A New Day for El Salvador Cashew Co-op, Thanks to Cooperation Among Cooperatives
By Phyllis Robinson, Equal Exchange
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 cooperative, 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 was forced to flee, and the plantation was 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 a new challenge: how to earn a living for themselves and their families. In 1995, they formed a dairy, cashew and sugarcane cooperative, 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 organizations established relationships with the co-op 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 the manager had left them $350,000 in debt.
The situation was bleak, but the Fair Traders stood by Aprainores. A plan was put in place. Alex Flores, who had been working at the co-op for the previous year, was asked to take over its management. He had studied agronomy and business management in the U.S. and they believed that he possessed the necessary skills to turn things around. More importantly, Alex had grown to know the farmers and he cared deeply for them and their organization. Alex made a commitment to the farmers to help them succeed and promised the buyers that he would pay back the debt.
It was a remarkable turnaround. By 2012, Aprainores had consolidated their co-op. They now had 55 members, Fair Trade and organic certifications, and a processing plant that employed 30 women from neighboring communities—the only source of employment in the area. They had two long-term Fair Trade buyers and each year, Alex has paid off some of their debt, along with the interest. The farmers supplement their income by fishing, growing corn, beans, and other subsistence crops. They still find work as day laborers on neighboring plantations. No one is quite making a living, but they have survived.
Equal Exchange launches Fair Food
In 2012, Equal Exchange reaffirmed our commitment to small farmers and Authentic Fair Trade. Having built a successful model in coffee, we decided it was time to replicate our work, applying what we had done and what we had learned to a new product category. Throughout the world, nut and dried fruit cooperatives have formed to provide economic livelihoods for small farmers. In food co-ops, ethical consumers buy these products without information or knowledge about the products or the producers. Sadly, many of these nuts and dried fruits are bought off the commodity market. Sales of these products do nothing to support alternative trade organizations with social missions, nor do the profits benefit small farmers or their associations.
Our conclusion: it is time to make the connection between small nut and dried fruit producers and consumers in the North by building and strengthening these cooperative supply chains. When we tried our first sample of cashews from Aprainores, we knew we were on our way. Aprainores had already committed their harvest, but we managed to buy every last pound they could sell us. Within three weeks, the cashews had sold out.
We signed a contract to purchase twice that amount the following harvest and began working with another remarkable co-op, the Fair Trade Alliance of Kerala (FTAK) in India so we could have a year-round supply to keep the bins stocked. But as luck would have it, in March 2013, smack in the middle of the harvest, Alex called to tell us they had been hit by an unusual weather phenomenon—for three days, hurricane-like winds swept through eastern El Salvador. Occurring just at the time the cashew trees were in blossom, the winds knocked the budding flowers and incipient fruit off the trees. The processing plant was also damaged. Aprainores had lost 70 percent of its harvest.
There would be no cashews from El Salvador that year.
It was disheartening. I travelled to El Salvador to see the damage and talk with the farmers. In a meeting on the island, the farmers couldn’t hide their discouragement. Alex, looking pretty weary himself, explained to them that it would be another year without profits. He reminded them that much of their hardship was due to the significant debt they were carrying. Nevertheless, he tried to encourage them—in seven years, they had paid off more than two-thirds of their debt. A few more years and they would be in the clear.
I was worried. Was there nothing that could be done? I thought. They’ve worked so hard, their product is so good and it certainly has a market. Surely, between all of us working to support small farmers, democratic organizations, alternative food systems and co-operative supply chains, we could figure this one out. Fair Trade is about relationships. These farmers had given up twelve years of their lives to fight for social justice; they couldn’t just fail because of a three-day wind.
Co-ops supporting co-ops
Back at Equal Exchange, I got the support to make something happen. Alex met with the co-op leadership and they put together a plan. The path forward became clear. The cashew trees had been planted in the 1970s. While still producing, they were aging. The farmers didn’t have the resources to plant new trees; they could barely find the time to keep up with the day-to-day farm renovations necessary to get their farms to full production. If they had more technical assistance and more staff, they could affiliate dozens of cashew farmers living in the area and have even more cashews to sell in the future. The loan needed to be paid off. They needed a revolving loan fund to provide credit to the members. In this way, the farmers could make it to harvest, without having to borrow money from the “coyotes,” who then snatch up their cashews come March.
Equal Exchange and Aprainores were in agreement. In the spring, we wired the first round of funding, with which they built a nursery, hired an extension worker to manage it and installed an irrigation system. The farmers chose seeds from their best trees and planted them in the nursery. During our visit, we saw the 5,000 seedlings that they then grafted with shoots from their strongest cashew trees. With luck, the trees will begin producing in three to four years.
And so, on that insufferably hot March day, Oscar and Alex excitedly showed us around the farms. We saw where each farmer had cleared land in preparation for the new seedlings that they will plant. We spent the day visiting the farms and meeting with the farmers. They were still cautious, but I could sense excitement and optimism as well.
As we walked around the island, Oscar told us the story of how he had joined the guerilla movement at the age of nine. He had seen his entire family killed by soldiers right before his eyes. Lifting his shirt and showing us where he had taken a bullet during the 1989 military offensive, Oscar told us he was feeling optimistic. The presidential elections had just occurred in El Salvador and Salvador Sanchez Ceren, one of the five military commanders of the FMLN, had won.
“It’s been a long journey, and we never thought we’d see this day,” Oscar told us. “Now, we’re ready for the next stage of our struggle for economic and political rights here in El Salvador. This time, it’s not happening with weapons, but with cashew nuts.”
Food co-ops join the initiative
Equal Exchange continues to build our Fair Foods program, searching for the right products and producer groups, and working with our food co-op partners to build this new supply chain. Farmer co-ops, Equal Exchange and food co-ops—all three partners are necessary to do this work and to do it well. There are no formulas to follow when trying to create an alternative food system to the one we have now. We all know that the deck is stacked against small farmers, Alternative Trade Organizations and progressive food stores. So we need to trust each other and support one another. After all, we are all innovating, taking risks, making mistakes and learning as we go.
A new idea emerged: since we are all in this together, why not invite our food co-op partners and their consumers to join us in this initiative? What better way to build support for small farmer co-ops, educate and engage consumers in the food system, and find ways to strengthen relationships throughout the supply chain? The idea: a pilot program to support small farmer co-ops initiated by Equal Exchange with participation from food co-ops that will involve financial, educational and cross-cultural components.
We have only just begun this work and we are so excited and so proud of the enthusiasm and the commitment we have received already. Hats off to the Hanover Co-op, Berkshire Co-op Market, River Valley Market, Seward Community Co-op and Weaver’s Street Market for being the first food co-ops to understand the value of this initiative and give us a resounding “Yes!”
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