Rafael was a young boy when Peru’s new military government implemented a massive agrarian reform in 1968, appropriating farmland from landowners and redistributing it to millions of small-scale farmers, including Rafael’s family. The law mandated that the newly empowered farmers form cooperatives, and a state-run agrarian bank was established to give farmers credit lines.
“What was good about that model,” Rafael recalls, “is that we weren’t exploited like before. We worked for ourselves. The problem was that we didn’t necessarily know the best path forward.”
For the next two decades, farmers like Rafael and his neighbors maintained a relatively stable lifestyle. Rafael married and had four children, and worked hard as a subsistence farmer.
Rafael, machete in hand, beside a canal which helps him and his neighbors irrigate their farms
This status quo was disrupted in the 1990s, however, when a new government declared the agrarian bank bankrupt, severely limiting the credit opportunities for small-scale farmers.
Soon after, Rafael’s wife died while giving birth to their fifth child.
“My situation was really complicated back then,” Rafael says. “I was widowed, alone with my five children. And all of us farmers suddenly felt abandoned by the state.”
For a few years, Rafael and his neighbors made ends meet by renting out their land to a large fruit company.
“But we didn’t want to rent the land to others,” he says. “We wanted to work it ourselves.”
A local NGO offered Rafael and his neighbors credit to begin producing and marketing traditional products like maize and sweet potato.
“We sold our harvest and had enough to pay back the credit, but that was it,” Rafael recounts. “Nothing was profitable. It was a heavy time for us.”
Then, about a decade ago, a Spanish priest named Father Domingo arrived. Father Domingo had been working with small-scale farmers in the region, and had seen first-hand how banana production was beginning to help them. He convinced Rafael and his neighbors to begin growing bananas, and even offered to provide them with credit for the startup costs.
“With that credit, we planted our first banana trees,” Rafael says. “But it was still very hard in the beginning. We started selling on the national market, but the prices were low and inconsistent.”
When Rafael and his neighbors joined Fairtrasa Peru, in 2012, they began to realize their full potential. The Fairtrasa Peru team immediately helped fund the construction of a packing station, in order to set the association on its path toward exporting its own product independently. Fairtrasa also helped the farmers start the certification processes for Organic and Fairtrade, and provided trainings in yield optimization and organic farming techniques.
“Before Fairtrasa even bought from us, they were already offering to support us with the packing station. And the change was big. The income has been a lot better, and we’re paid regularly.”
Rafael explains that one of the advantages of banana production is that there’s a new harvest every 15 days all year round, so farmers ought to be paid twice monthly. But Fairtrasa was the first partner to pay the farmers regularly.
And the prices were unprecedented, he says.
“I’m earning ten times what I earned before, per month, and things promise to improve even more.”
Rafael has remarried and now has grandchildren. He says he’s very happy and optimistic about how life and business are changing for everyone.
“My personal situation has changed. I’ve gotten to improve my house, for example. Things are really good. And not just for me and my family, but for all of my partners.”
The association still has a long way to go, he says, but he sees a bright future.
“Thanks to God, it’s happening. Things are improving. We started with 7 farmers, and now we’re over 80. We have the happiness and satisfaction of knowing that our fruit is going to international markets. But I want to continue fighting so that things improve even more.”