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The Story of Las Marias 93 CooperativePosted by Julia Baumgartner at about 12pm on Monday May 9, 2011
Check out El Salvador delegation participant Conner Wild's wonderful article that was published (along with a full page of beautiful photos!) in this month's Street Pulse, Madison's Homeless Cooperative Newspaper. For more information on Street Pulse, go to www.madisonstreetpulse.org or contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org Thanks to Conner for sharing the story of Las Marias Cooperative in this beautiful piece!
It all starts with a cup of coffee. That roasty-toasty, mahogany beverage that we thoughtlessly guzzle down by the gallons every week. That black gold that fuels the human component of our modern industrial machine and gets us through those late nights and early mornings and midday lulls.
Both the source of animated conversation and pensive contemplation (not to mention stimulating motivation), our society has come to revolve around this single beverage, arguably, more than any other except, perhaps, water. But what's in a cup of coffee? Symptomatic of modern industrial society, consumer and producer have become divorced. We fill our lives with objects we consume, yet the story that each object holds is obscured. Every cup of coffee has a story, and at the beginning of every story is a farmer.
Recently, I was fortunate enough to be part of a delegation organized by Just Coffee Cooperative that was part of ongoing efforts by the Madison coffee roaster to bridge the global gap between producers and consumers. We traveled to the southeastern departments of El Salvador where we were warmly welcomed by a number of coffee growing cooperatives in the region. The story of Las Marias 93 Cooperative in particular is an incredible story of people struggling for a voice in the world, for equal access to land and the freedom to make a living for themselves.
Fighting For Our Lives: The Salvadoran Civil War
Buried within the Tecapa-Chinameca Mountain Range at the base of Sierra del Tigre lies the Las Marias 93 Cooperative. The community of coffee farmers consists largely of ex-combatants of the Salvadoran Civil War, many of whom spent the better part of their adolescence and young adult lives fighting on the very land they now farm.
Civil strife and social unrest plagued the country for most of the 20th century. Tensions between the wealthy, urban elites who ruled the country and the masses of poor, rural campesinos had been building for decades and had broken out in violence more than once. One repressive military dictator or junta followed another and sent government death squads to rove across the countryside, indiscriminately executing anyone suspected of the slightest leftist or moderate sympathies.
The people of Las Marias 93 were originally part of a leftist guerilla group called the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP) which centered its operations in the eastern department of Morazán, northeast of the Tecapa-Chinameca Mountain Range. The ERP was established in 1971 and distinguished itself from other leftist guerilla groups by advocating the necessity of force if the people were going to alter the social and political conditions in El Salvador. Most of the ex-combatants were only in their mid-teens when they joined.
In 1979, the Junta Revolucionaria de Gobierno (JRG) deposed President General Carlos Humberto Romero. Although promises were made to alter social conditions, there was little substantive change. In 1980, five of the major leftist guerilla groups, including the ERP, united to form the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) and began military operations against the JRG.
Much of the ERP was converted into a Special Forces unit within the FMLN, and many of the co-op members became a part of that unit. The Special Forces became renowned during the war for winning key military victories and executing extraordinary military actions such as the assassination of Lieutenant Colonel Domingo Monterrosa Barrios.
The people of Las Marias 93 spent most of the ensuing twelve years entrenched in the Tecapa-Chinameca Mountains, mostly around the Sierra del Tigre in western San Miguel department. As one of the premier coffee growing regions in a country whose economy revolves around coffee exports, the mountains became a hotbed of military actions given their economic and strategic importance. During that time, the people lived in makeshift camps in the forests or in foxholes that were dug into the mountainside. Food and resources were scarce, and they often had to rely on homemade armaments.
Despite such lack, the FMLN made surprising gains against government troops during early operations and had much popular support in rural areas. Shortly after the outbreak of war, however, El Salvador, in the context of the Cold War, became a pawn in U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. immediately began funneling funds and armaments to the right-wing government armies, spending over $1 million per day. Many of the ex-combatants at the co-op expressed relative certitude that the war would have ended within six years if the U.S. had not supported the government army. Instead, it dragged on in a bloody stalemate for over a decade.
The war finally came to an end in 1992 with the signing of the Chapultapec Peace Accords after the loss of 75,000 lives.
One of the central issues of the civil war had been land reform. El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America and also has the largest population. By the time war broke out in 1980, the majority of land was concentrated in the hands of 14 families. As part of the Peace Accords, land was redistributed in exchange for a demobilization of the FMLN and its conversion into a political party. The members of Las Marias each received 3 manzanas (about 5 acres) of land around Sierra del Tigre. Each member then gave up one-third of a manzana of land for public community purposes such as roads and a soccer field. The land they received was actually part of what was a hacienda, that is the plantation of a large landowner, prior to the war. Sixty-four ex-combatants then formed the co-op in 1993 (thus the name Las Marias 93). The land they had fought so hard for was finally theirs. Although none of them had been coffee farmers prior to the war, they took to the trade with a new sense of purpose: to create a sustainable, peaceful, and prosperous community.
To this end, they have largely succeeded or, at the least, are on the right path. The cooperative devoted itself to using sustainable agricultural practices in order to produce fair trade, organic coffee. They have also worked closely with numerous national and international development groups to establish an incredible set of facilities. The community owns its own wet mill and dry mill for processing the raw coffee cherries and beans, greenhouses for starting the coffee plants and for agricultural diversification efforts, facilities for making a fermented organic fertilizer called bocashi, machinery for roasting, grinding, and packaging coffee, and an internet cafe for the youth. Construction has also started on a cafe. Moreover, as part of a violence prevention program, the youth are engaged in all steps of the coffee production and participate in weekly youth group meetings.
