoid seeing the particularly horrible close-ups, but Miguel said it was a sign of respect to view each one and that their plight should only serve to make us more determined to continue the struggle.

A few weeks later, another Salvadoran visitor arrived.  Euclydes informed us that 8,400 refugees, 85% of whom were women and children, who had been living for nine years in the refugee camp of Colomoncagua, Honduras, had made the bold decision to return home to El Salvador.  All over Central America, hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans had been living for close to a decade in exile.  And now, the first organized returns were about to occur.

The Military Strategy in the Rural Areas

It was not an accident that millions of Salvadoran campesinos had fled the country as a result of repression, violence, and armed conflict.  In the early days of the war, the Salvadoran military implemented a strategy they had learned from the North Americans, which had been tried and tested in Vietnam.  They understood that many campesinos, living in poverty and repression, might support the FMLN as their last and only hope to change their conditions after all other peaceful and democratic means had failed.  And so, in the early 1980s, in a strategy called, “draining the ocean to kill the fish,” the Salvadoran military began indiscriminately bombing swatches of the countryside where the insurgents were particularly active.  Bombing; burning houses, fields, and everything in sight; and gruesome massacres succeeded in causing many campesinos to leave their homes, farms, and families and literally flee the country with just the clothes on their backs.

Sadly, the military had another tactic up their sleeves.  This one, also learned by their North American advisors and employed in Vietnam, was called the “hammer and anvil” strategy.  The Lempa (and Sumpul) Rivers separate El Salvador from Honduras in the northern parts of the country where poverty and oppression, and consequently insurgent activity was most high.  In coordination with their Honduran counterparts, the military would undergo bombing raids to drive the campesinos from their homes.  With nowhere else to run, the campesinos would dive into the rivers to swim over the border, presumably into safety in Honduras.  But as they crossed the rivers, instead of the refuge they sought, many were instead met by Honduran soldiers lined up on the bank, where they would shoot and kill the Salvadorans as they arrived to shore.  Those Salvadorans who managed to survive all of this accumulated suffering, were eventually given refuge by sympathetic Honduran families.  Eventually, the United Nations stepped in and set up refugee camps along the Honduran borders.

The Repatriations

In mid-November 1989, following the brutal assassination of the six Jesuits and the two women, the refugees living in Honduras said, “basta.” Nine years of exile was enough and it was time to return home, lend support to their countrymen, end the civil war, and rebuild their country.  The Salvadoran government opposed their return and told them “the time wasn’t right;” they would be entering a highly conflictive zone and their safety could not be guaranteed.  But the refugees were determined, responding that they were Salvadorans and no one had a right to keep them out of their country any longer.

The U.N. refused to help the refugees without the government’s permission and so they decided to make the repatriations on their own.  The first two groups of 500 people packed up their things, removed every nail, every piece of wood, every last item of use they could carry, and made the nine-mile walk across the border on foot. When the U.N. realized that the Salvadorans would do the whole repatriation themselves, they scrambled to save face and offer logistical support to the remaining thousands.

It was at this point that Euclydes arrived in Somerville.  He let us know about the situation (which had received no press in the U.S. media) and asked if anyone would be willing to fly to Honduras and accompany the next groups of refugees across the border into Morazan.  The war was going strong and the refugees were unwelcome by their government.  International accompaniment would offer a measure of protection and, in those days before cell phones and internet, some international visibility.  A friend and I raised our hands, “we’ll go.”

It would be a whole other story to write about the courage, determination, and high level of organization I witnessed in Colomoncagua; the trips across the border into the mountains of Morazan, where not a structure remained standing when the refugees made their returns; and the hard work of the Salvadorans to begin rebuilding a community from nothing.  Their mottos, which hung from banners on the U.N. trucks that took each group of 500 Salvadorans across the border, proclaimed, “We left as individual farmers; we’re returning to live united in community”, and, “We are the hope for the future of El Salvador.”  As they crossed the border into their own country, friends and family members who had remained behind throughout the war, lined the streets waving flags of welcome, laughing and crying.  There were no dry eyes on those trips as families were reunited and the refugees entered their country again after nine long years of exile.

