Co-ops Show Resilience as the Pandemic Goes On

People wearing masks prepare a meal

As people across the world adjust to staying home, the physical distance we are experiencing is a true test to the social networks that we rely on. Seemingly overnight, the way we organize our everyday lives has completely transformed – from food, to school, work, care, recreation, etc. We’ve become more aware of the invisible structures that connect our communities as people rely on one another to get through this.

Cooperatives are one hopeful example of a resilient model across the globe. Through Equal Exchange’s commercial and project-based work with agricultural cooperatives, we have seen members of co-ops working together to support one another through this crisis. The following stories from partners in Mexico, Paraguay and Peru — told in the words of leaders and members — demonstrate the power of this structure, especially in rural areas lacking support. These fair trade cooperatives embody Cooperative Principle number seven, Concern for community, and show they are more than just businesses. 

Mexico

Using fair trade premiums to support members in immediate response 

In Mexico, prices of local goods have spiked and the government has implemented a Stay at Home campaign. The Finca Triunfo Verde coffee cooperative has responded by purchasing food and basic goods in bulk and distributing them to their membership to help them get by for two weeks. They used their fair trade premium from Equal Exchange of around $20,000 for this purpose.

Two people load food onto a truck
Finca Triunfo Verde co-op created the Family Support Initiative to provide food to members and help them stay at home.

Here’s a message from Hugo Lares, general manager:

“With the commitment to join the Stay at Home campaign to prevent the spread of the pandemic caused by COVID-19, in Triunfo Verde, we implemented our Family Support Initiative. With resources from the fair trade premium (Equal Exchange) we were able to provide food for two weeks for 490 members in order to keep them at home, and protect the most vulnerable people and prevent the spread of the virus. We have also provided information on how to apply adequate measures to avoid the disease, and a kit with basic medicine in case they experience any symptoms. This initiative was led by our managers and administration, in coordination with the Community Delegates.”

Paraguay 

Distributing fair trade premiums to members and supporting local health clinics through cooperative staff donations 

Manduvirá is a sugarcane cooperative in Paraguay, which provides sugar for Equal Exchange’s chocolate bars. The Paraguayan government has had an official, national quarantine in place since March 10th. At the moment, neither the members nor the sugar production plant they collectively own has suffered greatly (their harvest should begin this month), but many people have lost their jobs and food access is limited. Manduvirá has stepped up to support not only their farmer members, but also the surrounding community.

  • At their annual assembly, the co-op members voted to pay some of the fair trade premium in cash directly to the farmers, and the co-op was able to transfer all of this money via phone to accelerate the payment, and avoid contact. 
  • The cooperative is supporting the local community with donations for the local health center, as well as health clinics in nearby communities, which have sent out their list of needs. There was a donation of around $1,000 from the co-op staff salary to go towards kits put together by the municipality for families identified as most in need.
  • The cooperative donated sugar to the local municipality to distribute to those families most in need. Manduvirá is also currently collecting the information of the field laborers and drivers who deliver sugarcane, in order to give out food kits funded by the cooperative’s fair trade premium.
Pachages of food prepared in a warehouse
Co-op members are in the process of delivering 3,700 food kits to partners and day laborers who work in the cane fields.

Alicia Florentin, project manager shares:

“It really is a very difficult time for everyone. Here in Paraguay, the government has declared a mandatory quarantine since March 10th, with the slogan “Stay at home.” This has been a challenge for us, since we had to hold our assembly and award the fair trade premiums to the members. The managers called a virtual meeting with the department managers, and we have decided to transfer the fair trade premium to the members, through money orders. We have done an urgent data update and this week we will be transferring money directly to members. We have taken this action primarily to protect our members, who are most at-risk, given their age.

