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Laura Bechard

Interview: Supporting Youth in Agriculture at Manduvira Cooperative

Manduvira Cooperative in Paraguay is world-renowned for being the first sugar mill owned and run by an agricultural cooperative. One of the co-op’s pressing worries is the challenge posed by climate change. Many farmers are still feeling the effects of an unusual hard frost that hit in winter of 2017, which affected the sugarcane growth and continues to result in lower than average yields. And like many farmer groups, Manduvira also faces the challenge of an aging farming population. The cooperative is making a concerted effort to include youth in their work to come up with climate change mitigation strategies.

As part of the USAID Cooperative Development Program (CDP) grant in partnership with Equal Exchange, Manduvira proposed a field trial with test plots. They have contracted an experienced sugar cane specialist and two first year college agronomy students, Cristhian Aveiro Ortíz and Matias Zaracho Salvioni, to support the trials. They are testing organic inputs alongside three different varieties of cover crops to understand how their behavior and effect on yield.

In addition to providing support with the project, the two students are gaining an incredible opportunity to apply what they’re learning in college to real life with the cooperative, all while under the mentorship of a national expert in sugar cane cultivation. Offering technical support and employment to two local college students is one way that Manduvira is engaging with youth. 

I’m Laura Bechard, Chocolate Supply Chain Coordinator at Equal Exchange. Last July, during a baseline study with the Equal Exchange CDP team, I sat down with the two students, Cristhian and Matias, to learn more about their new roles with the field trials.

Interview Transcript

Laura: How did you begin these positions with the cooperative?

Cristhian: My dad is a member of the cooperative and through the family I learned a bit about farming sugar cane.

Matias: I began since my parents are members of the cooperative, farmers, and every Friday when they go to receive payment, I would accompany them to the cooperative. I also have experience in working in the field. Before this job, I was working in the field, harvesting sugar cane and working in the garden with my mother, Ña Olga. [Note: Ña is a shortened version of the honorific Señora used in Paraguay.]

Laura: Was there competition for these newly created positions with the cooperative?

Matias: Yes there were other participants, more, we’ll say, but they gave an opportunity and preference to children of members of the cooperative.

Laura: Do you know how many people applied?

Cristhian: Really, everyone wanted this job, but they gave preference to the children of farmer members so that they can work while at the same time study. We are very happy and content to be able to work here and be a part of this cooperative too, and to be able to work with you all (through the project) as well.

Two men stand in front of a mural at the Manduvira co-op in Paraguay
Cristhian (left) and Matias (right).

Laura: Are you both studying agronomy?

Cristhian: Yes.

Matias: Yes.

Laura: Among all the career options available these days, why did you decide to study agronomy?

Matias: Truthfully, I liked this field of study because I am from a farm and grew up in the cane field, and I like it.

Laura:  Have you considered other majors besides agronomy?

Matias: Yes, I also considered the field of veterinary sciences. But I decided on agronomy.

Laura: How about you, Christhian?

Cristhian: Me, for example, I chose this field of study because it gives me time to work and maintain my family and have my own life, so that I don’t need to depend more on my family to earn my “daily bread.”

Laura: Do you see many opportunities with other fields besides agronomy?

Cristhian: Yeah, there are opportunities, sure, but really I like agronomy and I like working in the field. I am a son of a producer and grew up in growing sugarcane and yucca, among other crops.

Laura: Do you have your own land?

Matias: Not yet.

Cristhian: Our parents do.

Laura: Do you hope to have your own sugar cane farm someday?

Matias: Yes, someday!

Cristhian: And someday be a producer and member of the cooperative!

Laura: Do you hope to continue to work with the cooperative someday, or do you think of it as more like a learning opportunity? 

Matias: Seriously, we want to continue working for the cooperative, also so that we can continue to pay for our studies. I would like to continue to work each year for the cooperative.

Cristhian: Yes, I hope to continue; everyday working and learning more and more with the cooperative, Manduvira.

Laura: How is the university system run here? Are they public, private, expensive, cheap?

Cristhian: Currently, we are studying in private universities.

Matias: Now, the price is accessible for us. It’s not too expensive.

Laura: Do you dedicate your salary from Manduvira to pay for your studies?

Matias: Yes.

Laura: Do your classmates from high school have the same opportunity to study, if they wish? Are there colleges accessible to them?

Cristhian: Truthfully, only about 3% go to study. The rest, could not.

Laura: And why is that?

Cristhian: Because of the economic situation.

Matias: Because of the lack of empowerment.

Laura: Are there other opportunities for youth in the cooperative Manduvira? Are there activities for children of producers? Do they feel part of Manduvira, or do they feel like accessories to their parents who are members?

Matias: We feel part of the cooperative even more now that we have entered working with the cooperative. We have become more used to the cooperative and gotten to know more people and gain more experience.

Laura: How much time have you been working with Manduvira?

Cristhian: One month. 

Laura: Well, one month isn’t a long time, so it may feel like this question is a little strange, but thinking in the future. How will this month and your future months working with Manduvira facilitate your career path?

Cirsthian: We hope to go far with Manduvira and work all our lives here. In that way, we could. There are many agronomists here and our studies will help us a lot and we are learning together. Also, we are more a part of the cooperative.

Laura: Is there anything else you would like to say?

Matias: Thanks to you guys too, for coming here and getting to know us as well. We hope that you return again.

Cristhina: Thanks for counting on us as well, and for being able to show us a different point of view, among other things.

Laura: And continue buying your sugar?

Cristhian: Yes!

