Cooperativa Agricola Integral Mujeres Quatro Pinos (Integrated Women's Agricultural Cooperative) in the central highlands of Guatemala is a heartening example of what women can accomplish when they set their minds to it, work together and receive the necessary investment support.
I visited Quatro Pinos' vegetable production, processing, and marketing operation last month on a media tour of Guatemala as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations agencies in Rome.
In just six years, the cooperative has grown from a group of 35 women with small vegetable plots to a 350-member cooperative that manages 415 acres of land. Since the fall of 2010, they have quadrupled their production from 450,000 to 2 million pounds of vegetables. They grow snow peas, English peas, string beans, and mini carrots that they then process, package and export -- much to the United States.
What makes Quatro Pinos so succesful? I think the key ingredient is its core group of proud, dynamic, hard-working, and determined women coupled with some strategic assistance from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), in the form of access to loans, markets, business training, and cooperation from the private sector -- in this case AGEXPORT, the Guatemalan exporters' association.
It was an uphill climb as these women struggled for the right to work and create their business in a male-dominated society. At the beginning (2004) the local governing council -- without a single woman on its board -- strongly resisted the formation of the coop and initially blocked all efforts to set it up. And later, even after granting permission to establish the coop, only men from the council could decide which women were admitted. But slowly, with determination, the women prevailed.
As I listened to these hardworking women explain the history of their coop, I was excited to hear how this initiative had changed their lives, by giving them an income and helping them achieve an unprecedented level of independence.
Piedad Flores, now the head of projects at Quatro Pinos, farmed just a quarter of an acre of land, but thanks to the co-op she was able to obtain a loan and purchase more land, "Now I am an owner!" she said proudly.
Two other projects we visited in Guatemala that day provide similar support to local communities. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food for Progress program in Chimaltenango is supporting 3,291 local farmers with technology (greenhouses, combined irrigation and fertilizer systems, cold storage, and collecting centers), training in farming techniques such as composting, and help in the commercialization of their products. We watched them plant organic gardens, saw where they processed their produce and made jams, and visited a flower workshop where women were shown how to give added value to the flowers they grow by packaging them in appealing ways. The USDA project has benefited from the service of experts from the Borlaug Institute, part of the Texas A&M University system, and funds from USAID. It will be turned over to a local organization, SENDEC, at the end of the year.
We also observed similar projects supported by our UN partners down near the coast in the Rancho Alegre community in San Andres Villa Seca (Retalhuleu province). This is the site of a World Food Programme (WFP) Purchase for Progress (P4P) project working in conjunction with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), to support a local small farmers' organization (ASODINA). P4P encourages these farmers to produce a surplus of maize and black beans that the WFP then purchases for its emergency operations in the area, while concurrently helping them find other purchasers. As always in Guatemala, the Rancho Alegre farmers welcomed us enthusiastically, and I was proud to cut the ribbon for the inauguration of their new agro-storage facility there. Nearby, we met farmer Eliot Gonzales and his family of eight, who shyly posed for a photo with me in front of their healthy corn field sown with drought-tolerant seeds provided by the FAO, which also assisted Eliot with techniques to improve his production.
Guatemala undoubtedly faces great challenges in terms of inequality, security, and especially poverty and malnutrition -- largely among its big indigenous population. But as I told the many people I met there, I left Guatemala with a profound sense of hope, a real confidence that given the proper support, local communities already command the essential ingredients for a brighter future. These are proud and determined people who are eager to learn, and eager to improve their lot. The United States and the UN organizations, in concert with the government of Guatemala, must continue to give them an opportunity to reach their true potential.