Founded in 1975, the Manduvira Co-operative has grown considerably in size since it gained fair trade certification in 1999. Today the organisation consists of 1500 members, 800 of whom are producing sugar cane - the rest have joined the co-operative to benefit from micro-credit access. As recently as 2001, there were only 190 members of Manduvira. The co-operative also markets organic sesame seeds, molasses, cotton and stevia on behalf of some of its members.
Arroyos y Esteros is also the name of the region surrounding the town, and is one of Paraguay's major sugar-growing areas.
Andres Gonzalez Aguilera, the general manager of the Manduvira co-operative, says "Education is very basic out here; lots of kids leave school and don't know what to do next. They could really do with more opportunities to train and to develop job-specific skills. School children here don't typically get much to eat during the day either and they have trouble concentrating. We're looking to address these problems".
Justin Purser, Trade Aid's commodities buyer, recently visited the area and wrote:
"There's not a cloud in the sky, and the late morning sun creates a harsh glare. Here so close to the tropics, the days are very warm even though it's well into autumn. A breeze stirs the air and creates a loud rustling through the sugar cane stalks.
Jose Rivas walks between two rows of canes, surveying the crop that provides his family with most of its annual income. The canes are much smaller than usual for this time of year, and the harvest is due to start very soon. This is the second straight year of drought in Paraguay, and there hasn't been any rain at all for two months now.
"Normally this cane would be 3m tall by now", Jose explains. "And the canes would be thicker, too. I think my harvest is going to be only about half the normal volume this year."
Jose continues down the row, passing other crops that he also grows to feed his family; manioc, corn, pumpkins. He bends down and picks a ripe pumpkin from among it's wilted leaves and carries it back down the row towards his house.
The last few years have not all been so tough for Jose; since he joined the Manduvira co-operative here in southern Paraguay several years ago, his life is definitely better.
"Since joining the co-op and selling my sugar to fair traders, my family has seen lots of benefits. I get better prices, I get paid on time now, and we have much better access to health facilities these days. We can visit the co-op's medical clinic here in town at lower cost and get test results back days sooner than we did when we had to drive into the city. I can use the co-op's own tractor to prepare my fields and this saves a lot of time and money. I've helped my oldest son, Jose, into college where he's studying to be an agronomist. None of this would have been possible without the support of the co-op's fair trade customers!"
By the time Jose's two other children will also be old enough to start in college, Jose hopes that the family finances will be stronger again, because the costs of tertiary education are challengingly high. He has reason to be hopeful; his co-operative is taking the bold step of dedicating all of it's fair trade premiums for the next two years towards the construction of it's own sugar refinery. Once the refinery is operational, Jose and his fellow co-op members will save having to pay another company to process their cane and will enjoy higher returns still for their sugar. Such a positive step will help to offset the hardships brought on by drought years like this one - providing the rains return to their normal level, and come again stronger and earlier to nourish Jose's canes in future years.
(All images courtesy of Trade Aid)
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