A Remarkable Rainforest Alliance Cooperative

Published: May 12th 2009EDIT THIS ENTRY

Ciudad Barrios

I stare out the window of the skinny greyhound style bus carrying me up the hills of the Cachuatique mountain range. Dust swirls in through cracks in the rusted window pains. The hills are a burnt yellow, void of crops or streams or trees that would signal the valley stretching out beside us as fertile. I cough a bit, trying to clear my throat as dust swirls up from red clay roads, infiltrating my lungs with each inhale. The scarred landscape outside confuses me. For a second I wonder if the helpful salvadoreños put me on the wrong bus, if there’s another Ciudad Barrios in the region of San Miguel which was conveniently left out of my directions. I wonder if that Ciudad Barrios specializes in corn rather than coffee.

One of the joys of studying the connection between coffee and poverty is that this persnickety crop favors the tropical highlands where rainforests thrive, producing a nearly year round rainy season and fertile soil. A cornucopia of bright green flora - banana leaves competing with mango trees for sunlight beneath the protective shade of jungle trees - blankets the coffee hillside, concealing entire villages beneath a leafy canopy.
The rusty yellow of this hillside bears no relation to the wealth of green that permeates a coffee plantation. The yellow hills beside my bus are barren from three months of a long dry season; they are barren from machetes that slashed down this season’s corn harvest and the fires that prepare the soil for the next. I cough a bit again in the lost battle to clear my throat. I wonder how long these hillside communities will survive off the fruits of the parched soil that produces our dust cloud.

This barren landscape is the norm in El Salvador. After its island neighbor Haiti, el Salvador bears the distinction as the second most deforested country in the world. During the civil war of the eighties, government soldiers burnt down swaths of forest to flush out guerilla fighters hiding within its lush green folds. After the war, during a time of economic malaise, rich soil lay beneath the burnt land perfect for maiz cultivation, setting the foundation for systematic slash and burn agriculture which continues to destroy the little forest that remains. The local people call this yearly ritual los quemos, when the hills glow orange in preparation for the corn plantation. This small Central American country, roughly the size of Vermont, that once held a treasure trove of undiscovered flora and fauna now fights to protect enough forest cover to provide clean water for its 7 million people.

Beyond the local impact, the plight of the forests of el Salvador is a regional and global issue. El Salvador sits in the avian migratory highway of the Americas. Thousands of birds migrate through this small Central American country every year as they flee the frigid winters of North America for the balmy branches of the South. I imagine that what used to be a lush roadside stop for these migratory creatures now more resembles an inhospitable pot hole.

The caretakers of El Salvador’s remaining forest are coffee farmers as shaded coffee farms compose 90 percent of the forest cover in the country. The future of coffee determines the future well-being of el Salvador. Without forest farms, this postage sized country will have no water. The well-being of the coffee farms is also intricately tied in with the well-being el Salvador’s economy. Without the rivers protected by the coffee, El Salvador will be blanketed by a barren landscape without an agricultural base to power its people and their economic activity.

Nestled between the remaining patch of primary forest and the coffee farms lies the small mountain town of Ciudad Barrios. At the heart of Ciudad Barrios is the cooperative of the same name. For over a century, the people of these hills have farmed coffee beneath the shade of indigenous and fruit trees. In 1933, eighteen men decided the price of coffee did not adequately compensate them for their work. From their frustration emerged the idea to form a cooperative. They traveled to other countries to learn about cooperatives, to get to know and understand them. According to Rene Castillo, the son of one of the founders, they were friends and neighbors and believed that this new system would provide a better future for their families and their community. At a time when farmers journeyed for one day to reach the nearest town to sell their coffee, it was an incredible vision. The town and community of Ciudad Barrios exists today because of the commitment of these eighteen farmers to create a better community through a coffee cooperative.

It was this vision that Prospero Trejo inherited. As the current general manager of the cooperative, no one understands better the central role of coffee to the economic viability of rural life in this small town and the environmental well-being of the entire region. During the war, he fled after an attempt on his life to Costa Rica, where he studied cooperative management at one of the best universities in Central America. After the war, he brought back his newly acquired skills to his home town to carve out a future for himself, his family and the farmers for whom he cares deeply.

