Wednesday, June 29, 2011

AWAZ Intern Reflects on Cooperatives in Central America

This summer, I am interning for AWAZ Voice for Empowerment, and I recently had the opportunity to see firsthand how important Sarah’s work in Fair Trade is. With about 20 other students, I spent two weeks in Nicaragua and El Salvador as part of a travel seminar focused on human rights, social change, sustainable development and environmental justice issues. We met with a whole gamut of organizations and individuals, including political parties, faith groups, environmental organizations, agricultural and textile cooperatives and many more. The theme that kept coming up in almost all our meetings was how important women’s involvement is in community development.

The more I research environmental and social issues, the more I realize solutions to sustainable community development relies heavily on strong women. From Central America to India, it is incredible the improvements a whole community can realize when women get involved. Believe me, the men in the villages we met with were working very hard too, but what made these communities special was that they valued each member and the contributions he or she can make. When asked why they were successful where other communities were not, community leaders unfailingly credited organization and individual commitment to the whole. Each member needs to be involved and utilized to his or her best ability regardless of gender or age.

As I was down there, I couldn’t help but make connections to AWAZ and what Sarah is doing here and in India. As she has said, our everyday purchases for things we need like food and clothing are fueling systems of exploitation, oppression and degradation. Nowhere was this clearer than when we learned
about the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and the extremely negative impact it has had on small farmers. Huge U.S. subsidies to a small number of corporate farms allow for mass production of cheap food. The trade agreement then makes it easy for these corporations to flood Central American markets with cheap food, and local farmers, who are not supported by huge subsidies, cannot compete and essentially lose their traditional livelihood. One speaker clarified the issue: cheaper food doesn’t matter if you do not have any money. But we also saw communities that have been able to build schools for their children, join together to buy and maintain land for organic coffee production, create and support businesses that sell woven and sewn goods, and feed and keep healthy their neediest members.

But these communities are still struggling. It is still difficult to get by, many are paying off loans, others still go without food to buy books for school, and vagaries in the market and world economy are making some people question the expense of organic and fair trade certifications. To me, this shows that here in the United States we need to redouble our efforts to support community movements by changing the way we do business with our neighbors around the world to more sustainable systems for everyone. We need to demonstrate a marketable need for fair trade organic coffee that allows a co-op member in Nicaragua to send her children to school and keep the land healthy enough for them to farm in the future. We need to show companies and governments that we want laws, policies and systems that create quality, healthy, sustainable products made by producers who are treated with value and respect.

So this is why I was so excited to come back, even though I had a great time traveling. I knew that this summer, working with AWAZ, Sarah and my work would support women in India that are working together to create happier, healthier futures for themselves and their children. AWAZ’s partner groups demonstrate how powerful women can be for change when they organize together.