In the spring of last year, as Covid-19 began to reach every corner of the world, in Bolivia the government reacted relatively quickly, implementing tight restrictions including halting educational activities and closing borders in a bid to contain the spread. But even before the pandemic arrived, the country was facing an economic and political crisis after a recent failed election.
Liberation works closely with two Associations in Bolivia for the supply of Brazil nuts: La Asociación Indígena de Recolectores de la Amazonía (AIRA) and Aire Muije.On top of the potential delay to the shipment of produce that our team was dealing in the UK, there was some much more serious news from the Latin American side. We were informed by the Associations´ Presidents that the virus had reached some of their most rural communities and many members had become infected. In fact, there were reported estimates of around 90% of people getting sick and estimates of over 500 people in these gatherer communities losing their lives due to the virus.
The Brazil nut tree can only be found naturally in the Amazon rainforest and is proven to be very difficult to cultivate domestically. The global market relies heavily on crops harvested by gatherer communities and both Associations work directly with some of these Indigenous groups. Many of these families live on the outskirts of the Bolivian Amazon and during the harvest season in December often travel deep into the jungle to collect fallen Brazil nut pods from the rainforest floor to eventually be shipped across the world.Their skills, knowledge and understanding of the Amazon ecosystem and its geography are unparalleled.
The news from Air Muije´s President regarding the spread of the virus was quite alarming. On top of the rising cases of covid, tight lockdown restrictions meant processing factories were closed resulting in a lack of income and people were unable to travel into the nearby towns to access essential supplies, adding an additional stress to these already vulnerable families.
However, it was also a moment that illustrated the importance of associations such as AIRA and Muije and the positive impact of choosing fairtrade. The commitment not only to improve income for their members but also to support those most vulnerable in the communities, direct Association members or not, became a lifeline for many.
Even before the pandemic hit, the Board of AIRA had started to identify vulnerable families within the communities based on two main criteria:
- “ Dependence of third parties to access goods and basic services.”
- “ Precarious access to basic services and low income.”
Both Associations, recognising the increasingly desperate situation took decisive action. Thirty eight families for Muije and twenty families for AIRA were identified and a plan of action was made to buy and deliver basic amenities to the families including rice, oil, soap and medicines, some of which took 10 hours to reach from the nearest town by land and water.
Once supplies had been delivered, the Association Boards focused on members and relatives in critical condition, who needed medication and urgent care. For example, AIRA invested in an oxygen tank which was later loaned to the local hospital. They also distributed funds of around $70 dollars to individuals who faced hefty medical bills.
At the time of writing the report, the Associations had used around $4,300 on the purchase of goods and the logistics to get them to the families. A chunk of these outgoings came from the Fairtrade Premium, a separate sum of money that is included within the fairtrade exchange deal and goes into a communal fund for workers to use as they see fit within the Foundation´s guidelines. This year, as the pandemic created crisis situations for many farmers and gathers across the globe, Fairtrade International relaxed the original requisites to enable rapid decision-making. A General Assembly meeting was no longer needed to approve spending decisions and action could be taken rapidly and decisively, a flexibility AIRA and Muije utilised.
Several months later, at the annual assembly for AIRA, we caught up with some of their members and heard a little bit more about their experience. Many of them had only recently recovered from Covid, one member stating “I got seriously sick, I almost died like I told you…It left me weak”. And his experience was echoed by many others.
However, the reaction from the Association Boards certainly prevented wider devastation. Aura Hurtado, a technician for AIRA told us: “the positive thing from 2020 for us is the sale of a FLO (Fairtrade Labelling Organisation) container that thanks to this helped us to be able to continue working in the association and also to be able to bring a food basket to the families of the AIRA Association.” And whilst it is undoubtedly the actions of the Boards and the strength and resilience of the individuals that enabled recovery, the Fairtrade Premium also helped mobilise the relief programme by offering an economic cushion.
Looking ahead to what is to come in 2021 another member of AIRA summarised for everyone “hopefully everything gets better, that we do well, that there is production of Brazil nuts and that there is a good price.”
And as a customer, the reason for choosing to buy fairtrade is illustrated right here.
- Emergency resources bought by Aire Muije to distribute to vulnerable families
- A member of AIRA who suffered Covid-19