Story

By MegAnne Liebsch

February 8, 2022 — At 18, Alberto Irezabal Vilaclara thought his future was in engineering. He enrolled in the industrial engineering program at the Jesuit-run Iberoamericana University in Mexico City. But after a summer working with an agriculture co-op in Chiapas, Mexico, Alberto decided a traditional engineering career wasn’t for him. After graduating, Alberto returned to Chiapas and the collective, called Yomol A’tel.

Working with the Indigenous Tzeltal community, Yomol A’tel organizes agricultural workers and their families to promote just labor practices and cultivate an “economy of solidarity” in Chiapas.

“When you have a cup of coffee, that coffee has gone through eight intermediaries and the payment to the producers represents 1%.”

—Cristina M. Avarez, assistant director of Yomol A’tel

In the Tzeltal language, Yomol A’tel translates as: “Together we work, walk and dream.” Through the collective, small-scale farmers produce organic coffee (sold through the brand Capeltic) and honey, while the women’s cooperative, Jun Pajal O’tanil, crafts soaps from local ingredients. Yomol A’tel ensures producers receive fair payment for their goods and reinvests profits directly into community projects.

Yomol A’tel’s women’s cooperative, Jun Pajal O’tanil, gives women the opportunity to support their families with small enterprise (Courtesy of Comparte Network).

To create this sustainable supply chain from farmer to consumer, Yomol A’tel works with Comparte Network, an initiative of the Latin American Jesuit conference. Comparte Network partners with over 400 producer organizations and collectives, like Yomol A’tel, supporting 50,000 small-scale farmers, artisans and families across Latin America.

Comparte unites 19 organizations and 12 universities across Latin America. Their goal? To produce alternative economic models that improve the living conditions of impoverished and marginalized communities.

Alberto Irezabal Vilaclara

Through network resources and developed supply chains, Comparte partners support agricultural producers and other socio-economic enterprises, ranging from local farmers in Guatemala to dairy producers in Peru and shoe artisans in Ecuador.

“We put the person and human dignity at the center,” says Fr. Emilio Travieso, SJ, “We start locally and build up from there.”

With its founding in 2011, Comparte Network began identifying worker collectives that already existed or communities that were self-organizing for economic development. Alone, many of these collectives fail in countries with astronomical economic disparity and resource hoarding, says Irezabal.

By creating a regional network connecting producers, consumers and research centers, Comparte has stabilized these micro-economies.

“It’s all about participation and shared decision-making, strengthening people’s ability to have local governance,” says Fr. Travieso. “We work collectively, we value diversity and environment sustainability.”

Comparte Network supports sustainable producers across Latin America (Courtesy of Comparte Network).

Comparte brands like Capeltic coffee offer producers an alternative way to sell their goods. Previously, a coffee farmer in Chiapas would be forced to sell his coffee at a reduced rate to wholesale middlemen. Now, through Comparte, farmers have direct relationships with consumers and agency over their income.

“It’s not only about income,” says Irezabal Vilaclara.

“It’s also about how they manage harmony in every sense with Mother Earth, with their means of subsistence in terms of the food that they are producing and in terms of the dialogue that they have with the market,” he says. “All of this, they’re doing with the help of others.”

Though Comparte is an international network, its partner programs are rooted in local communities, responding to specific economic and social needs. But, as Irezabal Vilaclara notes, Comparte does more than boost incomes — it strengthens social bonds, building more resilient and united communities. Its efforts in Ecuador and Colombia are prominent examples.

Women’s Empowerment in Ecuador

A micro-grant and a sewing machine changed Carmen Cortez’s life. Living in Monte Sinai, an impoverished suburb of Guayaquil, Ecuador, Cortez had few viable employment opportunities. Children here drop out of school to work at as young as 10 years of age. Without access to education, many people — especially women — struggle to make ends meet with low wage jobs.