During the war, the guerillas were able to fortify their power base in the area, hiding in the remaining forests and ambushing government forces. Following their Marxist ideology of returning capital to the workers, they burnt down all privately owned coffee processing factories surrounding Ciudad Barrios. The sole surviving factory belongs to the cooperative. After the war ended and economic life returned to the region, the cooperative of Ciudad Barrios held a monopoly on all coffee processing.

With this economic leg up, the business of the cooperative thrived. They developed excellent credit with local lending institutions, and are able to export directly to the international market. The cooperative posts the international price daily and allows farmer to fix their price of their coffee today based on how much they anticipate selling in the future. The rural farmers play a local futures market, deciding when to set the price for their coffee based on their future market expectations. By selling their coffee at different times, not just when the crop comes in, they hedge against their risk against future falling prices. As the cooperative grew, Propsero realized that they had the economic means to play an active role in local conservation. He led the cooperative to buy hectares of the remaining primal forest and large forested coffee estates which they converted to local preserves.

To insure the cooperative continually progresses, he attracts bright young individuals from the community to staff its important positions. He offers them opportunities for higher education via scholarships and loans proved by the cooperative. In return for the assistance, they must bring their education back to their home town cooperative. When they return to work for the people that sponsored their education, Prospero teaches them that the role of a cooperative is to provide for the economic and social well-being of its people while enabling them to protect the environment in which they live.

Due to the intensive dependence of the local economy on coffee, the Coffee Crisis slammed the community. Unable to cover their fixed costs, families began to sell their farms. The trickle of northward, U.S.-bound migration turned into flood as coffee poverty drove farmers to risk their lives for the potential riches of life in the U.S. Though times were lean, the cooperative was able to attain a loan from the national bank due to its unblemished credit history. These funds dampened the impact of the crisis as the Cooperative was able to provide loans to their members and continue buying coffee, even at diminished prices. Five years later, some of the farmers loans remain unpaid, even as the Cooperative has settled its debt with the bank.

In response to the crisis, Prospero brought in a consultant to investigate new ways for the cooperative to survive in the changing marketplace. After examining the cooperative-run coffee estates and witnessing their conservation projects, the consultant recommended Rainforest Alliance certification as a path to alternative markets. Rainforest Alliance (RA) certification aims to promote shade cultivation and reduce the use of chemicals on a farm while paying fair wages to workers and investing in social programs like clean water projects and improved school buildings. Due to the environmental and social ethos of the cooperative, they would have to invest a relatively small amount in their communal land to meet the requirements of the RA standard. As is common in certification, an auditor visited their farms to assess their standing and make a plan of action for coming into compliance with RA. The two agricultural technicians who escorted me around the farms smiled when they mentioned the incident. Upon visiting the farms, the auditor certified them on his first visit, declaring that the cooperative run farms were fully in compliance with nearly all the rules of the standard.

When I questioned Prospero about the impetus for seeking out certification, he responded, laughing a little, “Market diversification.” While the Rainforest Alliance program reinforced the cooperatives commitment to the environmental sustainability of their farms and the farms of their members, the primary role of the label is economic. Continuing Prospero clarified, “We know that higher prices do not always accompany the frog on our coffee,” referring to the RA label placed on their bags, “as this year no one bought certified coffee for a higher price. But when the market crashes again, we will get a higher price for our certified coffee. It will help protect our members.” The lower the market price, the higher the difference between the price of certified and conventional coffee. As the price for conventional coffee increases, the marginal benefit of certification decreases because the price differential shrinks. Rather than simply paying farmers for their environmental services with a higher price, Rainforest Alliance certification stabilizes the price over time enabling farmers to maintain the same sustainable farming practices across unpredictable price fluctuations.

