Laura Bechard, Chocolate Supply Chain Coordinator, Equal Exchange
Last December, members of Equal Exchange’s chocolate team met with our sugarcane co-op partners, Manduvira. Located in the Southern Hemisphere, Paraguay experiences its seasons opposite to ours. In December, while Americans enjoy a mug of hot chocolate to warm up, Paraguayans are enjoying an iced tea, called terere, to cool down.
Sugarcane farming at the small-scale level requires a lot of manual work. Traditionally, the brunt of this labor occurs in the fall and spring. In late fall, the sugarcane is beginning to shoot, so sun can still shine on the row spaces and cause weeds to flourish. Using a hoe, farmers must walk these rows to remove the weeds. Once the sugarcane grows tall enough during the winter months, the sun cannot get into the rows and the sugarcane is left to grow tall. In the spring, the sugarcane must be harvested and transported to the mill as soon as possible before it begins to lose its sucrose content. Most farmer members of Manduvira cooperative do not have access to large mechanical harvesting machines that dominate the organic plantation landscape, just 90 miles away in Paraguay’s central departments. This means that like weed maintenance, sugarcane harvesting must also occur by hand. Armed with machetes, farmers work full days harvesting and stripping the cane of its leaves to be ready to sell by the kilo to Manduvira.
Not only is the labor incredibly manual in nature, the seasons are also transitioning either out-of or in-to summer. This means temperatures in the upwards of 80-90 degrees Fahrenheit at midday with a sun that beats down unforgivably. For a spry young farmer, this may seem like just an extra challenge to their hard day’s work. But when you look at the average age of Manduvira’s farmer members (40+), a hard day’s work starts seeming more like an impossible feat and farmers depend increasingly on hiring out day-labor. On top of rising age, Manduvira is also experience rising average annual temperatures due to climate change. Together, these factors pose a challenging risk to the sustainability of small and medium scale sugar production for Manduvira.
Manduvira recognizes and continues to work to mitigate these challenges. To work on rising spring temperatures, on their co-operative test plot, their staff of extension agents have been testing out different sugarcane varieties that can be harvested at various times of the year, from May to September. As their technical teams explained to us, if a farmer had three different varieties, they would be able to spread out their labor needs across the course of five months and could reduce the amount of a later-season (and hotter temperature) harvest. To work on engaging with youth, Manduvira offers a large source of industrial work in the community. Since the co-operative owns its own sugar mill youth have other options besides farming to stay involved with the co-operative. By opting to work locally instead of moving to the capital city these young Paraguayans remain connected to their rural livelihoods and many continue to participate on their family’s farms.