Segundo Montes City: “The Hope for the Future of El Salvador”

The former refugees renamed their community, “Segundo Montes City” after one of the six martyred Jesuits who, inspired by their level of organization, preparation and commitment while living in Colomoncagua, had written extensively about them, calling them “the hope for the future of El Salvador.” And they were. The refugees themselves said that their time in the camps was like a school for them.  Determined to make use of their exile, they refused to accept traditional “help” from the international agencies working there.  Instead of accepting clothing, they asked for sewing workshops where they could learn to make clothes.  Shoemaking, bricklaying, carpentry, metal working workshops were all set up and each Salvadoran chose a job to do.  They insisted that the international agencies providing health care in the camps taught them to become health promoters and administer basic health care.  Communal kitchens and day care centers were opened to free the women to learn new skills.  When they arrived at the camps, the literacy rate was 15%.  Classrooms were established, and children taught the adults.  No matter the level of education, those that had any schooling would teach those who had less.  In 1990, when they returned home they had succeeded in reversing their literacy rate to 85%.

The Colomoncaguan refugees said they would not return to subsistence farming.  Instead, they would buy their food from their neighbors and concentrate their efforts on building a new city where they would put all the skills they had learned in exile into use.  Segundo Montes City would become a hub of community and co-operative development.  They would provide health clinics and schools for the neighboring communities; they would open carpentry, sewing, and bakery co-operatives; and run shoe making, clothing, wood working, and metal working factories providing goods, services, and employment to the area.

The Bajo Lempa Repatriations

The return of the Colomoncagua refugees was huge.  All over El Salvador and elsewhere, those involved in the popular movement were feeling signs of hope and inspiration.  It was as if the only antidote to the horrific and tragic loss of the Jesuits and all they had contributed to advance peace and justice in Salvador, was going to be what would live on and flourish through the return of the repatriated communities and what they could succeed in building in a new, post-war country.

When the news about the repatriations from Honduras reached the refugees who had been living for close to a decade in Nicaragua and in Panama, they decided it was time to return home as well.  Although there wasn’t quite as much fanfare, these repatriations were also incredibly moving and extremely important.  It was decided that each of these two groups of returned refugees would settle in Usulutan province, in two communities near each other in the Bajo Lempa.  Like their friends and family members in Morazan, they returned home to empty land and had to rebuild everything, as the army had also destroyed this area during the war.

The refugees who had been living in Nicaragua had all the benefits of living under the Sandinista regime.  They learned to work in agriculture co-operatives; they received training in acupuncture, massage, and holistic health care; teachers were trained in new methodologies; day care centers, nurseries, and schools all used progressive pedagogy.  Women held positions of leadership in the community and participation and democratic governance were ideals they aimed to put into practice.  They named their new community, Nueva Esperanza (New Hope).

Across the road from Nueva Esperanza, the refugees returning from Panama settled into a community they named, Ciudad Romero, after Archbishop Romero, who had been assassinated by the military in 1980.  The experience of the refugees who had lived in Panama was vastly different from their friends and families in Segundo Montes and Nueva Esperanza.  They hadn’t had the benefits of living under the Sandinistas, or the assistance of the international agencies working in a camp, but rather had been given land to farm in the jungle of Panama by then President Trujillo.  They had been almost entirely isolated, living deep in the jungle, and returned pretty much as they had left, small subsistence farmers living and working independently.

The plan for these communities, and others like them scattered through the country, was for them to begin rebuilding according to their strengths; innovating and experimenting with new ideas; trading goods, and services with each other; creating new economies and social structures, all based on democracy, participation, and gender equality.  For the Salvadorans, and those who accompanied them, it was certainly a time of excitement, hope, and idealism.

Read Part V tomorrow.

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Read Part I here.

The Trip to Usulutan

Alex Flores, General Manager of Aprainores picks Julia and me up the next morning at our guest house in San Salvador to take us to the “zone”.  Julia is a professional photographer who is accompanying me on this trip.  It’s her first time in El Salvador and she’s excited to be coming along.  Julia’s an excellent photographer and a great traveler.   I have only one reservation and that’s when she let me know she’s “very allergic” to cashew nuts. Fortunately, we’re coming off-season, meaning there won’t be harvest in the trees and the processing plant will not be in operation.  I’ve made her promise that no matter how tempting they look, or how hungry we may get, she will not attempt to sample them.

