Forging New Partnerships in El Salvador and Nicaragua

Since I started working at Dean’s Beans, I’ve often reflected on a question: how can we have the greatest positive impact on the lives of farmers? One idea is to work with large, well-established cooperatives and support innovative projects like we are in Nicaragua and Peru. We can also work with less-established cooperatives and be a supportive partner as they get on their feet. Both approaches are great, of course, but one idea that I always come back to is that there are many cooperatives that don’t export their coffee. They sell on the local market and don’t receive the benefits that a fair trade relationship can provide, like access to financing, technical assistance and higher prices. The impact of working with a group that hasn’t broken through to the international fair trade market can be huge, and that is what we’re doing in El Salvador with a small producer group called La Concordia.

La Concordia is a collectively run farm in western El Salvador, right on the edge of ‘Parque Nacional El Imposible’, The Impossible National Park (sounds scary, right?). With only 19 members, it is the smallest farmer group that we work with. On my recent trip to El Salvador, I first met members of La Concordia on a Monday morning together with our importer, Etico (Nick and Rachel), which represents a non-profit called the Social Business Network. We introduced ourselves, and decided to spend the morning exchanging stories about our respective goals and aspirations.

It occurred to me, looking around the table, that we had almost the entire coffee supply-chain right there. We had the farmers, the processor, the exporter, the importer and the roaster. We were only missing the final consumer (you should have been there!). It was a great realization that the true essence of fair trade was being played out at that moment: a transparent dialogue between all parties of the trade to discus challenges, goals, prices and terms. This also served as an answer to Don Rogelio when he said that, in order to achieve their goals, ‘necesitamos una maquinita que hace pisto’: we need a little machine that makes money. We replied that, by working together, we are that little machine! We generate community development by using the economic engine of the coffee trade.

Don Dagoberto, a cheerful guy with a thin mustache and sunglasses that would make Lady Gaga jealous, told us the story of La Concordia. The collective farm was born out of the Agrarian Reform movement of El Salvador in the early 1980’s. Most of the current members of the collective had been laborers on an estate owned by a colonel in the Salvadoran military. The first act of the Reform was to grant the laborers titles to the small plots of land that they used for subsistence farming on the estate. The Coronel was not pleased by this and scheduled a number of meetings to try to ‘resolve’ the issue.

Before continuing, Dagoberto paused to collect himself: if was a difficult story for him to recount. When he continued, he told us that at these meetings, the Coronel would arrive with members of the Salvadoran militia, armed with rifles. He would insult and humiliate the farmers with verbal abuses, hoping that they would be intimidated and decline the land titles. But they kept coming back. At one meeting, the militia stood Rogelio and his brother, Manuel against a tree (it still stands, very near to where we were hearing this story) and put rifles against their chests. Even with this level of intimidation, they persisted because, as they put it now, ‘No hay que dar pasos atras, solo pasos adelante’: you can’t take steps backwards, only steps forward.

As the Reform continued, the farmers were given a larger piece of the Coronel’s land, the same that, 30 years later, still provides them with a home and a livelihood. At the end of the story, Dagoberto said ‘No era color de rosa lograr este pedacito de tierra’: it wasn’t the color of roses obtaining this small piece of land.


We took a walking tour of the farm. It is contained in a sharp, narrow valley. You can walk around the ‘bowl’ of the valley, crossing a small river in the middle to face the opposite side, in about 45 minutes. There is thick, shade cover of diverse tree species. From general observation, however, some of the challenges for poorly capitalized organic farmers were made clear: their yields are very low; less than half of what they could be, and some of the coffee trees are challenged by disease that could reduce yields even further.

After returning from the tour and enjoying a wonderful lunch of chicken stew and freshly made tortillas brought to us by a group of women, we began talking about how we could work together. With all of the supply-chain present, we were able to discus and ultimately agree on a sale price for the coffee, financing options and additional funds for community development.

I’m really excited to say that Dean’s Beans will be buying all of La Concordia’s coffee, and will be contributing over $8000 to help them improve their yields. It is possible that with the right organic fertilizers and technical assistance, they can double their yields and really increase the quality of their already great coffee in the next harvest!

A portion of the money is also in recognition of the unpaid work of women in coffee production. The women who cooked our lunch, for example, weren’t paid. Like many farming women all across the world, they play an essential role in getting their cash crop to market, often performing the same manual labor tasks as the men, as well as taking care of the kids, the house and usually the men too! Unfortunately, much of their labor isn’t considered an ‘economic service’ and therefor isn’t compensated. We are trying to change that. Built into the coffee price are additional funds in recognition of the unpaid work that the women of La Concordia perform. With our help, they will identify how they’d like to use this money.

Partnering with La Concordia means more work for us: we have to advise them on exporting and on coffee quality. It is also riskier: we are working with farmers who have very little business experience in a high-stakes coffee market. But that is what we’re all about! It is really rewarding to work with a group like La Concordia, where taking the extra time and the extra risk translates into a huge impact in that farming community. We are going where very few coffee companies will go. And, as always, we appreciate your support: we all play an equally important part in making that little ‘maquinita que hace pisto’ run.

- Michael

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