Sugar Farmers in Paraguay Realize Their Dream
The Manduvira Cooperative in Paraguay has transformed from a group of farmers struggling with unfair prices and unjust trading practices into the world’s leading producer and exporter of organic and Fairtrade certified sugar.
With 1,750 members, the democratically organized Manduvira Cooperative exports Fairtrade certified organic sugar to nearly 20 countries in the world. Along with cane sugar, Manduvira produces sesame, cotton, and fruits and vegetables.
From the swamps and streams
Manduvira is located in the remote and isolated district of Arroyos y Esteros - which translates as ‘swamps and streams’ - around 70km north-east of the capital, Asuncion. The region is renowned as the ‘organic valley’ of Paraguay thanks to farmers’ traditional production techniques working in harmony with the environment.
In December 2011, the cooperative laid the foundation stone for what was to become the first-of-its-kind producer-owned sugar mill, which opened for business on schedule in May 2014. At an opening ceremony attended by 2,000 – including Paraguay’s Vice President – the cooperative’s General Manager Andres Gonzales announced, “Our dream of a sugar mill owned by a cooperative and not by private ‘empresarios’ has come true.”
Now rather than paying transportation and rental costs to another factory over 100km away, this $15 million mill funded by loans, Fairtrade Premium investment and the Fairtrade Access Fund, is bringing a significant improvement to the lives of sugar farmers, workers and their communities. Manduvira and its mill are perfect examples of development through Fairtrade.
Founded in 1975 by a group of teachers and agricultural producers as a savings & credit cooperative, Manduvira’s objective was to help members gain access to credit and, through the creation of projects that would benefit the community and create mutual support. Then activities were widened into crop production and Manduvira received Fairtrade certification in 1999.
Since 2004 the cooperative has been using the rented mill, transporting its harvest along long dirt roads. This meant sugar production became a costly operation, with money leaving the community. The new producer-owned mill will employ around 200 and has brought job opportunities for the sons and daughters of farmers who had left the region looking for work. It will also mean stable income and increased sugar production. The farmers say quality will also benefit as the cane will have been freshly cut when it is processed. Their aim is to process and export first class organic and Fairtrade sugar with a clear link from farmer to end user.
Manduvira and Fairtrade
Manduvira receives a Fairtrade Premium for its certified sugar and sesame. The members then decide democratically how to invest it. The cooperative has used premium funds to increase productivity, to improve their homes and also for a health center with medical, dentist and laboratory testing services available to all members and the community, the only such center in the region. Fairtrade related services for the members include savings and credit, agricultural assistance, health and agriculture training and education, art, music, languages and computing courses and, for children of low-income families, uniforms and school materials.
Through contacts in Fairtrade, Manduvira has been able to widen the number of markets where products are sold, and make agreements with companies and NGOs which provide training, technical assistance and loans.
A crazy dream comes true
“When we started we didn't have anything, and Fairtrade helped us connect with the market,” says González. “In Paraguay people said, ‘You are poor. You are crazy. You will never be able to sell or export your sugar directly or think about having your own sugar mill.’ Fairtrade said we could.
“The mill is the result of years of effort, hard work and sacrifice. The project is made possible by the support we have received from Fairtrade. The idea is to achieve empowerment in the production chain, from seed to destination, and to keep greater value here.”
The mill will yield more than they are able to produce in the rented factory – around 1,000 MT of sugar cane a day which becomes around 100MT of sugar. These figures could well increase significantly.
Many challenges remain. “We are a 100 % Fairtrade cooperative and now we have to start competing in a globalized world,” says Gonzalez. “We have to go out with ethics, social and environmental responsibility and compete in a not so fair environment , but we will stand firm in our convictions.
He adds: “I say to our fellow smallholders in Paraguay and around the world not to stop fighting for their dreams. Anything is possible when you believe and when you work.”