Rene Santos: Fair Trade Coffee Farmer

October is Fair Trade Month, and we want to lift up one of our long-time Fair Trade partners: Equal Exchange.  In their honor, every Tuesday we are sharing stories of farmers whose lives are changed by your faithful support of Fair Trade. This week it’s the story of Rene Santos, a coffee farmer in El Salvador, who knows firsthand how Fairly Traded goods can make a huge impact in his own life and his community.

Rene Santos is part of Las Colinas cooperative, a 500-acre coffee farm that is collectively owned by the co-op’s 89 members.  But like many other agricultural co-operatives in El Salvador, Las Colinas used to be a plantation; many members and their parents and grandparents used to work there as day laborers picking coffee. Rene himself worked as a hired laborer on the plantation for eleven years. The work was grueling, and workers were tightly controlled. Rene recalls, “A watchman was in the tower, and if he saw anyone stopping to wipe their brow, he’d blow his whistle and you’d better get back to work.” Las Colinas became a cooperative in 1980, when the former workers gained ownership of the land. Now, as owners, the farmers are able to improve their lives and communities for the long term.

coffee beans in the de-pulping process
Coffee cherries in the process of being de-pulped in a wet mill

Perhaps the biggest change they’ve made is with water usage. Washing coffee beans is a very water-intensive process and in the past, water was used once before it was dumped into pools. These pools often became breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Recently, though, the co-op chose to purchase an “ecological mill” that re-uses the water during the washing process and cleans it afterward. The recycled water is then used to fill pools for tilapia, which the farming families raise to eat and to sell to supplement their income.

But Rene and his co-operative didn’t stop there. The land of Las Colinas also contains a natural spring that provides water to thousands of people in the nearby town of Tacuba. As a result, the practices of the co-op have the potential to either contaminate or protect this vital resource for their neighbors. Seven or eight years ago, Las Colinas undertook the rigorous process of transitioning all of their coffee to organic production. Today all of their coffee is Certified Organic, which protects the water source from contamination from chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Co-op members and their families also used to use the spring for bathing and laundry, which can taint water with soap, bleach, and other pollutants. A community improvement project brought water directly to co-op members’ homes, which improves their own quality of life and protects the water source for the surrounding community.

Equal Exchange has been buying coffee from Las Colinas for fifteen years and is committed to partnering only with democratically-run farmer co-operatives. Stories like Las Colinas’ show how producer ownership can transform the lives of small farmers when they are granted the ability to work to meet the needs of their communities. Rene is optimistic about their future. He says, “We will stay organized, and think big. Our children are going to high school; our grandchildren will go to college.”

This is how your purchase of Fair Trade coffee makes a difference in the lives of those we are called to serve around the world. The work that Rene and his cooperative do in their community is supported by your congregation’s witness to Christ’s love through serving and selling Fair Trade coffee. Come back on Thursday to see how LWR staff are using Fair Trade products from the LWR Coffee Project for fun and delicious recipes!

Win a Coffee Hour Makeover

Post a picture of your congregation’s coffee hour or Fair Trade Coffee sales on our Facebook page. We will draw one congregation’s name at random who will receive a $250 gift certificate from Equal Exchange to upgrade your coffee hour.