By: Mildred Alvarado, Producer Relations, Equal Exchange Bananas
The first five months of the year are usually the most difficult for our Peruvian banana farmer partners due to weather difficulties. Problems due to the rainy season are expected. However, what’s happening this year is unusual.
We asked Leticia Gutierrez, a producer and the Logistics Coordinator at the CEPIBO farmer cooperative, how the coop is faring with the rains. Each week, she answered in the same way, “The Niño phenomenon is affecting us too much.” We got the same answers from others partners in Piura. The torrential rains in the coastal zone of Peru indicate that the El Niño phenomenon is present again, affecting agriculture and the communities of Piura and Tumbes in an unprecedented way.
The presence of the El Niño phenomenon during this season is an unusual occurrence. In 2016, the El Niño phenomenon occurred in the Caribbean islands, mainly affecting the agriculture of Cuba. Usually the El Niño phenomenon occurs in intervals of two to seven years. Why is it unusual now? It is present again on the coast of Peru a year later. The El Niño phenomenon affects the normal patterns of rain and local climate that are essential for the agricultural production and food security of the communities. This year, the phenomenon resulted in a drastic switch from extreme drought to intense rains in Piura.
The intensity of the rains has put our farmer partners and us against new challenges that we were unprepared for. There has been a lot of creative problem solving and last minute decision making in order to fulfill orders on time. In these challenging times, we do everything on our end in order to support our farmer partners by: coordinating with shipping lines, giving credit to buy inputs such as boxes, to support their staff through logistics and technical assistance, all in order to help them harvest the fruit and fulfill orders on time.
How are the rains affecting our banana farmer partners?
Equal Exchange works with two cooperatives in Piura producing and exporting organic and fair trade bananas. Together, the organizations group 1,300 small scale banana producers. The average farm size is 1.25 hectares (3 acres) and all depend on banana production to support their families. Our producers depend on Mother Nature to produce and live. If the weather is not on their side, they will be impacted considerably. Our producers also rely on community services to obtain agricultural inputs, food, and education (Read Why do banana farmers organize?). Additionally, access to the main roads is integral in exporting bananas. If these systems and the local climate are dysfunctional, then everything becomes complicated. During these torrential rains in Piura, 20% of our farmer partners have suffered considerable losses, which include:
1. Lack of basic necessities:
The homes of our farmer partners have suffered considerable damage. Their families have run out of food and water. CEPIBO coop is supporting them by providing food and water.
2. Destruction of communication, irrigation, and infrastructure systems:
This damage makes it impossible to transport bananas from farms to the collection centers, pack sheds, and ports due to the difficulties in accessing main roads.
3. Damage to the root system of banana plants:
Productivity is at risk, in fact there is a possible risk of losing farms completely. The root system is the brain of the plants; if roots are damaged, the banana plant will not be able to reproduce. The yield per plant per year will decrease significantly as well.
5. Major supply interruptions and possible loss of customers:
While supply interruptions would lead most importers to change suppliers, Equal Exchange stays with the producers, honoring the contracts and supporting them through long-term purchasing. On a personal note, this is one of the things I appreciate most when working with Equal Exchange.
6. Decrease in productivity by 35%:
In terms of numbers, this means instead of obtaining 1000 boxes of bananas per hectare per year, farmers will only obtain 650 boxes per hectare per year. Considering our small scale producers rely on their 1.25 hectares as their main economic activity, this decrease has a domino effect on livelihoods.
7. Destructions of school and community infrastructure:
Our business approach is to support small scale producers so they can build better communities and to create employment opportunities so there are opportunities for the next generations. Many schools were destroyed due to flooding. Now the challenge for small banana producers is even bigger – rebuild their communities.
The path for our farmer partners to recover is challenging due to the dysfunctions of the system they already live in. Rebuilding communities and rebuilding infrastructure requires government support and policies in favor of the people. Not to mention, there are other long term impacts associated with the impacts on productivity, such as loss of market share due to lack of order fulfillment and possible outbreaks of plant diseases. Both of these impacts imperil the economic viability of our small scale banana farmers.
What can we do to support?
From my perspective, all we can do is continue to educate our families, friends, co-workers, as well as other members within our supply chain, such as buyers and retailers. Consumers, buyers, and retailers must support organizations formed by small scale banana farmers even when the situation is difficult. Support through purchasing genuine origin bananas from our small scale banana farmer partners is the best we can do.
To learn more about how the Peru floods impacted the Equal Exchange coffee and chocolate farmer producers, read this post on the Equal Exchange website.