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.
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.
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.
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.
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.