El Salvador Solutions to Crushing Poverty
North East of San Salvador city, beyond the San Miguel volcano’s slopes, a coffee cooperative is only accessible in the winter using a 4×4 vehicle. Twenty years ago, San Carlos Dos Cooperative in Osicala, Morazán, El Salvador was harvesting 16,000 bags of certified Rainforest Alliance coffee. Last year, they harvested only 150 bags after the coffee rust fungus decimated coffee crops across Central America, including losses of up to 80 percent in El Salvador.
A coalition of local organizations, non-profits, development agencies, and the private sector are bringing San Carlos Dos and other co-ops back from the edge of crisis in El Salvador. These partnerships are providing technical assistance, introducing rust-resistant trees, improving food security, and training up coffee farmers (especially women) to tap in to microfinance.
Leading the work is the National Cooperative Business Association, CLUSA International (NCBA CLUSA), the U.S.’s apex co-op association, with funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. NCBA CLUSA in El Salvador uses those funds to implement the “Coffee Rehabilitation and Agricultural Diversification Project”. Bringing together these partners, the Project is working to reach 7,500 farmers with resources, training, and rust-resistant plants to rehabilitate the coffee farms that used to provide income for much of the country.
Between April 5th and 7th of 2016, the Project, in coordination with Catholic Relief Services El Salvador and the International Women’s Coffee Alliance, successfully carried out empowerment seminars for women linked to the coffee sector in the regions of Morazan, Comasagua, and Apaneca. The activity was led by Karen Cebreros, founder of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA).
Each event was attended by about 80 eager women who were trained on issues related to food security, self-saving groups, and micro-financing for new businesses. The activities included the participation of the Foundation Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung, which also works with programs that support the coffee sector and agriculture around the world.
“Supporting women, both workers in the coffee sector as well as those linked indirectly to this value chain, is a cornerstone of the program that NCBA CLUSA will execute in El Salvador over the next three years, backed by the USDA” said Stanley Kuehn, Director of the Project during the sessions of the events.
With a focus on empowering women coffee farmers, NCBA CLUSA partnered with Earth’s Choice Women of Coffee Microfinance Fund (WOCMF) through collaboration with the International Women’s Coffee Alliance, establishing a pilot microfinance fund that will be replicated in 17 of Women in Coffee’s Chapter Countries.
While training up women producer groups, Karen Cebreros of Earth’s Choice focused on marketing and production, the importance of coffee parcel diversification, and access to finance for economic empowerment. With an agreement with Banco Hipotecario in El Salvador, NCBA CLUSA is encouraging local financial investment in the coffee sector, opening up access to credit for coffee farmers, especially women.
“In 2010 we got organized as a Savings Group, we were three women and from that point the group started growing. We began to grow coffee and to have home vegetable gardens. As other women saw our example and how well we were doing, they were excited and joined us. Women are ambitious, we strive to do better in order to be able to obtain what is necessary for ourselves and our families… This is how we requested funds for a banana parcel and sought advice as to what we need to do to become a cooperative.”
“We are a group of 25 women now. At a meeting in Adel, Morazán we met a CLUSA technician, who has supported and worked with us. We have been able to obtain more funds for women to work in their fields. We currently have 75,000 coffee plants in a nursery. People are excited and want to join the project because they know it’s good!” said a proud and smiling Imelda Saenz, producer at the Los Positos Cooperative in Morazán, during the event that took place in that department.
Investment in women coffee farmers is, without a doubt, paying off. The International Women’s Coffee Alliance has also started making loans and is seeing repayment rates of 100 percent, according to the El Salvador’s Chapter President, Maria Botto.
Currently, the San Carlos Dos Cooperative has 120 members, down from 400 in its prime harvest seasons. But the co-op is working hard to bounce back, raising rust-resistant coffee seedlings (Yellow Icatu varieties), training up on organic production, developing business plans in coordination with government institutions (MAG/Amanecer Rural), and marketing and branding, along with coffee quality upgrades.
Training sessions through the NCBA CLUSA project, like Earth’s Choice support of San Carlos Dos Cooperative, are providing a creative and sustainable approach to community-led development in coffee countries. If San Carlos Dos Co-op is any indication, coffee co-ops in El Salvador are on their way to building resilient markets.