Issue of December, 08, 2008
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Coffee plantation workers in Los Cacaos, a southern community of the Dominican Republic.
Credit: Valeria Vilardo/IPS
Report
A Place for Eco-Coffee in the Dominican South
By Valeria Vilardo

Fair trade, organic production, gender equality and education form part of the strategies of thousands of coffee-growers for escaping poverty in the south of the Dominican Republic.

LOS CACAOS, Dominican Republic, Dec 8 (Tierramérica).- Communities in 10 southern provinces of the Dominican Republic are feeling the benefits from the collaboration of small growers of organic coffee. Women participate in the production and sale of the coffee, and the children are pursuing studies in order to improve the sector's productivity.

The life of 10 percent of the Dominican populations revolves around coffee. And for 700,000 people the crop is their livelihood and only source of income. But the coffee plantations have not brought prosperity to most.

According to the Dominican Institute of Agricultural and Forestry Research, 78 percent of the coffee-growing operations are small, with plantations from one to 50 hectares.

The Central Bank reports that in 2007 the country exported 90,880 quintales (one quintal is 100 kilograms) of organic coffee, with a unit price of 35 dollars wholesale on the New York Stock Exchange.

The coffee plantations are found in the mountainous areas of this Caribbean country -- where poverty is also the most severe.

According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), 74 percent of the mountain population is poor. The per capita income among small coffee growers is just 80 cents on the dollar per day, which puts them below the poverty line.

In recent years, the status of the international markets and pest problems have forced many Dominican growers to emigrate or replace their coffee plants with shorter cycle crops.

According to the governmental Dominican Coffee Council, around 25,000 families have left coffee production in the past 20 years and have migrated in search of better living conditions.

Faced with these challenges, the Federation of Coffee Growers of the Southern Region (Fedecares) is working to represent the small and medium producers in 10 provinces.

Made up of 7,500 coffee growers in 215 associations, Fedecares grows 10 to 12 percent of the country's total output.

The small growers of the south and of the north together produce 30 percent of the nation's coffee.

Fedecares is in charge of collecting green coffee (selected and shelled before toasting) to be sold largely to markets in Canada, France, Spain, and the United States.

"All of the production of our coffee is part of fare trade initiatives. Ninety percent of our output is organic and environmentally friendly," because it does not use synthetic chemical products for fertilizer or pesticides, Fedecares leader Refino Herrera tells Tierramérica.

The members of the federation produced between 20,000 and 25,000 quintales of coffee in 2008. The minimum wage in the sector -- for men and women alike -- is still low: equivalent to 185 dollars a month.

Improving their living conditions involves educational efforts. To promote university attendance of the children of the coffee-growing families, especially among the lowest incomes, Fedecares created a scholarship program financed by Dominican and Cuban universities.

In 2007, 10 scholarships were awarded for study in either of the two countries. Twenty-five percent of the scholarship recipients work in the coffee sector and in rural development.

"This scholarship has been extremely important, not only for my education and insertion in the labor market, but also because I'm using my knowledge to promote the development of my community, said Cesarina Encarnación, commercial manager for Agroesa, a coffee company in Las Cacaos, 70 kilometers from Santo Domingo.

To provide incentives for best practices, the federation launched an annual contest for fair trade, aimed at small coffee growers. The prize includes a cash award in addition to the portion corresponding to each grower for export sales.

"That money doesn't go to the producer who wins, but rather is used for social programs, for the development of the community, like infrastructure, education and health, Juan Lugo Franco, who has been working in the coffee sector since age 13, told Tierramérica.

"We have monthly meetings in Fedecares where we are informed of how the market is going. The men and women in these meetings decide the policies that we are going to implement," said Franco.

Women are playing a more active role in coffee production and sales.

"We have trained 40 families so that there would be an equal distribution of land among men and women, Vivana Martes Lorenzo, member of the Association of Women in Action (AMA), told Tierramérica.

"When we began with AMA, we decided to try to get our spouses to give us part of the land. We talked to them to explain that if we worked together we would have more income," said Felicia Lorenzo, 53 and a coffee plantation owner.

"Since I have had my land to manage, I am more independent and I fell that my work is more recognized," said this mother of eight. The AMA works with Fedecares to foment and empower women-led coffee projects.

So far, 50 women own their land under this program, and 25 are participating in an women-focused initiative in the southern areas of Los Cacaos, Barahona, Polo and San Cristóbal.

"One of the biggest results of our effort is the greater empowerment of women. Previously, women did not manage the resources. Now they have the opportunity to manage their work and administer their income," Herrera told Tierramérica.

The coffee exports of nine of the leading coffee producing countries of Latin America, aside from Brazil, grew an average of 3.8 percent by the end of the coffee-growing year (October 2007 to September 2008), according to Guatemala's National Coffee Association.

Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Colombia, Mexico, Peru and Dominican Republic exported 29.3 million 60-kilogram sacks of coffee in that period, surpassing by nearly four percent the export sales of the previous year.

* IPS correspondent.

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