How Real Investment Is Making A Difference For These Central American Women

bag-weaving-in-olopa-guatemala
This woman in Olopa, in Guatemala’s Chiquimula Department weaves bags for sale thanks to help from development organization World Neighbors. (Contributed image)
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By Kate Schecter

Special To NAN

News Americas, NEW YORK, NY, Weds. Dec. 15, 2021: Nearly 5 million people in Central America rely on the coffee sector for income. The region produces about 15% of the world’s arabica, the smooth-flavored beans favored over the rougher robusta by many coffee connoisseurs.  

But the sector is under intense pressure. Production has dropped by 10% since 2017 and is expected to fall further in the coming season. That means the global market will become more dependent on mass producers like Brazil – which is itself experiencing difficulties due to a fungal pathogen that destroys coffee plants.   

Production and price fluctuations are compounded by the effects of climate change.  Hurricanes and drought are altering coffee growing patterns.   While consumers increasingly favor specialty coffee, well-capitalized mass producers have greater capacity to adapt to the impact of climate change.    

This all means sustained pressure on small farmers in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.   While few want to uproot their families and leave their communities, financial and climate conditions can leave farmers with no other choice.  

US Vice President Kamala Harris recently announced plans by US-based companies to invest in Central American countries.  These investments would be helpful, but since they are likely to occur in cities, they may not address the needs of coffee farmers in rural areas.  What is needed are long-term efforts to help farmers diversity their incomes through new businesses that increase food security and help their communities.  

There are many efforts underway to encourage economic development in Guatemala’s rural areas.  The more successful projects aren’t elaborate initiatives that seek to quickly transform areas through large infusions of capital.  Rather, success is rooted in patient efforts to build on what communities already do.

An example is what is happening in Olopa, in Guatemala’s Chiquimula Department.  In addition to growing coffee, women there have traditionally made rope bags for their families’ use.  With assistance from the development organization World Neighbors, they have innovated and incorporated different designs for their bags.  With training in basic financial and marketing techniques, rope bag production has been successfully commercialized.  The women sell their bags in Olopa and surrounding villages.   In addition to bags, they produce mats, brooms and other necessary items.  

The craft business is producing significant income for a large number of women.  

This is income that helps coffee farming families in particular diversify their sources of income.  That’s important, given coffee–like any commodity–fluctuates in price and climate change is making it even more difficult to earn a living from just farming coffee beans.   

Women bag producers contribute a small part of their profit into a savings and credit group.  This group in turn makes loans to women who wish to start their own bag or other business or purchase implements or even purchase additional land to expand farm output.    Loans are always paid back and the amount available for credit expands over time.   It is this type of locally driven capital accumulation that results in economic initiatives that meet local needs and do not rely on low wages, lax regulation and government subsidies.  

These women producers have organized themselves into the Association of Olopenses Women, (AMO).   With its success in Olopa, the AMO has expanded to Jocotán and Camotán.  The AMO now encompasses 37 communities.   The organization has about 700 members, 400 of whom are active.  All but 15 are women, and all are coffee farmers. 

The AMO has expanded its efforts from business development to health and other initiatives.  For example, it is working with the Habitat for Humanity Foundation to install improved cooking stoves in peoples’ homes.   In Guatemala’s rural areas, the greatest source of respiratory illness is indoor air pollution from traditional wood-burning stoves.  Improved stoves eliminate the smoke in homes through a chimney system.  In addition, they are much safer and require less fuel, which reduces household costs.  To date, AMO has overseen the installation of about 1500 improved stoves in Olopa, Camotán and Jocotán.   

Nearly everyone involved in the AMO and other World Neighbors initiatives in Guatemala has remained in their communities.  Women and their families are using their own skills and resources to increase their incomes and improve their health. This is the kind of real change that holds promise for countries that desperately need it.