Nevertheless, physical and mental scars remain. During our talk, one of the farmers broke down in tears halfway through a story. Another just recently got a bullet removed from her back, one of two she received during the war, and now keeps it in a jar at her home. Despite the tremendous trials that the people of Las Marias 93 suffered, I imagine they feel an ineffable pride as they walk through their coffee forests, Sierra del Tigre silhouetted in the landscape, thinking that they fought for this, for their lives and the right to a livelihood, for justice and autonomy, and, against all odds, won.
The Struggle Continues: How Fair Is Fair Trade?
The people of Las Marias 93 may have laid down their arms in 1992, but their struggle continues in trying to attain political parity in the global marketplace even after adopting fair trade and organic practices. Fair trade standards were originally developed in order to alleviate some of the problems farmers faced in the global market such as unfair power relations and exploitation., but fair trade itself has caused problems for farmers.
To begin with, fair trade/organic (FTO) certification is costly. The members of Las Marias 93 pay $2500 for organic certification and $2600 for fair trade certification each year. These costs are burdensome for the farmers who still only barely make a living wage, especially in the case of poor harvests or minimum prices. It also stands as a significant barrier to farmers looking to enter the market. As the co-op members told us, there are plenty of farmers who farm 'organically' because they cannot afford pricy synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. But neither can they afford certification. Moreover, the Las Marias 93 members said that they only had an inspector come out when they first applied for certification. So where is their money going to?
FTO certification also requires a three-year transition period for farmers. During this time, farmers are putting in the extra labor and resources into farming according to the FTO standards but are not reaping the financial benefits. The plants also tend to go through a period of shock as they become accustom to organic fertilizers and thus often produce less initially. Without any aid or assistance, many farmers are unable to remain profitable over the three year transition period and thus, discouraged, abandon the efforts, reverting to conventional means.
Coffee farmers are also at the mercy of volatile coffee commodity markets and importers. Because coffee is a commodity traded on the market, its price fluctuates daily. Thus farmers are, in a sense, forced to play the stock market with their product. Fair trade attempted to mitigate the affects of this volatility by establishing a minimum price (set at $1.26/lb.) which would at least cover the costs of production. Farmers also receive a premium for fair trade and organic production (recently raised from $0.10 for fair trade and $0.20 for organic to $0.20 for fair trade and $0.30 for organic). Theses can greatly benefit farmers when world coffee prices fall below the minimum, but the premiums alone hardly justify the intensive labor production associated with FTO standards when prices rise above the minimum. Thus, with prices fluctuating greatly from year to year, many farmers lose the incentive to invest in FTO production long term.
Even organized as a co-op, coffee farmers are still not on an equal plain with importers. This year, Las Marias 93 had trouble with a specialty coffee importer out of California called Royal Coffee, Inc. Coffee prices hit historic lows in the early 2000s, bottoming out at around $0.40/lb. Since then, prices have been steadily rising. Prices skyrocketed this year when many coffee crops worldwide were adversely affected by weather conditions. El Salvador, however, was not. As prices rose, Las Marias 93 decided to take advantage of the high prices before they dropped. They entered into a contract with Royal selling their coffee at the then price of $1.98/lb. Prices kept soaring, however, influenced largely by market scarcity and commodity trading.
Through early 2011, prices increased to around $2.50/lb. When Las Marias 93 approached Royal and asked to renegotiate their contract given the extraordinary circumstances, Royal flatly denied them. Las Marias 93 had little bargaining power. Breaching the contract would mean having to pay a steep penalty as well as being effectively blacklisted as an unreliable producer. The co-op members decided to bite the bullet. $0.60 would have made a much greater difference to the individuals at Las Marias 93 than to Royal. Nevertheless, Royal took advantage of their greater political power to turn a profit.
Thus even though fair trade ensures that farmers are meeting particular environmental and labor standards in exchange for a fairer, more secure price, there are no oversight bodies in place to assure that power relations between producers in the global 'South' and consumers in the global 'North' are fair. Even though fair trade is an excellent, practical effort in attempting to make inequitable trading conditions more ethical and just, it has failed to alter patterns of power relations between the 'West' and 'Non-West'. Coffee trade, even mitigated through fair trade standards, still is not a dialogue among equals. It is still foreigners dictating and imposing their views and desires upon others. Although a positive, proactive step, the story of Las Marias 93 nevertheless demonstrates that fair trade ultimately works much more for consumers than for producers. It is towards the ends of establishing dialogues among equals that coffee companies like Just Coffee are working by moving beyond merely what is on the books. Fair trade should be about paying farmers a living wage for their product, not absolving the consciences of yuppies as affordably as possible.
To take nothing else from the incredible story of the struggles of Las Marias 93, it is that there will always be problems and always solutions, that something better can always be made from a bad situation, that there is always something to fight for, always another Sierra del Tigre to overcome.
Coffee is much more than a mere product for consumption. Inextricably woven into each cup is a story that contains the narratives of the people who produced it along with the narratives about history, power relations, trade politics, and social justice. It is uncovering these stories that is necessary to bring consumers and producers closer together and establish a dialogue among equals.
So put that in your cup and drink it.
Just Coffee will hopefully be offering coffee from Las Marias 93 within the upcoming year.
Look out for it at your local grocer. *Words that appear in quotes (' ) are sucky reductionisms but are, unfortunately, unavoidable given the insufficient English lexicon. I apologize.*