By Peter Buck, Interfaith Rep.
Equal Exchange and Anne Maloney, CRS Ambassador,
Bellarmine College Preparatory
On February 13, a delegation from Equal Exchange and the Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice (UUCSJ) arrived at Cooperativa Zacarias Padilla in the coffee-growing village of Quibuto in the mountains of northern Nicaragua. The Zacarias Padilla cooperative, founded in 1992, has 61 members. It’s a “primary-level” co-op; members market their coffee through the secondary-level PRODECOOP, which serves as processor and exporter for small-farmer groups.
The delegation group included five Equal Exchange staff members, seven delegates (Unitarian Universalist, Hindu, and Catholic), two staff members of the UUCSJ, our in-country guide, a most eloquent translator and Luis, our intrepid driver.
Farmers Working Together Against La Roya
The village of Quibuto, accessible only by a winding dirt road through the mountains, perches on a steep slope looking out over a deep valley. The coffee trees grow high on the hills, on land that’s accessible only to the fit and flexible.
In recent years, cooperative members have worked together to overcome the devastating effects of the coffee rust fungus (la roya), a disease which has attacked coffee trees throughout Latin America.
During our visit, we learned that co-op members and their families are just now starting to recover from the most recent outbreak of la roya. The disease decimated their coffee trees and brought food shortages to a community that has spent decades building up their cooperative and working toward a measure of prosperity. During our group’s conversations with leaders, we learned about the challenges posed by la roya and the community’s pathway to recovering from it. Some of the strategies we learned about included replacing affected trees, enriching the soil, and developing new types of organic bio-fertilizers. The costs have required some producers to take out loans, which have made the road to recovery that much more difficult.
The farmers relayed the importance of receiving credit, technical assistance, and support from Zacarias Padilla and from PRODECOOP. One of our delegates learned from her homestay family that the community has also received significant support from Catholic Relief Services (CRS). In conjunction with PRODECOOP, CRS developed five-year plans to help farmers manage la roya, reduce risks, prepare for the future, and build greater resilience.
Fair Trade Cooperatives and The Price of Coffee
PRODECOOP sells its members coffee any way it can, for the best price it can get. A little under half is sold through the Fair Trade system, the rest to commercial buyers. Equal Exchange is one of two buyers of PRODECOOP that certifies with the Small Producers’ Symbol (SPP), a “Fair-Trade-plus” certification run by, and working exclusively with, small farmer cooperatives. The SPP minimum price for coffee is about 30¢ a pound higher than the conventional Fair Trade minimum.
Individual farmer-members receive a price per pound for their coffee based on averaging the aggregate payment PRODECOOP receives for every member’s coffee. This includes SPP-certified buyers, Fair Trade buyers and commercial buyers. Averaging the price is a matter of some debate and is discussed at length between the farmers and the delegates. Some farmers believe they should receive a higher price if their coffee is sold to SPP or Fair Trade buyers; others agree with the majority opinion of PRODECOOP’s member co-ops, that the aggregate proceeds of a season’s coffee crop should be shared equally.
(Reprinted with permission from the authors)