Throughout Central America, thousands of smallholder farmers who were brought up in coffee as workers on large coffee estates are now running those farms as cooperative businesses. While the circumstances that have led smallholders to take the reins from their former employers vary from one context to another, one thing seems to be clear: the transition from wage earner to farmer-owner is more than a mere change in title. In some cases, cooperatives are still learning to fly on their own even 30 years after they formed.
This phenomenon — large farms under the direction of smallholder farmers — is most widespread in El Salvador, where the agrarian reform in 1980 seized private coffee estates and redistributed them to the landless families who had worked them as day laborers, sometimes for generations. During a visit last week to Las Colinas, Don Juan Ascencio described the process with some bewilderment. He still recalls clearly the day more than 30 years ago when he learned about the land reforms. He and his fellow day laborers were called in from the fields where they worked and told that the farm would be turned over to workers who wanted to form a cooperative. He recalls having mixed feelings. The reform did respond to the urgent cries for land from the countryside that helped fuel El Salvador’s civil war. It did not come with a how-to manual for running complex rural enterprises.
It is hard to overestimate the magnitude of this change for farm workers who had gotten very good at following the directions of farm managers, but were generally not empowered to make autonomous decisions. Suddenly, every decision was theirs to make based on their own knowledge. While their many years of experience in the fields gave farmers some basis for acting with confidence in their farming decisions, things were more challenging in the areas of coffee processing, marketing and enterprise management. Farm owners generally managed their books and mills and relationships in the marketplace with little or no involvement of field workers, leaving nascent farmer organizations ill-prepared to assume control of the entire coffee process when the agrarian reform was formalized in 1980.
Combine these acute internal challenges with the dizzying pace of growth and change in the specialty coffee industry since 1980, and it is easy to appreciate that the learning curve for El Salvador’s cooperatives has been steep, indeed.
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