New Beginnings in El Salvador
There’s something special about El Salvador–the history, the struggle, the per severance of the people, the edge…something that draws you in to this tiny country, like a strange addiction.
I caught the bug early on, after being sucked into the culture and the wonderful people days after my 16th birthday. This October, I celebrated my 11th return to El Salvador to visit two coffee cooperatives, historical sites left from the civil war, participate in the First International Gathering of Small Producer Symbol, and to return to the community that initially opened my eyes to this country some ten years ago.
This visit was part of another Farmer to Farmer exchange and I was fortunate to travel together with Monika Firl of Cooperative Coffees, Rebecca Hurlen Patano from Doma Coffee Roasting Company, and Glenn Lathrop of Desert Sun. We spent the week with both APICAFE and Las Marias 93 in the eastern region of El Salvador further developing our young relationships and exploring the possibility of sourcing Salvadoran coffee.
We participated in a workshop with FUNDE (the National Development Foundation) who is working on a project that is being carried out within the five cooperatives organized under the umbrella group APICAFE to renovate farms, build infrastructure, acquire organic certifications and financing, improve marketing, and advance organic agriculture technologies.
As a new organization, APICAFE has been working to support small farmers to improve both the quality of their organizations as well as the quality of their coffee, supporting the cooperatives to reach a point where they are ready to export to the specialty coffee market.Part of our workshop was to evaluate wet and dry processing facilities, provide recommendations for improvements on quality control and market expectations, participate in an exchange regarding challenges in todays market, evaluating the cooperatives’ financial needs, and to get an update on their diversification initiatives including vegetable production as well as roasted coffee sales and the development of a local cafe.
After many producer relations visits throughout the past year and a half, Cooperative Coffees (our importer) sealed a deal on new contract has been signed with Las Marias 93 Cooperative, a unique group of 64 coffee farmers from Usulutan, El Salvador. Since our first meeting, this group has held a special place in my heart and it is with much excitement that we will soon be roasting coffee from a cooperative that encompasses the essence of the Salvadoran people. Las Marias 93 is a group of revolutionaries that spent 12 years fighting for access to the farmlands where they are now growing coffee. Today this cooperative uses their organizational strength to work together with the youth to promote sustainable development and a healthy community in a country overcome by gang violence. Each time we return, this well-organized cooperative has a new project to share with us. This time, the members of Las Marias eagerly presented us their successful full operating cafe run by youth and a new museum honoring the history of their members. The relationship building process has been a long one, but the work has paid off. This cooperative deserves to be recognized for the incredibly inspiring work that they have fought so many years for and we feel honored to help bring their coffee to you
Our travels also led us further east to the state of Morazan. This mountainous region was the main guerilla stronghold during El Salvador’s twelve year civil war. Today, it has been converted into a “Peace Route”, a tourist destination offering an inside look at how recent history has affected these war-torn communities while providing a means for communities to rebuild themselves through tourism. After crossing into Morazan, our first stop was at El Mozote, the massacre sight of an entire community of over 1,000 people in 1981 by the US supported military.
Standing on the same ground where one of the most horrific acts of torture took place some thirty years ago was sobering. A memorial exists naming the small children, men, women, and elderly that were massacred as well as a reflection garden, brightly colored murals, a pupuseria named “Faith and Hope”, and a village of people that continue to live with the reality of their history, retelling their story to outsiders each day.
The last rainy stop on the Peace Route was the Museum of the Revolution, home of many artifacts left over from the war including Radio Venceremos, a guerilla encampment, photographs, arms, and many stories.
In spite of having filled our brains with stories of the atrocities committed in El Salvador during the 80s, I was left feeling uplifted that the deal was secured with a cooperative that too had been part of this 12 year struggle and that continues to overcome obstacles of gang violence, poverty and climate change and fight for the well-being of their families and their community.
By the end of the week, it was time to meet with a group of fifty fair traders who had come together in San Salvador, El Salvador for the First International Gathering of the Small Producer’s Symbol. The conference was organized by the CLAC (Latin American Network of Small Fair Trade Producers) (www.tusimbolo.org), which is a network of a wide variety of producers groups from throughout Latin America that is working on a new initiative to promote the work of small scale producers throughout the world. As many of us that have been involved in fair trade for a while have noticed, the true principles of fair trade have become watered down as large businesses enter into the movement, pushing to certify large plantations and taking advantage of the hard work thousands of people have put into finding better alternatives for small producers organized around the world. From the producers’ perspective, it has been clear for many years that fair trade is not quite fair.
While gathered together at the same table, coffee producers from Chiapas Mexico, cashew farmers from El Salvador, sugar cane farmers from Costa Rica, potato farmers from Peru, among others, discussed, debated, and imagined new possibilities together with true fair trade buyers, importers, and roasters from the U.S., Canada, Italy, France, and Germany. A new initiative that favors the initial fundamentals of the fair trade movement, but with a special focus on small producers has been created.
This time, the efforts are not coming from organizations in the north pushing down on farmers in the south with expensive certification processes, extensive paperwork, and strict regulations that are not always beneficial to these groups. Rather the producers themselves are making the decisions based on their own needs, desires, and dreams. The Small Producer Symbol is truly a grassroots movement. The initiative is still in the initial stage, but it was incredibly hopeful to be sitting at the same table together with producers from the south and buyers in the north, working together towards a more just world.
The day I left, yet another tropical storm struck El Salvador and the rain did not stop falling for 9 days straight, dropping more rain than ever before and causing severe structural, sanitary, water, agricultural, damages as rivers overflowed, bridges were swept away, land crumbled, and hundreds of thousands of families were displaced. “Natural” disasters are becoming more and more frequent these days, as more developed countries continue to dump carbon emissions into the air, while vulnerable countries like El Salvador are the ones who end up most affected by global climate change.
With few preventative measures combined with existing structural poverty, it makes it incredibly difficult for those living in these countries to ever have time to recover, much less prepare for the next big hit. Most frightening is the loss of agricultural damages, estimated at $300 million dollars throughout the country. Many Salvadorans are now at risk of an insecure food supply as a result of a nearly 90% loss in basic grains combined with an increase in local prices for those products. Our partners in El Salvador were slightly affected by structural damage, but it is the food supply that they are most worried about. It is estimated that 17% of coffee production will be lost throughout El Salvador, and many are worried about an increase in diseases as a result of too much standing water on farms.
In a world of gang violence, climate change, and a struggling economy, new movements and partnerships are also on the rise in El Salvador. In spite of it all, these groups remain determined and hopeful and we are happy to be a part of it all.