Members of the Jyambere Mutegarugori (Women in Development) cooperative work at basket weaving, Muramba, Rwanda.
by Judith Santiago
UMCOR strives to develop partnerships with organizations that share its mission for vulnerable communities—eradicate poverty, improve livelihoods, support local economies, and provide fair wages to minimize dependency and maximize potential. These fair-trade partnerships are a way to address the root causes of poverty, but they also are a way to raise funds for UMCOR programs.
—June H. Kim, Hunger and Poverty executive, UMCOR
In 2002, the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) partnered with Equal Exchange, a worker-owned cooperative in Massachusetts, to launch a denomination-wide program: the UMCOR Coffee Project. This partnership enabled United Methodist congregations and individuals to buy coffee and other Equal Exchange fair-trade items through UMCOR. UMCOR receives approximately 15 cents per pound of product sold—or about $20,000 a year—for its Small Farmer Fund. These contributions support UMCOR’s Sustainable Agriculture & Development programs.
The purpose of the fair-trade program was to develop a way for the average consumer or congregation to help alleviate poverty in communities around the world by addressing some of poverty’s root causes. Incorporating a fair-trade, fair-wage system as a consumer choice and an exercise of individual purchasing power helps bring a just profit to both labor and manufacturers. It encourages the creation of necessary and beneficial goods, while guiding consumers away from products whose manufacturers exploit workers or harm the environment.
In recent years, UMCOR has increased the number of fair-trade partnerships it supports, adding SERRV (an independent distributor originally launched by the Church of the Brethren), Prosperity Candle, and the Eco-Palm Project. These businesses help communities build better economies and practice sustainable development while supporting worker-owned and democratically run cooperatives. The co-ops also alleviate poverty by empowering women, farmers, and artisans to support their own livelihoods without dependence on outside employers. And they practice corporate responsibility by reinvesting a portion of their income in their home communities.
As part of the Wesleyan tradition, United Methodists are encouraged to support social justice even in their buying choices, choosing products whose manufacturing practices do not contribute to the root causes of poverty. Such choices can positively impact the lives of the world’s most vulnerable people.
What follows is a series of stories highlighting several of UMCOR’s fairtrade partner organizations.
Equal Exchange in the West Bank
by Rob Everts, Co-Executive Director, and Susan Sklar, Community Sales Manager, Equal Exchange
In early November 2011, Equal Exchange traveled to the West Bank of the Jordan River to meet with members of the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee (PARC). Equal Exchange buys organic, fairly traded olive oil from PARC. Both organizations are grounded in the earth’s most fundamental industry: agriculture. And both enable small-scale farmers to remain on their land by working in cooperatives, growing quality products, and building sustainable markets. Working with a Palestinian group in the West Bank is particularly compelling, given that this tiny speck of land in the Middle East is the source of so much enduring conflict.
PARC was founded in 1983 by agronomists and veterinarians in order to serve farmers. Israel’s government, like those of many coffee-exporting countries, had not prioritized agriculture or invested heavily in it—particularly in the Palestinian Territories. Today PARC works with 41 cooperatives, each having between 20 and 80 members. These groups grow olives, almonds, dates, wheat for couscous, and other products. Two factors have contributed to the relatively recent development of cooperatives in Palestine. First, the disappearance of the Israeli market after the second Intifada in 2000 led to land abandonment or lack of productive use. So, given available land and the potential for profitable markets, an incentive was created for individual landholders to band together and form a co-op.
The Equal Exchange group spent a day at the Al Zawyeh cooperative, one of the co-ops that currently supplies olives for fair-trade olive oil, which is sold in 500 milliliter bottles. Formed in 2008 with 18 members and now at a membership of 22, this co-op plays a social role in the community, for example, helping students finish high school. Fair Trade income in the first few years has enabled the co-op to build a barn for sheep and to secure and distribute organic compost. Many of the olive trees are hundreds—even thousands—of years old and hold an almost sacred significance for some farmers.
Over the last five years, the co-op has made enormous gains in capacity, quality control, and bottling equipment. The visitors were inspired by what they saw and confident that skilled people and proper processes are in place to create high-quality bottles of organic, extra virgin olive oil.
A number of ever-present hardships face Palestinian farmers—the most extreme being water scarcity. In recent years, drought resulting from climate change has increasingly affected the growth of olive trees. But Israeli policies that limit access to water for collection and irrigation have likewise posed a serious obstacle to a thriving agricultural sector. Most water in the West Bank is either diverted to settlements or sent back to Israel.
It’s impossible to separate the struggles of Palestinian olive farmers from political struggles in the region. For Equal Exchange, this trip provided a first opportunity to begin learning ways to best contribute to just economic development in the West Bank.
Learn more about the UMCOR Coffee Program and Equal Exchange by visiting http://www.equalexchange.coop/interfaith-program.
Equal Opportunity at Eco-Palms
This story is courtesy of Pronatura Sur A.C.
