THE BLOG

International Day of Cooperatives - How Brazilian Farmers Are Working Together to Make Their Way Out of Poverty

07/07/2015 09:28 BST | Updated 03/07/2016 10:59 BST

Today we are marking International Day of Cooperatives, celebrating the success of people around the world - quite often poor and vulnerable communities - working together for their mutual, social, economic and cultural benefit.

Despite recent growth which has seen Brazil become one of the largest economies in the world, many people in the Latin American country continue to live in poverty as a consequence of the staggeringly high level of inequality between the rich and the poor.

Just three per cent of the population own more than two thirds of all arable land, trapping many rural labourers in poverty, fuelling urbanisation and lining the pockets of big agri-business companies.

As a result, Christian Aid's partner organisation the Landless Rural Worker's Movement (MST) has for the past 30 years supported subsistence farmers in their quest for land rights.

Under their guidance, three settlements around the small city of Campo do Meio, in the southern state of Minas Gerais, have banded together as a cooperative and now are working together to produce and sell their own coffee.

The 40-family strong Primeiro do Sul settlement was created in 1997 and spans 888 hectares; the Santos Dias has been home to 49 families since 2006 and spans 1,788 hectares; and the newest settlement Nova Conquista has been home to 13 families since 2014 and spans 300 hectares.

All of these families have battled for their right to land for many years, often living in tents on the side of the road as big money crops, such as sugarcane, maize and soybeans, took precedence over smaller holdings, forcing small-scale farmers off the land.

The people of Santos Dias lived in such a makeshift camp for eight years as they battled against a huge sugarcane company. They were frequently harassed by police who moved their tents to dangerous highways away from the contested plot. In a grim irony, the land they were forced to leave remains unused as the company's production has waned.

With the area around Campo do Meio producing some of the largest quantities of coffee in the world, coffee crops are an opportunity not to be missed for big business, but it is also an activity from which small-scale labourers can also make a very successful living.

The CAMPONESA cooperative was founded in 2012 with Christian Aid helping to produce a five-year business plan, that would see organic and ecological methods introduced and steer clear of conventional, harmful pesticides.

Farmers have been taught how to fertilise the ground while keeping the coffee totally organic, and how to access the markets so they can sell their coffee not only locally, but further afield as well.

Recently, a new coffee bean washing machine has been set up in the town where farmers supported by MST can quickly and economically remove leaves, rocks and twigs from the coffee before it is processed, a traditionally labour intensive task that used a lot of water and time.

During the past year, the CAMPONESA project has successfully reached 50 families who now earn about £180 a month and we hope it will reach a further 20 families by the end of 2016.

Today, the cooperative is thriving, with their organic coffee filling a niche market, despite huge competition from the more mainstream manufacturers, and some of the worst droughts in the past 80 years.

The cooperative hopes to produce a new organic fertiliser to reduce their costs even further, while selling their coffee to the international market. By selling at a higher price and earning more, other families are also being encouraged to join, in the hope that production will increase further in the future. Together, these small, poor communities have the collective strength to earn a sustainable income, building a good foundation for generations to come.

To find out more about Christian Aid's work in Brazil, visit http://www.christianaid.org.uk/whatwedo/the-americas/brazil