“We have to value ourselves! We have value!” ~ Marta Salazar
International Women’s Day is just one day, but at De la Gente we are spending the week celebrating and acknowledging the great work of women in business and agriculture. As we work in the coffee world, many (or possibly all) of the articles this week will be focused in this area, but we think it is extremely important to highlight the challenges and achievements of women in a country that is typically very traditional, with the women working in the home, and men working in jobs or in the field.
Last week we sat down with Marta Salazar who has been a member of the San Miguel Escobar (SME) Cooperative for 5 years. Marta is one of six women in the cooperative, and one of the four women who are exporting from this cooperative, out of a group of 29 members. We asked Marta’s thoughts on what it’s like to be a women in the very male-dominated world of agriculture.
To start, it is important to talk first about Marta’s character and personality. Here in San Miguel Escobar (where De la Gente is based), Marta often passes through the office after tours, quiet and shy, though extremely polite. Her quiet nature is something that is very deceiving about her. Often quiet means timid, but Marta is a major player in the cooperative. Last year, she exported an astonishing 1,500 pounds of coffee, equaling almost 3.5% of the total export for the SME Cooperative. We’re in the the process of finishing up the harvest season here in San Miguel, and she’s estimated to export double this year, at 3,000 pounds.
Marta shared with us her thoughts on women in agriculture as well as her own experiences. She explained that she always worked in agriculture. Since she was a child, she was working in the fields with her parents growing carrots, beets, radishes, corn, and beans. The corn and beans were primarily for the family’s own consumption. The other crops, however, were the primary income for the family. Marta and her family would get up before the sun, at 4:00am, walk to the fields, work all day, return to the house, wash, and prepare all of the vegetables so that her mother could get the bus to Guatemala City (a 2 hour ride) at 2:00am. She noted that for her mother, this offered a sense of pride because she had no other income, and this was her contribution. Marta typically stayed back and worked with her father in the field. When she turned 10 she her family began working with coffee, she says learning about coffee was a blessing because growing and selling coffee brought in more income for her family.
At 20 years old Marta was able to purchase some land for herself through De la Gente’s microfinance program. She said that, like growing vegetables, coffee is still very hard work, but it’s different (in a good way). “With coffee, you still have to get up in the early hours of the morning, work all day, but you earn a bit more money,” she says. She pointed out that she never graduated high school, so being in coffee is such a great opportunity for her. She recently paid off her first loan for 3,700 Quetzales (about $450) which she used to finance the purchase of one cuerda of land (about ⅓ of an ace).
“[My husband and I] didn't have anything until we bought this cuerda. [Through this loan], we were able to obtain entrance into the coffee business, for my children and also my husband. Now we are able to have a better diet for our children, and for us. Thanks to this opportunity, my children can continue going to school, can continue with their education so they can become professionals, they can go to college and receive their degrees.”
In 2014 Marta received her second loan from the newly launched Women’s Fund. This time she purchased 2 cuerdas of land with existing coffee plants. In total Marta and her husband have 5 cuerdas of land and during harvest season, the most labor intensive time of the year, Marta’s whole family works with her to pick fruit and process the coffee. Her son, Gerson, is now 10 and her daughter, Delia, is 9 both help out during vacations and weekends. Gerson is very interested in coffee and Marta loves that she has knowledge to share with them and land with coffee to give to them when they grow up. She jokes that while Gerson has a little more interest in the coffee growing business, that Delia works just as hard. Women are known to be faster, more agile at picking coffee. It is well known that despite the fact that women can’t carry as much coffee down from the fields, they can pick more quickly and accurately as men.
Aside from benefiting her own family, Marta hires up to three people from the community to help during harvest season, creating local employment in a community with few work opportunities. Marta greatly appreciates De la Gente's microfinance program, and the generous support of the donors who make it possible. She is proud the confidence and trust that we have placed in her to receive and pay back her loans.
In addition to growing, processing, and exporting coffee Marta also makes natural teas from local plants, works one day a week at a school in her community and actively participates in our Community Tourism Program by guiding coffee tours with visitors and students on Service Learning Trips all while continuing to manage her home, care for her children.
We asked Marta if she had any advice for women looking to get into agriculture. “You can do it! Don’t be scared, just keeping moving forward,” she said confidently. “Be strong and vigilant. Women need to learn and develop in different areas to provide for our families. Especially women who are single mothers or widows. Women need to work in jobs, like coffee. Coffee has given me freedom and helped me to move forward. It doesn’t matter how hard you have struggled in your life, you just have to keep moving forward. Men don’t always value women, they may intimidate you, but you can do it!”
She ended the conversation with an important reminder for women all across the world.
“We (women) have to value ourselves. WE HAVE VALUE. If we don’t value ourselves we can’t succeed and agriculture is important for everyone. If we don’t have farms, we don’t have any vegetables or food.”
If you wish to contribute to De la Gente’s micro financing program to help the advancement of cooperative members in Guatemala, please consider supporting us by donating to our Women’s Fund. We are committed to supporting women and reducing barriers in the coffee industry.The goal of the Women's Fund is to empower female farmers to be business owners in their own right, with access to land, markets and education. Through empowering women in coffee farming we build stronger communities and better quality of life for their families.