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.
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.