Brigida Coutino Espinoza, 32, lives in the Sierra Morena community of the Sepultura Biosphere Reserve, located in the Sierra Madre de Chiapas, Mexico. At age16, Brigida worked with her husband in selecting and selling palm fronds illegally—a job that only men were hired to do. Today, Brigida and her husband work legally for a regional organization of palmproducing communities (PROPACH S.C.), which has been steered by the Mexican association Pronatura Sur A.C. through the Sacred Orchid of Chiapas Project, which is supported by the Global Environment Facility GEF). Here, women work in the palm-selection process and sell palm fronds directly to the US market.
“Some say that this is not a job for women,” Brigida observes, “but weare all very proud of it because there are not many opportunities for women here.” UMCOR partners with the University of Minnesota to build support in the United States for the Eco-Palm Project, providing fair-trade palm fronds to churches for special events like Palm Sunday. The project helps to sustain forestry, protect local jobs, and preserve the livelihoods of small-scale farmers by ensuring fair wages.
Learn more about the Eco-Palm Project by visiting www.ecopalms.org.
Hope in Times of Crisis
by Judith Santiago for Prosperity Candle
Mee Mee heard that the soldiers were coming. She grabbed her son and frantically joined the rest of the villagers—all running toward the Thai-Burmese border where an office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was located. (Later, she learned that her husband was in another village, running in the opposite direction.) When the soldiers’ pursuit finally ended, Mee returned home to her small village in Koechi, Myanmar (formerly Burma).
From 1997 to 2000, Mee and thousands like her lived under the constant threat of violence from Myanmar’s military forces. About once a week, Mee and other villagers would be on the move further into the jungle to avoid capture, rape, or death.
Life in the jungle was difficult and often terrifying. The makeshift bamboo tents used as temporary dwellings had roof and floor coverings but open sides. Many women, including Mee, gave birth to children in the jungle. Mee’s then six-year-old son assisted in the delivery of his baby sister, named Eh Ku Hser—“love, cold, sweet.” “Cold” in Burmese culture means “so as not to pass through the fire of life,” as heat represents troubled times. For Mee, the birth of her daughter in the midst of darkness and fear was a symbol of hope for a new life to come.
During one incident, Mee’s husband, running ahead to find food for his family, was spotted by soldiers and shot. The bullet shattered part of his ribcage, leaving him severely wounded. Yet, despite his wound, he hid and kept moving his family for the next three months. He had no medical care, so Mee tended to him. Mee’s husband finally became strong enough to walk for five days toward a small village in Thailand. There, the family learned the location of a hospital and a refugee camp. When Mee and her husband finally arrived at the hospital, he underwent immediate surgery and later recovered.
With the help of UNHCR, Mee and her family were resettled in West Springfield, Massachusetts. There, Mee met Moo Kho Paw, another woman who emigrated from Myanmar and who worked at Prosperity Candle. The organization helps refugee women who have escaped areas of conflict rebuild their lives through the art of candle making. Moo Kho recommended that Mee join the organization, and Mee gladly accepted.
When you purchase handmade candles shaped by Mee, Moo Kho, and Naw (another Burmese refugee woman working at Prosperity Candle), know that you are supporting their livelihoods and helping them thrive as they rebuild their lives and those of their family members.
When you buy a Prosperity Candle, 10 percent of your payment goes to support poverty-alleviation programs through UMCOR’s World Hunger and Poverty program, UMCOR Advance #982920.
SERRV: Weaving Empowerment in Rwanda
Adapted from SERRV’s Autumn 2011 Newsletter and used with permission.
One of my most joyous memories is when I saw how the women of Jyambere Mutegarugori had, in four short years, transformed themselves from very poor, shy basket weavers into radiant, powerful women who can now support their families, put their children through school, afford new roofs for their houses, and raise cows in their fields.
Kerry Evans, SERRV Product Designer
In a small, remote Rwandan village, an inspiring group of women are thriving. These vibrant women of Jyambere Mutegarugori (Women in Development) spent the last few years working together to build a successful handicraft organization. Their commitment to the cooperative has given them the power to change their lives and those of future generations.
Jyambere began in 2002 when the women in Muramba village joined together to create a basket-weaving co-op. Though they knew how to weave and made baskets for the village’s meager tourist market, many also had to work on farms for low wages to get by. With their new cooperative, the women began to make baskets as a group and opened a business bank account. When SERRV met the group in 2007 to explore the potential for a partnership, the women specified their goals as securing more work space for their members and learning how to export the goods they made. Since SERRV could help the women in these ways, growing their capacity so that they could become self-sufficient, a partnership was initiated shortly after the visit.
With the help of the Kolping Society, the cooperative acquired land and built a large facility with a meeting area, a kitchen, storage rooms, and a vegetable garden. Every day, from 8 am until 6 pm, the co-op members come to the center to work. Many bring their children with them.
Small, low-interest loans from their co-op’s bank account are available to members and other community residents, who use them for necessities or small community projects. With the income they earn from sales of their baskets, the women have been able to improve their lives.
UMCOR and SERRV are formally collaborating to promote fair-trade consignment sales to congregations. These sales give congregation members the opportunity to support poor artisans and farmers in building businesses that, in turn, benefit impoverished communities and empower women.
Learn more about these basket weavers at www.serrv.org/umcor.
Judith Santiago is the Content and Editorial Coordinator for the General Board of Global Ministries.