To support herself and her children, Cortez stitched clothes on tiny, handmade sewing machines.

But, with the help of a Jesuit ministry called Hogar de Cristo (Home of Christ in English), Cortez received a small grant and business training to expand her business. She bought proper sewing machines which improved efficiency. She also began teaching sewing to other women in the community.

“I feel like a successful woman because through me, there are women who are taking steps [toward financial independence],” says Cortez. “I am doing what I want, achieving what I want. It has changed many things.”


*Video in Spanish only

Cortez is one of many women who have received loans, grants and financial support from Hogar de Cristo’s community banking program. The program allows successful small-scale producers like Cortez to reinvest profits in the community and fund other initiatives. In this model, which Hogar de Cristo calls its Popular Economy and Solidarity program, community producers do not need to rely on traditional banks, which rarely give loans to low-income business owners.

“There are women who want to get ahead and do not have the opportunity to study. Through the solidarity entrepreneurship of Hogar de Cristo’s seedbed, many of us can have that reality, make our dreams come true.”

—Carmen Cortez, seamstress and member of the Popular Economy and Solidarity Program

Through partnership with a local business school, Hogar de Cristo has cultivated an “entrepreneurial seedbed, which is a much more ambitious training program, aimed at generating businesses in groups of people instead of purely individual businesses,” says Amaia Unzueta, of Comparte Network and ALBOAN, a Jesuit NGO based in Spain.

Where she was once fearful and shy, Cortez says Hogar de Cristo’s entrepreneurial training program has boosted her confidence. She is proud to sell her clothes at the local market. “If I feel like an empowered woman through Hogar de Cristo, then that leads me to help other mothers,” she says.

Food Systems and Mutual Aid in Colombia

“You’re feeding your neighbors. That has made a huge difference during the pandemic.”

—Fr. Emilio Travieso, SJ

Sustainability is key to Comparte’s mission. Ensuring long-term socio-economic success for marginalized producers requires thoughtful resource management. Comparte Network farmers grow crops in harmony with the land and environment — maintaining soil health and irrigating crops responsibly. Sustainable farming supports environmental and community health.

Comparte’s circular economy model (Courtesy of Comparte Network).

In Colombia, Comparte partners have developed a closed-circuit economy. Rather than selling to middlemen for export, the crops grown by Comparte farmers are sold in local markets, providing local families with fresh, organic and consistent food sources. As with other Comparte collectives, the profit is reinvested directly in the community — a locally funded launchpad for small enterprises.

The pandemic has hit Colombia especially hard. Successive lockdowns left people without consistent wages. In 2020, the national poverty rate soared to 43%. With markets shut down and many families unable to pay for fresh produce, Comparte farmers did something radical. They donated their harvest.

“They just took it to the towns, to the cities, and just gave it to people, who are normally their customer base,” says Fr. Travieso. “They said, ‘We’re neighbors, we got to take care of each other.’ That was a really beautiful thing.”

For Irezabal Vilaclara and Fr. Travieso, this story is emblematic of the social change Comparte seeks to achieve. “You can see the contrast there from the mainstream model of food where we’re really building a social fabric, we’re really building an economy that’s not just looking for money and that’s not this impersonal value chain,” Fr. Travieso said.

*Spanish only


Universities and research centers are important members of Comparte Network, acting as hubs of data resource development for different collectives on the ground. Fr. Travieso and Irezabal Vilaclara are working to expand their faculty and student relationships at U.S. universities. Currently, staff at three Jesuit universities partner with Comparte — Fordham University, the University of San Francisco and Loyola University Chicago.

If you are interested in getting involved with Comparte’s work at an institutional level, contact Fr. Travieso.

To support Comparte as an individual, learn more in English or in Spanish.


 

MegAnne Liebsch is the communications manager for the Office of Justice and Ecology of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. She holds an MA in Media and International Conflict from University College Dublin and is an alumna of La Salle University. She is based in Washington, DC.

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