As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads around the globe, we are reaching out to fair trade farmer and artisan groups to hear how their communities are responding. The following is excerpted from a conversation between Santiago Paz, of Cooperativa Norandino, Peru, and Phyllis Robinson, long-time fair trade movement advocate that took place on April 22nd.
UPDATE (May 14th): The impact of the pandemic has increased in severity for the communities of Piura, Peru, where Norandino is located. As farmers are now unable to leave their homes to get to their farms, the cooperative is continuing to respond with support, providing basic food staples to farmers in need. Click here to read the full update from Santiago Paz.
Cooperativa Norandino is an established fair trade co-op located in northeastern Peru. Coffee is their main export crop, but farmer members also grow cacao and sugar. They also process some of their cacao and turn their sugar into jams, all of which they sell on both domestic and international markets. In addition to their leadership in the fair trade movement, members of Norandino are also leading the way, showing how small-scale fair trade farmers can spread new, innovative climate resiliency solutions through community-led reforestation projects. Their name may be familiar to members of food cooperatives across the U.S. after a global cooperative-to-cooperative reforestation project was the focus of Fair World Project and National Cooperative Grocers’ Association’s 2018 World Fair Trade Day activities.
For the moment, “the situation is under control,” says Santiago, but he fears that all could change overnight. There is tremendous pressure to loosen the quarantine (in effect since early April), as the majority of the population can no longer endure the economic impact of staying at home. However, Santiago worries that the public health system, already is stretched beyond its capacity, cannot handle the consequences of such an action.
The co-op itself is doing well, and seeing strong demand from international buyers for their coffee and sugar. His concern is not therefore for his organization but for the country as a whole as the government struggles to balance peoples’ health with their pressing need to earn money for food.
The following are excerpts of my conversation with Santiago, told in his words.
If They Can’t Work, They Won’t Eat
People here are used to living hand-to-mouth,” says Santiago. “They make their living driving motor cabs and taxis; working in the markets; selling whatever they can. There is a great deal of pressure to lift the quarantine. But if they do that, many more people are going to get sick. There is danger that the whole system could collapse. Well, it is already collapsing; but not everyone here is aware of the situation. Instead, they are thinking about the other reality, that if they can’t go out to work, they won’t eat. Most people probably don’t realize that Piura has only 10 ICU beds. They are all full. Peru as a whole has just 500 ICU beds. There isn’t one empty ICU bed left to fill.
Yet despite all that, I want to repeat that today we are more or less okay.
At Norandino, we don’t feel the worst of it right now. Everyone here is still working and making their salaries. But the majority of Peruvians, I’d say 70 percent of them, live off whatever they make each day. So the situation is already unsustainable. Right now, there are people who have absolutely nothing to eat.
The government has given out a large amount of money. But, there is no more money; so now they will have to lift the restrictions so that people can work. The doctors are afraid and don’t want to work. The police are afraid. They say that the armed forces have hired people prepared to pick up the dead and bury them. They are creating special work teams to carry this out.
For the moment, the situation is more or less under control.
Farmers Remain Essential in the COVID-19 Pandemic
In the countryside, the government has said that the agriculture work can’t stop, Santiago explains. “Farmers have papers that allow them to get around. The banana sector remains unaffected. The farmers are operating and exporting as always.
The problem is in the neighboring communities, where the ‘ronda campesinas’ (autonomous patrols) operate. They are very strict. They won’t let the farmers go to their farms; they won’t let anyone in or out of the communities.
For coffee, I’m not worried. It sounds like the government is going to loosen the restrictions to allow the coffee containers to keep moving and go to port. But my concern is if the government loosens the restrictions and the situation worsens, people will panic and we will enter a state of chaos. Then I don’t know what will happen.
So for now, even though there is tight control, we’re not so affected. The coffee harvest doesn’t begin in full force until June. So, there’s still time. If things are worse then, it’s unclear what will happen.
Strong Demand for Coffee and Sugar
In terms of sales, an interesting thing is happening. Even though many people have been adversely affected, sales in the markets and the supermarkets are up right now. It seems like people are stocking up and buying more than ever.
The same thing has happened to us at Norandino. Last year we had a problem. We had produced too much sugar and we worried that we were going to be left with a large surplus. But overnight, all the [international] buyers have been asking for more sugar. We’ve already sold all 500 tons we produced.
And the same is happening with our coffee too. Our buyers are all asking us for more than they usually buy. I think they may be afraid that there will be problems getting coffee from other countries. They know that Norandino is doing well. So they are buying more than they usually do. As a co-op, we feel prepared. We are following all the government’s protocols to safely carry out the harvest, coffee collection, processing, transportation and export.
COVID-19 is Straining the Public Health System
I do worry that eventually we are all going to end up contaminating each other. The government permits only one member per household to leave for errands. But the banks, markets, pharmacies, and supermarkets are all very crowded. We don’t have the custom here to stay home, listen to the government, wear masks… it just isn’t part of our culture. So I worry that we will end up all spreading the virus to each other and our public health system will collapse.
I’ve heard that in other countries, like Germany for example, people are free to go out as long as they exercise caution and wear masks. And there they have 25,000 ICU beds! Imagine that! So they are able to loosen the restrictions and the country is starting to get to the other side of the crisis. Here we have 500 beds; imagine, with the precarious situation we are facing. The doctors are worried. So many have already gotten sick. Yet for now, as I said, everything is under control.
Uncertainty Grows as the Quarantine Extends
At the national level, the President is doing a good job. He’s taking measures and keeping people informed. The situation is still under control, and we are following the guidelines. Each afternoon he holds a two-hour press conference. But it is here, in the Piura region, that there’s chaos and a lack of leadership.
People have gotten stuck in Lima because there are no buses or planes. Transportation is completely shut down. The only thing working is the principal highways, and that is only to move cargo. There are stories of people walking from Lima to Piura to get back home – a distance of nearly 750 miles. People are near the breaking point, they can’t take being shut in any longer. They have no more food and the government has run out of money.
The quarantine has been going on for about a month. It is supposed to be lifted on April 26th [on April 23, the quarantine order was extended ‘til May 10]. There are voices urging for it to be prolonged and others for it to be lifted. The current thinking is that the government might end up asking people to decide for themselves, exercising “wise social distancing,” like they are doing in Holland and Germany. Well, this policy might work well there. I just got off the phone with someone in Italy: there they have a social security system that is quite strong and the government gives economic support, but here I worry that this approach just won’t work.
What can we do? We all need to stay calm and unified and work together. This crisis just reveals what has been obvious for too long. On the other side of this crisis, we will need to take a hard look at our lives and habits: the way we live, work, consume—many things will need to change.
Cooperativa Norandino’s coffee, along with that from many other small-scale farmer organizations, is available from many of the roasters listed on our Mission-Driven Brands page. While demand at supermarkets is up, many coffee companies are seeing demand drop as coffee shops and universities close—now is a great time to support your local fair trade roaster.