That was when Peru’s military government enacted a massive agrarian reform program, appropriating vast amounts of land, dividing them into small plots, and distributing them to small-scale farmers.
Like so many Peruvian farmers from that generation, Orlando suddenly found himself with his own plot of land for the first time in his life, but without the know-how to manage it well.
“We started owning land and administering farms, but we did it wrong,” he says. “We didn’t have the right training. We didn’t know how to make a good profit, and we didn’t have capital and technical knowhow. Instead, we chose the easiest path, the path we knew best.”
For decades, this meant growing traditional crops such as yuca, maize, and various vegetables, and living as subsistence farmers, or selling products on local markets through middle-men. Then, in the early 2000s, Orlando and his neighbors saw an opportunity in the burgeoning banana sector, and began planting bananas on their farms.
“The profits were a little better with banana. It’s a stable crop, and got better prices on the local market,” Orlando says, noting that one hectare of banana trees was enough to support him, his wife, and their three children.
“But eventually, the kids grow up. You want to send them to school, and you want them to have their own land. Things were limited. There wasn’t a way to expand and grow.”
In 2010, Orlando and his neighbors formed a small-scale banana grower association to improve their collective standing, but the situation remained limited as long as they sold to middle-men. A better opportunity arrived when the association met the Fairtrasa Peru team in 2012.
“Things improved a lot when we got Fairtrade certification,” Orlando says. “Finally, there was price stability, a minimum price that we were guaranteed. We knew what we would get for a given year, and we got it.”
He says Fairtrasa has distinguished itself from other companies not merely by buying fruit, but by training and guiding the farmers in Orlando’s cooperative.
“Fairtrasa focuses on helping farmers develop themselves,” he says, “ensuring that they have everything they need for commercialization. It’s like taking a child by the hand to help him learn to walk. We’ve worked with other companies, and they don’t do that. That’s why we’re working with Fairtrasa.”
In spite of improvements, a lot of hard work remains to be done, he says.
“Exporting bananas requires a lot of work and care. You have to tend to your plants constantly, to ensure the highest quality. Otherwise, your fruit will be rejected. But it’s worth it, of course. The better the quality, the higher the demand.”
Orlando looks back at this past, and is amazed at how far he and his neighbors have come.
“We were peons back in the 1960s and early 1970s, working for a landlord. Then we were landowners but without the resources to grow. Now we’re finally getting the training and resources we need to earn a good profit and grow, and exporting our organic bananas around the world.”