Andres Gonzalez Aguilera
In 1975, in the Republic of Paraguay, the Cooperativa Manduvira Ltda., a credit union with thirty-nine partners, was founded for the purpose of facilitating access to credit for small producers and teachers. After overcoming a few financial difficulties, in 1990 it changed its bylaws to become Cooperativa de Producción Agroindustrial, working mostly with 120 sugarcane producers who manufactured sugarcane honey. The biggest challenge was that these small sugarcane honey facilities used inefficient, vanishing traditional handcrafted processes, and were unable to compete in the global sugar market.
In 1983, in the Arroyos and Esteros, a fuel-grade alcohol plant was built that would later become the Otisa Sugar Mill in 1994. With the help of German and Swiss technicians, organic sugar was produced for the first time in the world.
In 1995, we were visited by representatives of TransFair International, who spoke to us about how the fair trade system was seeking to empower small producers by leasing sugar mills to produce and export directly. And so the dream was born – the vision – and the spark was lit: the idea that we could do more. We contacted two sugar mills that flatly refused to lease out their plants; perhaps they thought it was a joke. So the dream was set aside and placed on standby.
As of 1999, the trade union had received a fair trade certificate, but the situation with the local sugar refinery was very difficult, as they monopolized sugarcane processing, leading to the exploitation, abuse and payment of low prices to small producers. The situation became unbearable in 2003, and with an original group of six people, we started a campaign to assert the rights of small producers.
By talking with the producers about the need to work together and peacefully voice our demands, we successfully joined our forces. In 2003, through intelligent and strategic negotiations, we were able to get the sugar refinery to pay a higher price and increase our market access. During that time, we made the appropriate connections to reopen a sugar mill called Censi y Pirota, which had been out of operation for three years and was located ninety kilometers away, to promote competition, open up new markets and work towards achieving our dreams.
We, the producers, realized that only by working together would we get ahead, and with renewed strength, we began to rekindle the dream that had been out of reach for years. Since then, Cooperativa Manduvira has led all the work in connection with sugarcane and has experienced exponential growth.
In 2004, we earned our own organic certification with 100 producers, known as the “First 100 Rebels,” a huge step towards achieving our independence, since until that time all the farms were certified by the sugar companies. The next step was leasing a plant, producing and exporting – but it was a big challenge. We had many supporters who encouraged us, as well as many who said it was impossible, that nothing like that had ever been done in Paraguay, that we were crazy, that those projects were not for the poor. There were others who made fun of us, and called us “jagua-i estrella” in Guaraní – the puppy barking at the new moon and thinking he can reach it. They thought that what we intended to do was impossible; so much so that we inevitably felt even more encouraged to move forward. We did not have the money or the experience to take such a leap, but we had a dream and were determined to turn it into reality.
After much persistence and negotiation, in 2005 we were able to get a one-month lease on the sugar mill, producing and directly exporting 234 tons to two clients in Canada, one in Belgium and another in Italy. Our contracted production grew from 1,500 MT in 2006 to 6,200 MT in 2008. At that growth rate, we started to experience a good problem, since the factory we were leasing had already reached its maximum capacity, yet the market demand was three times as much. From then on, we set out on a long and hard road towards our next goal: building our own sugar mill.
With the support of many fair trade participants, investors, clients and producers, construction began in December of 2011, and on April 24, 2014, Azucarera Manduvira officially opened its doors as the first organic sugar mill dreamed of, designed and built with the guidelines and standards of organic production in mind, and the first and only sugar mill in Paraguay owned by 900 producers. Today, we are working with twenty-eight clients worldwide in our own mill, with a production capacity of 20,000 MT of the highest quality organic sugar; and we are making a positive impact on the lives of 25,000 people – socially, financially and environmentally.