Banana Producers in Peru Stand Strong in Face of Floods
The banana producers of the Asociación de Bananeros Orgánicos Solidarios (BOS) in Peru are used to hard work. In recent years, they have banded together to make a number of investments to their association, rapidly expanding their sales of organic and Fairtrade bananas. But after experiencing the heaviest rainy season the region has seen in fourteen years, the farmers of BOS will have to overcome many challenges to get back on their feet.
BOS has of 643 members and growing. They achieved Fairtrade certification in 2003 and now 96 percent of their crop is both Fairtrade and organic. In 2010, their export value was 2.4 million USD, and their Premium more than 410,000 USD. Their main buyers are Dole, Discovery Organic in Canada, Brochenin in France and Organic Sur in Italy.
BOS banana growers live in the green valley of Chira in the Northern region of Piura, Peru. The dry tropical forest is normally prime for growing organic bananas because there is less risk of fungus, which allows the farmers to cultivate their bananas without the use of chemicals. In fact, the majority of exported bananas in Peru are organic.
But from January to May of 2012, heavy rains inundated the region. Over 60 rivers overflowed, and authorities were forced to open regional dams to prevent them from bursting. As a result, water from the nearby Chira River flooded over 367 hectares, soaking BOS member’s fields and access roads. At the time of this writing, the river is still high threatening to spill over again.
Investing the Premium in infrastructure
Over the past few years, BOS members have carefully built up their infrastructure, which is now enduring many tests. They have used the Premium to build packing facilities and access roads to bring the bananas to export. The government doesn’t repair the roads nearly often enough, so upkeep is left to the producer associations.
A challenge BOS faces is that their processing and storage facilities are far from the fields. To save time transporting bananas, they recently built a banana cableway to transport bananas from the fields to processing and storage facilities. It allows workers to transport 20 bunches in one trip rather than just one at a time. They built this system using a portion of their Premium as a down payment, and a government loan covered the rest.
A processing facility for pulping and drying the bananas is also in the works. It will take a year to build, but it will allow BOS members to earn extra income by making their own processed product such as smoothies or jams. It would also means less waste, as they could make use of bananas that are too ripe for export.
Floods delay progress
But now the weather has put many of these leaps forward on the back burner, as farmers struggle to save their harvests. BOS estimates that they have lost 20-30 percent of the association’s total crops.
“There are 120 farmers who have lost their vocations, their very livelihoods as a result,” said Pedro Quezada Valladolid, the managing director of BOS.
Banana plants that have spent weeks underwater will have to be dug up by the roots and thrown away. It will cost the average farmer around US $5,000 for the fertilizer and supplies necessary to replant. It will be a lot of work, and they can’t do it alone.
“There are 120 farmers who have lost their vocations, their very livelihoods. Our exports have been cut in half"
Pedro Quezada Valladolid, Managing Director of BOS.
There are additional longer-term impacts to contend with, as the flooding has spread sand across the fields and affected the productivity of soil. The infrastructure of the entire region has also been damaged, leaving hundreds of children of association members without schools.
“Our exports have been cut in half. Before we would send 10 containers a week, but for the last three weeks we have been sending just five containers per week,” said Pedro.
Pedro is an energetic leader, both a savvy businessman and keen community builder, who travels the world touting BOS bananas. True to the spirit of Fairtrade, he has built relationships worldwide that he can now call on in BOS’ time of need. A technical specialist, he works hand in hand with Milton Gonzaga, the president of BOS democratically elected by the producers.
Funds to rebuild will come from BOS reserves and the farmers themselves, who can still rely on other cash crops like rice and maize. Export partners are also stepping up; Brochenin France is sending support and Discovery Organics in Canada is raising funds through donating profits from the sale of organic mangos in a “mango relief campaign.”
Use of Premium funds for the community
BOS has a long history of offering community support, and demands are sure to be especially high after so much damage. Besides investing in the business, they have used the Premium to assist members with access to medical insurance, scholarships for children, jerseys for the youth football team and microcredit loans.
In fact, BOS spells out exactly what the Premium has been used for in their annual report, from numbers of medical tests ordered, to surgeries and flu vaccines given. The report also lists the names of new farmers by region, from which companies they receive premiums, and the places that the leadership has traveled to that year. There is also basic membership data, for instance in 2010 only 21 percent of association members were female.
Printing and sharing this kind of documentation with partners is unique for a Fairtrade association, and a good practice for other to learn from. For Pedro, this is nothing special but a natural service to offer their customers “we want to offer complete transparency about our business to our buyers. Transparency is so important to us, we have to be credible and fair to our buyers,” he explains.
Pedro just may be on to something. In times of crisis, trust is a valuable asset, and surely one that BOS will be relying on in order to mobilize the resources and good will necessary to rebuild for the future.