Despite the economic motivations of Prospero, the primary reasons for Rainforest Alliance certification communicated to the employees and farmers are environmental and social. When I questioned the two technicians, Ernesto and Ifrahim, about what they found to be the greatest benefit of certification, they stated the new environmental and social practices brought about by the process. One of the requirements of certification is frequent education seminars teaching farmers about the role of a diverse shade canopy on their farm, the importance of clean water to the health of their families and how litter on the farm decreases productivity. To comply with this practice, the cooperative engaged in an education initiative, training everyone from agronomists with masters degrees to farm workers who can barely write their names in the practices of conservation and Rainforest Alliance.

Maria, a single mother, whose husband and two sons moved to the United States during the Coffee Crisis, exemplifies the trickle down benefits of the cooperative’s focus on education as integral to meeting the social and environmental requirements of certification. Her husband’s remittances only cover the expense of their children’s education. To pay for clothes, food, and all other expenses she works her seven hectares of land. When I asked her about the cooperative and certification, Maria responded, “Me gusta la cooperativa porque se aprende mas……que café trae sombra, trae el agua. El arbol trae el sombra y el fuente de agua.” The cooperative fulfills the education aspect of certification not only because it was a rule written in the code, but also the ethos of the institution. Part of the historical success has been their ability to enrich the community by teaching members that their farms have a vital role in protecting the local ecosystem. They turn farming into a professional affair. Farmers consistently learn new methods of their craft and are reminded of why their social and environmental role as coffee farmers is important. Despite Maria’s life of struggle to rise above poverty, her eyes glow when she describes her farm. She is proud to be a coffee farmer because from this land she provides for her children in the absence of their father and because this institution teaches her the multitude of reasons why she should be.

At the factory, I met the manager, Julio Cesar. He eagerly answered my questions, particularly about the RA certification. Adjusting his baseball cap on his head, he described the transformation of the factory in which he has worked for fourteen years, “Before we did not know. Now we recycle everything. The water is recycled. It does not pollute the rivers. The husks are burned to power the drying machines. We do all that so we do not pollute the environment.” Julio enjoys his job as factory manager because he is always leaning new things that improve his factory. Now he not only improves his factory but is an integral part of a sustainable industry that supports the economy of Ciudad Barrios, insuring the survival of his home town.

The second day we travel to the cooperative owned farms. Female workers carried back breaking sacks of compost, applying one to each tree. The farm manger, Genero Ortiz, eagerly pulls me aside, removing his baseball hat out of respect for the visiting gringa. Genero tells me that applying compost is a new practice introduced with RA Certification. They no longer apply any chemical produces other than the fertilizer required to produce a good yield. A cornerstone of RA certification is their ban on the infamous dirty dozen pesticides, which can linger in the soil and water of an area for years. He points toward a half liter soda bottle hanging from a coffee plant. Bugs float face up in the sugar water. This broca trap is one of the innovative methods RA technicians taught them to use to combat pests. He smiles as a I cringe at the dead bugs. To replace their chemical disease and pest controls, the manager employs these traps and other traditional methods to create an agricultural ecosystem welcoming to farm friendly birds and bug.

The key to maintaining a productive farm without relying on pesticides, herbicides and fungicides is the three-tiered canopy that resembles a layered cake, promoted by Rainforest Alliances. Short leafy dadups spread out over the coffee plants. Their leaves shelter the coffee from the sun and are easily cut back to let the rain in and provide perfect compost for the hungry soil. The next level houses deciduous and young tree, still growing towards the sky. Ancient jungle trees form the top of the cake. The diverse canopy attracts an amalgam of species who eat the bugs that might eat the coffee.

A female worker pauses for a moment to speak with me, Jesenia. She is shy and reserved with a shaggy black bob covering her eyes. Where the manager eagerly pulled me a side, Jesenia shrinks from my questions. To make money to care for her infant son, she works on coffee farms across the hills of Ciudad Barrios. She enjoys working on the cooperative farms because, she tells me, “We learned do not litter on the farm, do not burn trash. It is bad for the water and the soil and the harvest. Our income comes from the harvest. We need to do everything we can to protect it.” The farm workers are the stewards of the farm ecosystem - the water, the animals, and the harvest are all directly impacted by how they tend to the fields. By teaching each laborer that her work insures the survival of her job, her community and her environment, the cooperative transforms her view of her role from a simple daily laborer to an integral part of the local sustainable economy. For an area characterized by chronic poverty and the flight of able bodied men, the intangible pride generated from on-the-job training makes a profound difference in how these women view their work and themselves and strengthens their commitment to their community.

