Interview: Supporting Youth in Agriculture at Manduvira Cooperative

Two men stand in front of a mural at the Manduvira co-op in Paraguay

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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  1. Sofia | 24th Mar 20

    Thanks for sharing this interview! It’s great to see youth working in agriculture!

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