By Karen Volckhausen
© 2005. For information about reproducing this article, please contact the author.
The Beginning – “Maine Organic Coffee Growers” Travel to El Salvador
The blizzard of January 23-24, 2005, did nothing to quell the enthusiasm of the eight delegates traveling to El Salvador to visit and strengthen ties with MOFGA’s sister organizations, CCR (Association of Communities for the Development of Chalatenango) and CORDES (Foundation for Communal Cooperation and Development of El Salvador). Encouraged by Continental Airlines’ assurance by phone that planes were flying (even though buses from Portland were not running), we were the only passengers on Amtrak to Boston, got the last subway to Logan before all trips were canceled for the day, and arrived intact at an almost deserted Logan Airport.
All was not lost. A Boston Globe reporter was interviewing stranded travelers, and we were delighted to tell our story of sistering. We carefully explained the delegation goals of building solidarity among small farmers in both countries, developing a marketing plan, learning more about the Salvadoran projects, especially coffee growing, and how inspired we were by the work and progress of our sister organizations. We even discussed free trade and the negative impacts that CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement) will have on campesinos in that part of the world.
We anxiously awaited the Globe the next day while bonding at a Comfort Inn in Revere, Mass., until we could fly out on Tuesday. The headline? “Maine coffee growers stranded at Logan.” Substantial information? None.
The Tour – Harsh Realities
We finally made our destination, adding two days to the end of the trip so nothing was lost, and what we learned and absorbed changed us all. A common expression among sistering folks is that if you allow it to, El Salvador will ruin you. We feel that we were well ruined, in the best sense.
The experience of El Salvador is profound. It is bound up in a painful history of repression, war and loss with an ongoing, courageous struggle to develop a sustainable way of life that allows people to stay and thrive in their communities. This struggle is waged against tremendous odds. Survival has always been tenuous for the poor, but the Salvadoran government’s implementation of free market policies has made the situation worse. The stagnant economy has not grown in 10 years. In the most densely populated country in Central America, agriculture has been hit particularly hard by dismantled support sectors and reduced tariffs. Agricultural goods from the exterior, mostly the United States, flood the country and affect both large and small growers: Exports are decreasing, and production costs exceed money earned for native grains sold locally.
In fact, this sector has been shrinking for the past six years. Some see CAFTA as the end of agriculture in El Salvador. For instance, 20,000 tons of rice are exported annually from that country now. Under a trade agreement that eliminates tariffs on imports, 16 million tons of rice could be imported from the United States; so rice would no longer be worth producing in El Salvador. This story is repeated with corn, beans, soybeans.
For the campesino with a small plot of marginal land and no mechanization, competition is impossible. People are being forced off the land and, with few options for work, are leaving for the United States. Communities are losing their leaders, their youth, their best and brightest. Money sent to families from the States exceeds $2 billion annually, representing a large percentage of the Salvadoran gross national product. Immigration and remittances have become El Salvador’s escape valves to a deteriorating situation.
The Tour – Hope and Progress
CCR and CORDES are well aware of the current realities and are fighting back. For years they have been helping farmers develop farm plans. Their original goals were to improve family nutrition and the soil by encouraging organic growing methods, expanding the variety of crops grown and developing permaculture. Next was to market the excess locally, then to expand to regional and international markets. We were privileged to witness how much progress they have made and continue to make.
We attended a CCR/CORDES-sponsored field day in Carasque, Bangor’s sister city, along with 40 regional farmers. Four experimental stations demonstrated irrigation methods and cultivation practices for yucca, pineapple and sugar cane. All emphasized low inputs, recycling, healthy cultivation and products. Virtually all farmers in Carasque now grow organically and sell their goods at a regional market. The demand for local products seems to be increasing. Some farmers sell so much along the way to market that they never actually make it there! In the last three years, the number of local farmers markets has increased from two to seven.
During an outstanding trip to coffee country, we met regional coffee producers and processors. Although the harvest was complete, we learned a lot about efforts to produce and sell their product. When growers initiated a relationship with CORDES, they were selling all their coffee unprocessed to big companies for a low price. With CORDES’ assistance they learned to process the coffee and are improving the quality of the roast. Emphasis on gender balance and including women in agriculture made them realize that women had had no role in coffee production; so women have taken over the processing.
At first, individual families toasted beans on a comal (a simple clay dish traditionally used to cook tortillas) over wood heat, then ground them by hand. When the three communities of El Manzano, Sumpul Chacón and San Fernando decided to work together three years ago to sell under the Café Ereguán label, the operation and methods expanded; it now includes 13 processors and even more producers. CORDES has accompanied them with every step: from planting (including choice of coffee plants best suited to the area), harvesting and marketing to organizing and training people in the cooperative to handle finances and promotion. They are helping source equipment to improve processing and packaging. When coffee prices drastically decreased in 2001, they realized that by selling this value-added product rather then green coffee, they could keep the price reasonable. While their growing methods are organic, they have not been able to afford certification but are still searching for a way to do this.
We were impressed with the complete support of women in their role as processors. Although we could arrange to have most of the green crop bought by a processor in Wisconsin with whom we’ve been talking, the members of the coffee cooperative were very clear that they would not jeopardize the women’s work by doing this. We had a long discussion with the cooperative about marketing possibilities and are working toward a plan to bring processed and excess green coffee into the country to sell in Maine. In fact, the coffee you will be drinking from now on at MOFGA events will be from the Café Ereguán Cooperative. The concept of a coffee club is also taking form, so stay tuned!
We heard and talked a lot about organic farming. We were interviewed on two radio stations and talked at length about MOFGA’s work and the importance of organic agriculture in the United States and Maine. We also met with students and teachers from the National University in San Salvador to plant organic tomatoes and exchange ideas. This meeting generated great interest, including exchanging e-mail addresses and continued meetings among participants to discuss turning the land where we met into an organic demonstration station.
We participated in a productive meeting with CCR and CORDES. The delegation that visited Maine from El Salvador in September 2003 was so impressed with the Common Ground Fair that they planned a large, regional fair for Earth Day in April to promote organic agriculture, environmental soundness and the work they are doing in Chalatenango. They plan to expand the fair and hope that folks from MOFGA will participate in this event some year. They issued us an open invitation.
A priority they have set for this year is to integrate woman into farming better. They sponsor a project that supports 76 family vegetable gardens grown by women for family consumption. A women-run cooperative in the town of Guarjila dries locally grown tropical fruits. We witnessed the strong commitment to this integration in the Café Ereguán coffee cooperative.
Esperanza, the sistering representative from CCR, reminded us of the importance of solidarity, which she described as the “voice outside the country” that helps make their reality visible to the rest of the world. We left that meeting with a deepening conviction about the importance of sistering work. We are satisfied that our relationship continues to grow and strengthen, reaching new levels of understanding and commitment.
And of course we had a great time. People everywhere were warm and welcoming. We were treated to wonderful food, beautiful beaches, talented musicians, fiestas in our honor, and a very enthusiastic and talented youth theater. Through a leader of the town of Cinquera, we heard one of the best oral histories ever of the people’s efforts to organize in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s; a story of so much pain, suffering and amazing courage.
The Tour Ends; Hearts and Minds Open
No one wanted to get on the plane on Feb. 4 to leave. We felt so privileged to have shared in the lives of our Salvadoran friends, to have experienced their energy and hope and to have been part of a movement striving for a better life for all people. We became saturated with this experience of El Salvador and were ruined in the process; ruined so that we could return home and continue our important work here; so that we could reflect seriously on our lives, live our dreams and throw out unnecessary baggage; ruined to stay connected to this strong and inspiring relationship we are forging.