Beyond encouraging the cooperative to further invest in their human capital, the social bonus earned enabled the cooperative to directly invest in their social infrastructure. In the cantons surrounding Ciudad Barrios, many of the children do not attend school for lack of a decent building. In a canton outside the town, Hilda Roxana Lopez administered classes to 30 children in a mud hut with no windows. In a village where workers are lucky to earn $3.75 a day if they are lucky, they paid forty dollars a month to rent a building with a tin roof. When she asked parents why they did not send their children to school more frequently, they commented that they did not want to send their children to study in such a shabby building when they could be working in the fields. They would rather that they earn a few dollars in the fields than spend time spent studying in a room with no electricity and no windows. This type of schooling, they said, does not insure a better future. Thirty to forty students would show up to class if it was raining.

When she heard that the Cooperative was looking for projects to invest in the community, she petitioned for a building With the RA social surplus, Prospero came to her aid. They drafted building plans, negotiated the price of a suitable site and coordinated the men of the community to donate their labor for construction. Under the shiny tin roof of their three room concrete school house with painted walls, she now teaches 120 children with the aid of another teacher. Children attend school regularly because parents now view the sacrifice of on days worth of wages as an investment in the future of their children. Everyday a different set of mothers bring fresh tamales to feed the school children one meal a day. Despite their meager resources, they want to do everything they can to support the education of their children. Hilda smiles at the thought. A brighter future for a generation provided by a simple school house.

Despite the seemingly unstoppable forward progress, there is a strong current undermining the future profitability of the cooperative. “Every family has a son or daughter who is in the U.S,” Iphrahim, one of my guides, explained after I finished interviewing a single mother. Every woman I spoke with watched her husband leave for the United States in search of greater opportunity. The Crisis only exacerbated this trend. When the women marry, they play husband Russian roulette. There is a fifty percent chance that their husband will send back remittances and a fifty percent chance that he will divorce her and start a new family in the States. Either way the women stay behind, farming coffee to support their children. These female farmers are extremely proud. They do the physically taxing work previously only performed by their husbands, fathers or brothers. The farm enables them to survive in an area of high chronic unemployment. Through good times and bad, they continue farming coffee because it is the only way for them to provide a good future, not a daily laborer’s future, for their children.

For all their social ethos and environmental forethought, prior to RA certification, the cooperative paid men more than women for the same work. Machismo still dominates the social structure of this rural town. In a society where single mother households are the new norm, this tied another rope around the feet of struggling families. Due to the RA requirements, they now provide equal pay for equal work. While men often occupy the higher paying positions, the new policy provides greater economic means to the thousands of mothers left behind by husbands seeking their fortune in the North. As the percentage of female farmers and women in the labor force continues to increase, this social change is necessary for the long term sustainability of the cooperative.

Despite the current challenges facing its people, the Cooperative of Ciudad Barrios is the most sustainable model I have seen. Their economic system supports long term environmental and social sustainability. Their business model is built on the success of the farmers, who the cooperative realizes can only be successful if they have clean water, clean air, schools and roads. For this reason many farmers can not imagine the region without coffee. According to Santo Ruise de Cabrera, a single mother providing for her children from her coffee profits, “Cuando hace terminar eso, se muere la gente de sed, calor porque no había arboles para dan ventalacion.” With giant shade trees sheltering their farms, these women and their fellow men understand that their coffee protects the future of their people and their country. The cooperative at Ciudad Barrios has partnered with Rainforest Alliance to strengthen their three pillars of sustainability - economic viability, environmental and social health - to guarantee a rich future through coffee. Without coffee, as Maria stated, “Seria un desierto.” Indeed, it would be a desert.


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