Finding Common Ground in Peru

Jessica Jones-Hughes
February 6, 2012

You may have heard about food co-op general managers, employees, church members, or Equal Exchange staff making the trek down to the places where coffee, tea and cocoa are grown. In October of 2011, Equal Exchange took our first delegation to see a very different product: bananas!

The banana team invited loyal and long-time Equal Exchange banana supporters on the adventure. The final group included five produce managers of Twin Cities-area co-ops: Dean from the Wedge Co-op, Kim from Valley Natural Foods, Nick from Mississippi Market, Jean from Eastside Food Co-op, and Travis from Seward Co-op.  The weeklong trip to the Northern desert area of Peru was led by Jessica, Phyllis and Scott of Equal Exchange.

The group spent the first day in Piura with the primary-level banana co-op, APOQ, and the next four days with the secondary-level banana co-op, CEPIBO. We met with the co-op’s board of directors, learned about the successes and many challenges of Fair Trade bananas in Peru, saw bananas being harvested on the farms, and observed the washing and packing of bananas into boxes at packing stations. Many questions arose from the small-scale farmers and our group, both parties eager to learn about every aspect of one another’s lives: “What do people think of our bananas in the USA?”, “How much do you sell bananas for?”, “Why did you start growing bananas?”, “What does co-op mean in your country?”. And so on.

One highlight of the trip was spending the night in the homes of farmers, a powerful and humbling experience.  I asked my host, Pedro Navarro Pulache, how his life has changed as a member of the co-op, and he shared a courageous tale.

Years ago, his father passed down the small one-acre plot of land to him. With the land, they grew bananas and sold them nationally, until Dole entered the scene. In 2007, Dole was buying 90% of the organic bananas in the region. The growers enjoyed this until they started to ask Dole for more: better prices, the ability to organize democratically into co-operatives, and for the ability to pack and sell outside of Dole. Dole said no. This did not stop the growers; they began to organize in secret “hiding under the trees so that they would not see us,” he said.

With much pride and perseverance, Fair Trade co-operatives formed, and in 2008, many started to pull away from Dole, independently exporting Fair Trade organic bananas to alternative trading organizations like Equal Exchange. Today Dole is buying only 40% of the bananas in the region and is still trying to break up the co-ops, but with much less power than they previously held. Pedro’s life is improved, but not perfect; he still lives in poverty and hopes that one day consumers will be paying $2 per pound of bananas so that he can enjoy an even better life.

Another powerful moment on the trip was when all of the co-op produce managers agreed to raise their retail prices to consumers to above 0.99 cents/pound! The delegates realized that a tangible next step toward creating real change in Peru and our food system is to pay more for food that is worth it.

I still smile today thinking of the funny stories, cultural lessons and adventures we all had in Peru. My heart warms thinking about the powerful connection made between rural Peruvian banana farmers and Minnesotan produce managers. The most vibrant realization was a moment when everyone recognized that we were all standing on the same side of the fence. Even if we have different backgrounds and current realities, we were all connected and all working for a similar goal: to ignite a revolution in our food system—a goal that can only be accomplished if we continue to work together.