In a previous posting I wrote about the efforts of the members of COMSA in Marcala, Honduras to convert to organic coffee cultivation and the benefits of this transition on their community socially and economically. I’d now like to take a moment to write about some non-coffee projects, falling under the categories of crop diversification and the empowerment of women, that are transforming Marcala.
A common thread through conversations about improving the socioeconomic conditions of small-scale coffee producers is the need to diversify their activities beyond coffee growing. Typical coffee farmers throughout the world are for the most part completely reliant on coffee production, resulting in dependence on the income from the once-per-year harvest. The coffee market has always been volatile and has been particularly prone to wild swings since the collapse of the International Coffee Agreement in 1989. If a producer’s coffee ripens during a low market their economic security - and more specifically food security - is put at risk for the remainder of the year.
In Marcala the associates of COMSA have been diversifying their activities by devoting significant amounts of land and time to the cultivation of organic vegetables and fruit trees. A number of years ago the General Manager of COMSA, Rodolfo Peñalba, travelled to Japan for 6 months to learn organic farming techniques. He returned a wealth of knowledge not only for coffee cultivation but also for local food crops such as cabbage, broccoli, carrots, squash, honey, sugar cane, sweet peppers, chili peppers and citrus trees. He also learned about the organic management of livestock such as chickens and pigs, as these are instrumental in the successful cultivation of the organic vegetables.
Rodolfo Peñalba of COMSA
Don Rodolfo returned to Marcala and set the wheels in motion for a significant transformation of agrarian life in the community. In a recent visit to Marcala I met several producers who relayed to me how this activity has transformed their lives - importantly, they were mostly women.
The role of women in rural societies tends to be limited to household activity with little opportunity to work in activities that produce a surplus for the family. A group of about 35 women, all associates of COMSA, recently formed a collective action group in order to better take advantage of what they have to offer to the community. A key activity of these women has been the sharing of organic farming techniques for food crops learned either from Rodolfo or gained through ongoing experimentation.
COMSA has build a small organic farming schoolhouse of sorts where farmers can gather to share experimental results and classes are offered
One member of the women’s group explained that she had only joined COMSA about 9 months prior to our visit. Before that, she explained, she had been very quiet and reserved. Her role was limited to household activity. After joining COMSA’s women’s group she was given a large section of land by her husband on which to grow vegetables in addition to a section of coffee that would be her responsibility.
It was hard to believe this woman had been a quiet and reserved soul only a year beforehand, having been greeted by her with triumphant enthusiasm and pride upon our arrival at her house. She toured us around her thriving gardens, introduced us to her pigs and explained how she uses mountain microorganisms and various other on-farm resources to produce her crops. She acknowledged this change in character quite directly, noting that she felt ‘reborn’ by the experience.
Nora showing off her organic vegetable bounty
The women of the COMSA group have harnessed their industrious and entrepreneurial spirit to take full advantage of their new activities. In September of 2013 they formed an organic farmer’s market in Marcala, now held every second Sunday. In a short time this has allowed their families to not only eliminate the need to purchase a great deal of food by substituting their own but also to generate meaningful new income from local sales.
These activities don’t just translate into improved economic and basic food security for the farmers - they also have resulted in improved nutrition and a healthier environment. Replacing processed or industrially produced food from the local store with organic food grown locally (a familiar story to many of us in the North!) has reportedly been transformative for family health and wellbeing.
Dilcia Bautista harvesting mountain microorganisms from the soil
Additionally, the diversification into alternative crops has allowed these families to weather the storm of the Roya fungus currently devastating their coffee crops. As one farmer put it, the family would have been ‘destroyed’ by Roya had they not diversified into other crops.
I often say that the less tangible benefits of Fairtrade are possibly the most impactful -- collective entrepreneurship, community based experimentation and knowledge sharing, and access to international markets and resources can transform rural communities, provided they have the right leadership. The work being done by Rodolfo Peñalba as well as leading women like Dilcia Bautista, who I wrote briefly about previously, has undoubtedly been crucial to this community’s success.
- Ian Clark, Director of Coffee