“I think that being part of a cooperative or having a cooperative nearby is a social strength, because with solidarity as its essence, we cannot be oblivious to members’ needs. In this time of social conjuncture, as Manduvirá we are supporting the Arroyos y Esteros Health Center, with the purchase of supplies, including masks, gloves, thermometers, cleaning supplies, among others. Also, as the quarantine is lengthening, there are many families that are going through a hard time, so Manduvirá is supporting an effort, organized by the Cooperative administration, the Association of Arroyenses Educators and the Municipality, to deliver food kits to the community. Manduvira is donating sugar, the cooperative staff is supporting the community through cash, purchasing food, putting kits together, and delivering them to low-income families in the community. Among other efforts, we will also be delivering hand sanitizer to members, which has been prepared by the cooperative staff. 

“As I have mentioned before, I believe that cooperatives are a key aspect of resilience in these types of situations, since we feel the needs of others are our own, and we can only succeed if we stay together and support each other.” 

Handing out meals
On May 1st 2020, Manduvirá prepared and gave out 950 plates of food to vulnerable families in the community.

Peru 

Farmers in rural communities sending home-grown food to their children in urban areas 

In the Southern Peruvian state of Cusco, San Fernando Cooperative sits high in the Andes mountains, a nearly 12 hour drive to the capital of Cusco. Children of members who had gone to the city to study or work were isolated far from home and their parents. With their kids on lockdown and with limited resources, parents joined together to send their home-grown yuca, potatoes, plantains, avocados, corn, sugarcane, bananas and coffee from the rural communities to their children in the cities. 

People load a container truck
This truck delivered food grown in the Inkawasi district to young people now living in the cities.

Cayo Candia, General Manager of San Fernando Cooperative shares: 

“Just as I am writing to you from home, our Cooperative San Fernando is organizing and arranging our trucks to bring products from the region to the children of members and non-members who are in different cities in quarantine. We know that many young people from Inkawasi go to cities to study and work. Now they are going through critical situations due to lack of money for their food, so we hope from the cooperative to support something.” 

People use burros to bring food to a truck
Members of the San Fernando co-op bring food to the truck.

Creative strategies to communicate information from Ministry of Health

Located in the north of the Peru, Norandino Cooperative is a large cooperative made up of coffee, cacao and sugarcane producers. Norandino has also been dealing with strict state-mandated quarantine since March 15th. Because of its connections with thousands of farmers in rural areas, Norandino is working to communicate proper health information to rural members, acting as a channel for the efficient distribution of government subsidies, and is working to prepare the communities, staff and processing centers for the coming harvest.

Fernando Reyes, General Manager shares:

“At Norandino, we are now fully abiding by the rules, paying our workers normally. And we are making protocols to progressively return to work and open operations, while implementing careful health protocols in order to avoid contagion.

“Norandino worked together with national-level organizations such as APPCACAO (Association of Small Cacao Producers of Peru) and the National Coffee Council to advocate on behalf of farmers. As a result, the government granted subsidies to be distributed to rural communities (around $250 USD). One of the strengths that cooperatives have is that we have the formality and at least we have data from members, bank accounts and a list of cooperative members. With this information, Norandino will be able to ensure that farmers are considered in this relief support and the money will reach them. 

“For now, in-house, we are using funds from the capitalization of organizations (profits from recent years). Fairtrade International has made the use of the fair trade premium more flexible, and the premium can be used to respond to COVID-19. The problem is that sales take place in July and on and liquidity is needed to allocate advanced resources to face the crisis. Some organizations are going to be able to give an incentive to producers, it can be food and some products such as masks, and disinfection kits for primary collection centers. And then we will report to the general assembly and this use of funds would be approved to meet fair trade standards.”

An infographic about Coronavirus with text in Spanish
An infographic shared by Norandino.

Across the world, relationships are a strong foundation for resilience

At Equal Exchange, our model has always been built upon relationships. These form the invisible foundation for products to move from one place to another – from the farms to the cooperatives, to the warehouses, grocery stores and on to the final consumers. This foundation is what keeps our products moving and our families, cooperatives and communities working.

Cooperatives are proving to be important networks within their communities, supplying resources and information to those that need it most. Be well, everyone!


Read more about Equal Exchange’s farmer partners and the COVID-19 pandemic in our first update from April 10th, 2020, here.

Support small-scale farmers and alternative trade networks.

About The Author

Julia Baumgartner

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