Cooperativa Siglo XXI, Ciudad Arce, El Salvador

Robert looks like the sort of man who isn’t shy, and so it proved. Coming out to meet me when I arrived at SIGLO XXI unannounced, he greeted me warmly and openly and, to my surprise, in English. He is well-built, confident and, as I discovered throughout my visit, quite outspoken.

In Ciudad Arce, on the road between Santa Ana and San Salvador is the cooperative Siglo XXI (21st Century). It was my first look at a Fair Trade cooperative in El Salvador and I was keen to see how it compared to my other visits. After getting through security (like most places I saw in El Salvador, there was an armed guard at the front gate) I met Robert, who was happy to show me around. Luckily for me he spoke excellent English, having lived in the US for several years. He has an entrepreneurial spirit and that is reflected in the way Siglo XXI operates. He called it a mix of co-operative and enterprise.  The structure of the co-operative is run more like a conventional business and the coffee production runs on co-operative principles. It is comprised of both small- and medium-sized producers.

Having medium-sized producers typically makes them ineligible for Fair Trade certification. For these producers, Siglo has “Rainforest Alliance” certified coffee. Small producers are Fair Trade certified. The coffee is always kept separate for these different certifications.

Robert showed me the processing area, which overlooks the large drying patios. There were several staff outside, working on drying the coffee. He said it’s typically a male job because of the number of hours they need to spend outside in the heat.

Robert feels as though he has an ‘ethical’ business approach. To make money but also to ensure the livelihoods of the farmers are looked after. He is a 5th generation coffee farmer, and both his son and daugther are looking to become the 6th generation. He has a passion that comes with the family being steeped in coffee.

Having been in the coffee business for so long, Robert has seen the ups and downs over the years. About 10 years ago, during the ‘coffee crisis’ (when prices dropped precipitously), more producers tried to increase their amount of coffee production to offset such low prices. This exacerbated the problem; the more they produced, the more money they lost. This season is also significantly lower than normal, due to the huge amount of rainfall received in October. The Siglo site was flooded, and I saw where the water had reached about 3 feet high in the warehouse. They’d done an amazing job to have cleared it up in a short time, it looked like nothing had happened. Insurance covered their losses, but the low harvest means the Mill won’t recover its losses. However, for Robert, this is part of the natural fluctuation. The good and bad cycles happen, and he was very philosophical about it all.

For the producers, they get food provided on-site, that comes with the help of the Fair Trade ‘premium’, and the few permanent workers here live on the site too, with their families.

Their coffee is exported to Europe, and being “Rainforest Alliance” certified means he deals with some large multinational corporations. It’s a different philosophy from Fair Trade (its focus is the environment, rather than social conditions), but it does have some benefits.

Robert also has a passion for politics and his country, El Salvador, but alas we ran out of time for more discussion as Robert had to leave. Robert studied in the US and returned to coffee here, and his daughter, currently studying in Europe, will do the same. It’s a nice thought that this cooperative will be in good hands.