Julia!  Don't do it!

Julia! Don’t do it!

Alex laughs when I ask if we can stop in Olocuilta, on the way to the Bajo Lempa.  Olocuilta is famous for its rice pupusas, and anyone who’s lived in El Salvador knows that a trip to the airport, or further into the countryside, isn’t complete without an early morning stop there for breakfast.  If you’ve never had the national delicacy of El Salvador, you’re certainly missing something!

Pupusas are kind of like tortillas:  You roll the dough into a ball, and then with your two thumbs, make a hole, and stuff it with beans, cheese, sausage or any combination thereof; when it’s in season, a delicious local herb, lorocco, can be added to the vegetarian options. You then flatten them back out, patting them just like you do tortillas, and lay them on the grill to cook. Typically, pupusas have been made out of corn flour, but in Olocuilta, they make them out of rice flour; and they are to die for.

Pupusa stalls line many streets in the major cities and towns throughout El Salvador and typically, on Sunday evenings, Salvadorans will take their entire families to their local pupuseria and order up stacks upon stacks of them.  Topped with sauerkraut and hot sauce, and accompanied by a hot chocolate or cold Pilsener beer, it’s a fun communal meal.  In Olocuilta, there’s probably over 50 pupersia stalls lining the streets for a block or two off the highway.  Everyone, including me, has their favorite.

Our favorite pupuseria in Olocuilta, aptly named, "Pupuseria Autopista" (Highway Pupuseria)

Our favorite pupuseria in Olocuilta, aptly named, “Pupuseria Autopista” (Highway Pupuseria)

We drive east down the “autopista” across the southern part of the country.  I have lots of memories of doing this exact drive between San Salvador and the Bajo Lempa communities.  In those days, we would generally leave our houses around 4 am, stop at Olocuilta for breakfast around daybreak, and then get to San Marcos Lempa (just on the other side of the bridge from San Nicholas Lempa where Aprainores has its office) by about 7:30 am.  Then we’d begin the long, very dusty or exceedingly muddy (depending on the season) truck ride down a horrible excuse for a dirt road, braking for cattle, oxen carts, stray dogs, and kids, until we got to whichever community was our destination for that day, or period of days.

The highway from San Salvador to the Lempa River was always a mess; the traffic unbearable, pollution and diesel fumes demanding that you keep a bandana ever handy; car breakdowns, fatal accidents, and robberies were not uncommon and could slow an already long trip into a crawling nightmare.  On the other hand, the trips always had their lighter side.  Generally, cars and trucks would be stuffed with people working on a project or hitching a ride back home with those who were, and we made the best of crowded conditions with lots of humor. At all of the predictable places where traffic typically slowed to a crawl, women and children would come rushing into the highway with colorful buckets on their heads loaded full with plastic bags of cashew nuts, piles of mangos or other cut up fresh fruit, or baggies filled with “purified” water. This was before the days when Pepsi Cola and other multi-nationals made additional fortunes selling bottled water to those who could afford it.  Few people had air conditioning in those days, the heat was grueling, and the sun would beat down on you; those little bags of water and cashews would be scooped up at every stop.

This time the trip went much smoother.  Today, the highway is paved and generally speaking, the traffic moves much more quickly.  I saw very few women or children selling food along the way.

We arrive at San Nicholas Lempa without any problems.  Having heard about some of my experiences however, Alex decides to cross the bridge just to show me San Marcos Lempa, the sister town across the river,  where so many of my days out to the communities would begin.  Again, I marveled at how easy and painless it was to cross the bridge.  In the early 1980’s, many of the country’s bridges had been blown up by the FMLN in an effort to pressure the government to negotiate a settlement to the U.S.-backed war. Makeshift bridges had been constructed, and for years, this  bridge was a narrow one-lane bridge;crossing it would take hours as the cars waited for permission to pass.  Once the war was over, new bridges were built, but it all took a long time.

The Lempa River

The Lempa River

So what originally had brought me to these communities?  What was I doing in the Bajo Lempa?  And what does any of this have to do with Aprainores and cashew nuts?

