Citizens’ Cane: a successful path to economic independence

By Marco Coscione, Coordinadora Latinoamericana y del Caribe de Pequeños Productores de Comercio Justo (CLAC)

Without any doubts, Manduvirá Cooperative is the most successful organic and Fair Trade sugar cooperative of Paraguay, and one of the most important in Latin America and worldwide. Founded in 1975 by 39 members, it represents today 1750 producers and exports Fairtrade certified organic sugar to nearly 20 countries in the world. Their members also produce sesame, organic cotton, stevia, fresh fruit and vegetables for the local and national market. The cooperative received the Fairtrade certification in 1999. 

Before starting the exportations under their own brands, the producers of Manduvirá sold their sugar to the local sugar mill where they could not control prices, contracts or negotiations. In 2003, 500 small producers, members of the cooperative, started a hard strike against the local sugar mill in order to demand better prices for their product. They forced the sugar mill owners to reopen the factory and in 2004 obtained their own organic certification. One year later, the cooperative rented the mill and started direct exportation with its international buyers. Between 2005 and 2011, the cooperative increased its production from 235 to 6,000 MT of organic sugar, and soon became the world leading exporter of organic and Fairtrade certified cane sugar. But now there is one more step towards economic and trade independence.

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Monika Berresheim of Fairtrade International presents a plaque to the managers of Manduvira.

At the end of 2011, thanks to sugar sales, Fairtrade Premium and the Fairtrade Access Fund, the Manduvirá cooperative began the process to establish «what was to become the first-of-its-kind producer-owned sugar mill», which started its activity in May 2014. At the opening ceremony Andrés Gonzales, General Manager, proudly announced: «Our dream of a sugar mill owned by a cooperative and not by private businessmen has come true». With this new producer-owned sugar mill the cooperative will offer around 200 new jobs; also for the sons and daughters of the producers, ensuring a better generational change through more attractive activities for young people, who often move away from agriculture. This may help the sustainability of the production.  

The total investment was covered by Manduvirá (25%) and other national (Banco Continental, Mutual de Cooperativas) and international donors or investors (Inter-American Development Bank, Oikocredit and Responsibility). It took two years to build the new factory in Arroyos y Esteros district (Cordillera Department); now the cooperative is ready to process around 1,000 MT of sugar cane a day. This can mean 20,000 MT of organic sugar per year. But for the future the producers can reach a level of 3,000 MT a day.

The experience of Manduvirá evidences that organized smallholders can also scale up the production and marketing steps of their products, increasingly controlling the entire process before the exportation. What for many might seem a dream has become reality for the Manduvirá producers. Thanks to the support of Fair Trade as well as other national and international actors, the cooperative continues to build its road to independence, benefiting thousands of families in rural areas.         

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