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Challenging Injustice, Advancing Human Rights

The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee advances human rights through grassroots collaborations.

Stories of Hope 2014: Don Mario Pérez

This story of Don Mario Pérez and Equal Exchange is presented as part of UUSC’s Guest at Your Table program.

Don Mario Pérez is a farmer in Marcala, Honduras. Together with his wife, Joselinda Manueles, he grows organic coffee that you may serve at your local coffee hour thanks to a longstanding collaboration between Equal Exchange and UUSC. Equal Exchange is a worker-owned, fair-trade food company that UUSC collaborates with — particularly through the UUSC Coffee Project and UUSC’s Good Buy store — to support small farmers like Don Mario throughout the world.

Don Mario is a member of Café Orgánico Marcala (COMSA), a coffee-farm cooperative with more than 850 members and a particularly holistic approach to its work. As Equal Exchange puts it, COMSA’s “philosophy centers on living out and practicing their values in their work, community, and personal life.” Don Mario is passionate about continually learning and talks about “changing the chip” in your brain to open yourself up to new perspectives — “to observe, analyze, think, and invent!” he says. “Experience has taught us that change happens first in your mind and then in your home and on your farm.”

COMSA is a natural match for Equal Exchange, which works toward a more equitable, democratic, and sustainable world through fair trade and supporting cooperative work. As partners of Equal Exchange, COMSA members are compensated fairly for their products, which allows them to better meet their families’ basic needs for food, education, and health care — and their long-term security. Plus, consumers are ensured that their coffee is grown sustainably in a way that benefits both workers and the environment. This is at the heart of why UUSC works with Equal Exchange to get coffee — and tea, chocolate, and more — from farmers like Don Mario into the hands of consumers eager for high-quality products that not only taste good but also do good.

Since 2001, UUSC has worked with Equal Exchange through the UUSC Coffee Project to involve more Unitarian Universalists in supporting small farmers by purchasing fair-trade treats in bulk. “Congregations participating through UUSC understand the importance of working with small farmers to change the way that global trade is conducted,” says Susan Sklar, Equal Exchange’s interfaith and community sales manager. “They have supported Equal Exchange’s mission to create alternative trade for over 13 years. Proportionately more UU congregations serve our coffee than any of our other denominational partners.” In 2013 alone, Unitarian Univeralists purchased 77,200 pounds of fairly traded products through the UUSC Coffee Project.

Those Coffee Project purchases benefit Equal Exchange farmer partners like Don Mario — and 20 cents per pound also goes to the UUSC Small Farmers Fund. Through this fund, UUSC works with partners like Muungano, a grassroots organization on the Kenya-Uganda border that provides livelihood support for youth at risk of forced labor and trafficking. Muungano trains youth in planting organic traditional crops, cooking, and building sustainable businesses, in addition to educating communities about nutrition and the potential risks of genetically modified foods.

There is a key concept that ties all of these programs and organizations together — empowering communities to enact sustainable solutions to the challenges they face. Carly Kadlec, an Equal Exchange coffee buyer, articulated it well after a June 2014 visit with Don Mario: “The members of COMSA know that farmers must believe in themselves and their ability to create solutions to challenges. They are inspiring other farmers to recognize their own strength and potential.”

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