Read Part IV here.

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Read Part I here.

Part II:  Equal Exchange in El Salvador

Julia and I get off the plane in San Salvador.  It’s 96 degrees and the heat feels like a slap across the face.  The air is absolutely still and just as oppressive as I remember it to be.  Outside the airport, oblivious to the heat, crowds of Salvadorans are pushing up against the fence where they eagerly and impatiently wait for their loved ones to come through the airport doors and home for the Christmas holidays.  The air is heavy with humidity, but light with the excitement and anticipation of long-awaited reunions.  Along with the arriving families, I too couldn’t be more excited to be back here in El Salvador!

We make our way easily through immigration and customs.  Times have changed since the 1980’s when the airport was much smaller, less modern and “professional.”  In those days, it was overflowing with soldiers, random baggage checks, arbitrary questioning, and loads of tension and secret agendas.

Today, I can’t help but notice the framed photograph of Shafik Handal (the former FMLN guerrilla commander who died in 2006) which hangs prominently on the airport wall.  Shafik was the head of the Salvadoran Communist Party, before it merged with four other factions of the left in 1980, to form the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. He was also one of the signatories to the Peace Accords in 1992, which ended the twelve-year civil war that claimed over 75,000 lives, most of whom were civilians. In 2004, Shafik ran an unsuccessful bid for the presidency after the FMLN gained legal status as a political party. During the war, you could have ended up in prison, or worse for possessing a photo of him.  Now his portrait hangs proudly in the airport entry way.  There’s even a major boulevard, which runs right through the wealthy section of San Salvador, renamed after him.  “Welcome to El Salvador. Enjoy your visit”, the government official says in English, smiling as he stamps our passports.  It still boggles my mind.

Thanks to my work at Equal Exchange, where I’ve been since 2002, I’ve had the opportunity to return to El Salvador many times since moving back to the U.S.  in the late 1990s.  Equal Exchange buys coffee from two small farmer coffee co-ops with whom we’ve had long – and really solid – relationships for the past 15 to 20 years.  Through our partnerships, we’ve helped Las Colinas and El Pinal help rebuild after much infrastructure and production losses suffered during numerous emergencies and natural disasters:  Hurricane Mitch in 1998, an earthquake in 2001, Hurricane Stan and the volcanic eruption of Ilamatepec in 2005, and last year’s heavy flooding which washed out roads and bridges.  Aside from helping the co-ops through emergency aid funds, our relationship with them has also resulted in important long-term benefits and development assistance.  Higher prices for their coffee and creative financing packages have enabled Las Colinas to repay a foreboding agrarian reform debt that has caused hundreds of similar co-operatives to be sold off to the country’s banks.  In addition, we have been able to help Las Colinas transition its crop to organic coffee, make improvements to the local school, install new, water-saving, ecological processing equipment, and perhaps most importantly, protect the watershed that provides the entire municipality of Tacuba and seven surrounding communities with its entire drinking water supply; that’s approximately 15,000 people.

Las Colinas is located in the western department of Ahuachapan.  El Pinal is in La Libertad.  Aprainores is located in Usulutan along the mouth of the Lempa River.

Equal Exchange’s farmer co-op partners: Las Colinas is located in the western department of Ahuachapan. El Pinal is in La Libertad. Aprainores is located in Usulutan along the mouth of the Lempa River.

I’ve enjoyed all of my visits to Las Colinas and El Pinal, but for me, this trip to El Salvador was particularly meaningful.

I’ve come this time to visit Aprainores, a cashew co-op located in San Nicholas Lempa, in what’s called the Lower Lempa of Usulutan Department.  That’s right… a cashew co-op!  For those who still think of Equal Exchange as a Fair Trade coffee, tea, and chocolate company, read on!  We are trying to deepen and broaden our impact by providing better and more support to increasing numbers of small farmer co-ops and to offer consumers more Fair Trade small farmer products, as well as better information and education about these groups and the food they provide us.  In recent years, we’ve added Fair Trade small farmer bananas, olive oil, almonds, and cereal bars to our offerings.

What’s so special about Aprainores and this trip?

Read Part III tomorrow.

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