Mariana Cobos is not your average banana farmer–and we mean this in the most literal of ways. First of all, Mariana is a woman. In El Oro, the province of Ecuador where she farms, four out of every five banana growers are men. Second, this past summer, Mariana celebrated her 70th birthday! Contrast this with the fact that 92% of banana growers in the major banana-growing regions of Ecuador are under 65 years old.
In 2004, Mariana began growing bananas, and it was really tough to turn a profit. Why? As a single smallholder farmer functioning in the commodities-market, Mariana had limited power over banana pricing. This makes it incredibly difficult to negotiate for fairer terms of trade. So, Mariana decided not to go it alone. In 2010 she earned organic certification for her 28-acre farm and joined AsoGuabo, a Fairtrade banana cooperative that is currently comprised of 124 members. And Mariana did more than join–she served as a member of AsoGuabo’s board, too.
AsoGuabo, a Fairtrade banana cooperative
Before there was AsoGuabo, there were 14 banana farmers determined to tip the balance of trade towards fairness. In 1997, low economic growth was coinciding with a decrease in social spending in Ecuador. The result was a sharp uptick in experiences of poverty–and in farmers who knew that power resides in the collective. Members of AsoGuabo shipped their first container of bananas to Switzerland in 1998. They now sell to retailers in Europe, the United States, New Zealand and Canada–and because they are a Fairtrade cooperative, AsoGuabo receives a Fairtrade Premium for every box of bananas that they sell on Fairtrade terms.
...the Fairtrade Premium?
The Fairtrade Premium is an extra sum of money on top of the selling price. Smallholder farming organizations democratically decide how to use those funds. They might choose to use the money towards school fees, or the construction of a medical clinic, or cash payments to cooperative members to help cover living expenses amid high inflation, or even investments in solar energy. The important part? They choose–because they know what they need best.
AsoGuabo earns a Fairtrade Premium of $1 per box of bananas–and this Premium adds up! Across Ecuador, there are 32 Fairtrade banana cooperatives, and in 2021 they collectively earned $5 million in Fairtrade Premium funds. At AsoGuabo co-operative members have put their Premium funds to use in myriad ways:
- Adding cables to their farms to make the process of moving fruit from field to packhouse more efficient and less laborious.
- Initiating a reforestation effort to maintain biodiversity.
- Facilitating medical care through a clinic that is available to cooperative members and administrative staff, farm workers, and folks from the surrounding farming communities.
Mariana’s dedication to ethical, sustainable banana growing is one of 124 reasons that AsoGuabo is such a strong cooperative. With this in mind, we decided to collaborate with artist Betsy Casañas to portray Mariana’s likeness on a mural at Riverwards Produce Market in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a proud purveyor of Fairtrade bananas from Equal Exchange–a Fairtrade brand partner that sources bananas from AsoGuabo.
Prioritizing farmers one banana at a time
In its fourth annual celebration of Fairtrade Month, Fairtrade America is reminding people across the US that when shoppers choose Fairtrade certified products, they are choosing to prioritize farmers. Murals, like this one of Fairtrade banana farmer Mariana Cobos by Betsy Casañas at Riverwards Produce in Philadelphia, are intended to remind everyone along the supply chain that we all have a role to play to make fairer pay a reality for farmers.
Betsy Casañas is a visual and public artist, an educator, a community activist, an organizer and the founder of Semilla Arts Initiative. Casañas has 29 years of experience in the arts and has created over 70 murals worldwide. Her work is known for its use of pattern and color and for the ways in which she honors members of marginalized communities. Creating safe spaces has been a vital part of her work. As a Latina artist who has been working in communities of color around the world, she seeks to portray the people she paints as the leaders that they are. She believes that artists have an obligation to reflect the times we are living in and to highlight people’s lived experiences–in doing so, artists challenge (and change!) the flattened narratives that get applied to marginalized communities.
For over 35 years, Equal Exchange has pioneered an alternative model of trade that directly links consumers and small-scale farmer cooperatives through long-term, fair trade partnerships. Equal Exchange Produce works directly with small-scale farmer cooperatives in Ecuador, Mexico and Peru to bring organic and Fairtrade bananas and avocados to the U.S. market. Find more about their community-oriented, unconventional business by visiting their website and following them on Facebook and Instagram.
Riverwards Produce Market
Riverwards Produce Market provides unique, quality ingredients to creative chefs and neighbors alike while focusing on sourcing ingredients, produce, and proteins from farms located a short drive from Philly. The Fishtown outpost is located at 2200 E. Norris Street, while the Old City outpost is located at 146 N. Bread Street. Both locations are open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
This mural is located at 2200 E. Norris Street in Philadelphia, PA.
Photo credit: Michelle Gustafson