The Cooperative Spirit in El Salvador’s Lower Lempa

Fewer than 20 years after the peace accord was signed to bring quiet to war-torn El Salvador, wounds from the oppression of the people and civil rights violations are still fresh: poverty is rampant—nearing 75%, gangs are gaining influence, and an estimated 500 to 750 Salvadorans cross the border each day in the hopes of finding a better life in the United States. But on the banks of the lower Lempa River, hope is growing, fertilized with a rich, cooperative spirit.

The Bajo Lempa Group cooperative sells a wide variety of organic products,
including cashew juice (lower right) dried fruits and nutritious snacks.
Photo by Charish Badzinski.
 
The Bajo Lempa Group is the brainchild of Emilio Espin Amprimo, who moved from Barcelona, Spain to El Salvador more than 25 years ago with a dream of helping the people of El Salvador. Nearly 20 years after the signing of the peace accord, the rate of migration is lowest from this region of El Salvador, people work together for solutions to their social problems, farmers earn fair wages for their crops and gang activity is nonexistent in the region. 
Workers remove the papery covering from the organic cashews.
Photo by Charish Badzinski.
The founders of Bajo Lempa Group started with nothing—nothing, that is, but natural resources: fertile soil and the Lempa River. They developed a diagnostic tool to get an overview of the area, gathered input from families in the region about their vision for the area and they implemented immediate, middle and long range plans for housing, reforestation, community areas and farmland. Cooperative subgroups were formed for women, children, teachers, religious groups. An organic line of foods was launched to offer market differentiation and create sustainability. In line with the cooperative spirit, all goods are Fair Trade Certified, so farmers can earn a living wage. Recently, the group has also embraced ecotourism as an option; a new hostel has been established on the banks of the beautiful Lempa River, which empties into the Pacific Ocean less than a mile downstream.
Local fisherman also contribute to the cooperative. The cooperative
recently added a fast freeze fish plant near the river. No preservatives
or chemicals are added to the fish. Photo by Charish Badzinski.
“We want to generate hope, and base this on solidarity and cooperation rather than competition,” explains Amprimo, through an interpreter. So, Bajo Lempa Group focuses on what they can offer the El Salvador market and what they can produce to substitute for imports from other countries.
Altogether, the group now includes businesses that offer everything from wild caught fish; organic cashews, cane sugar, coffee, tropical fruit, candy and cheeses (now in demand even among diplomats with the U.S. Embassy, in hotels and restaurants, and among government officials); water filters and eye care; to associations offering banking services, support for rural women and men, leadership training for young people, and education. In keeping with their philosophy, the group does not export its products, so for now, interested individuals will have to travel to El Salvador to sample them.
Delicious organic cheeses from Grupo Bajo Lempa. (I can vouch for them!)
 Photo by Charish Badzinski.
Bajo Lempa continues to work toward self-sustainability, depending partly on funding from the European Union, Canada and the United States. Amprimo says he thinks of it like a farming subsidy, that this international assistance now helps 25,000 people in the region improve their lives and obtain dignified employment at a just wage. Says Amprimo, “We hope we can provide the seed or little germ for a new society.”
This article was originally published in the newsletter for the Peoples Food Coop in La Crosse, Wisconsin, the Coop Shopper, and is republished with permission. This tour was arranged through Global Awareness Through Experience (GATE), is a sponsored program of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. www.gate-travel.org.

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Charish Badzinski is an explorer, foodie and award-winning travel and food writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog: Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World, she applies her worldview to her small business, providing strategic communications, media relations and writing support to individuals and organizations. 

Find Charish on Twitter: @charishb
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Creative Commons License
Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at rollerbaggoddess.blogspot.com.
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