Equal Exchange is in its second phase of the Cooperative Development Program Grant with USAID. As part of this grant, each participating cooperative identifies its own challenges and formulates its own solutions within the areas of productivity, governance, capitalization, and gender equity. For more information about the previous Cooperative Development Program, check out our webpage here.

This is the first post of the Youth in Agriculture interview series. You can learn more about Manduvira Cooperative from the Equal Exchange producer pages here and on their own page here

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Sugarcane Farming in Paraguay: Turning up the Heat for Future Generations

Last December, members of Equal Exchange’s chocolate team met with our sugarcane co-op partners, Manduvira. Located in the Southern Hemisphere, Paraguay experiences its seasons opposite to ours. In December, while Americans enjoy a mug of hot chocolate to warm up, Paraguayans are enjoying an iced tea, called terere, to cool down.

Sugarcane farming at the small-scale level requires a lot of manual work. Traditionally, the brunt of this labor occurs in the fall and spring. In late fall, the sugarcane is beginning to shoot, so sun can still shine on the row spaces and cause weeds to flourish. Using a hoe, farmers must walk these rows to remove the weeds. Once the sugarcane grows tall enough during the winter months, the sun cannot get into the rows and the sugarcane is left to grow tall. In the spring, the sugarcane must be harvested and transported to the mill as soon as possible before it begins to lose its sucrose content. Most farmer members of Manduvira cooperative do not have access to large mechanical harvesting machines that dominate the organic plantation landscape, just 90 miles away in Paraguay’s central departments. This means that like weed maintenance, sugarcane harvesting must also occur by hand. Armed with machetes, farmers work full days harvesting and stripping the cane of its leaves to be ready to sell by the kilo to Manduvira.

Not only is the labor incredibly manual in nature, the seasons are also transitioning either out-of or in-to summer. This means temperatures in the upwards of 80-90 degrees Fahrenheit at midday with a sun that beats down unforgivably. For a spry young farmer, this may seem like just an extra challenge to their hard day’s work. But when you look at the average age of Manduvira’s farmer members (40+), a hard day’s work starts seeming more like an impossible feat and farmers depend increasingly on hiring out day-labor. On top of rising age, Manduvira is also experiencing rising average annual temperatures due to climate change. Together, these factors pose a challenging risk to the sustainability of small and medium scale sugar production for Manduvira.

Manduvira recognizes and continues to work to mitigate these challenges. To work on rising spring temperatures, on their co-operative test plot, their staff of extension agents have been testing out different sugarcane varieties that can be harvested at various times of the year, from May to September. As their technical teams explained to us, if a farmer had three different varieties, they would be able to spread out their labor needs across the course of five months and could reduce the amount of a later-season (and hotter temperature) harvest. To work on engaging with youth, Manduvira offers a large source of industrial work in the community. Since the co-operative owns its own sugar mill youth have other options besides farming to stay involved with the co-operative. By opting to work locally instead of moving to the capital city these young Paraguayans remain connected to their rural livelihoods and many continue to participate on their family’s farms.

EE Staff with ProducerFor more information about Manduvira, check out their farmer partner web page and partner profile!


Climate Change and Cacao in Peru- Predictably Unpredictable

A steep drop down from the Andes mountains, entering into the Amazon Rainforest basin, two cooperatives just 20 miles apart, simultaneously formed parallel visions. Both the Producer Association of Santa Rosa de Chiriari (APROSAROCH) and the Producer Association of Sonomoro Naylamp (APANS) were founded in 2002 as fruit co-ops, producing bananas and oranges, respectively, for the Peruvian internal market. Around ten years ago, the volatile market took a swing for the worse. The co-ops were unsure if they would be able to continue working in fresh fruits and were forced to look for alternative crops. Both found hope in cacao and have been dedicated to its commercialization ever since.

APROSAROCH and APANS beans are used in chocolate chips blended with beans from two San Martin co-operatives: Acopagro and Oro Verde. In June, two members from Equal Exchange and one from our Canadian sister co-op, La Siembra visited with these co-ops and many of their farmer members. A common theme from our conversations was the challenges around climate change- more specifically the difficulty in predicting the harvest cycle. The wet season is becoming wetter and the dry season is becoming drier. Floods and droughts are becoming more and more common.

Two people smile, holding cacao pods
Javier Perez Campos of APROSAROCH and Dee Walls of EE sample the cacao fruit

For example, last winter 2017, Peru  experienced well above average rainfall in the rainy season. This excess precipitation affected the co-ops with waterlogged soils that delayed flowering and cocoa pod production on the trees and washed out roads that delayed the transport of cacao beans to external markets. This year again, the cocoa harvest is a bit behind schedule, but farmers are learning to adapt with different tree pruning and compost techniques on the farm.

A man holding half a cacao pod.
Agronomist for APROSAROCH Agusto Saldania Oxolón told us of the challenges of climate change on the farm level.

At the same time, warmer weather has changed the climates of nearby mountain foothills, such as in the nearby Llaylla district. Cool, high altitude micro-climates once suited for coffee, are now warming enough to be suitable for cacao. The prevalence of the devastating effects from coffee leaf rust have further encouraged farmers to make the switch to cacao. APROSAROCH and APANS cooperative leaders noted that they have increased in cocoa farmer members from these once coffee-growing regions.

A man looks seriously at the pid in his hand.
General Manager of APANS Luis Rafael cutting open a specialty variety cacao pod on Don Emiliano’s farm.

Our visit highlighted that the hard work and dedication to cacao is at the core of these co-operatives. It is inspiring to know that APROSAROCH and APANS are working closely with their farmers and technical teams to come up with solutions to mitigate the effects of climate change.

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