La Canasta Campesina, an organic farm cooperative in El Salvador, is working to employ young people in agriculture. Their programming helps to address the low interest in farming among much of the country’s youth.
The cooperative operates a community-supported agriculture (CSA) style agribusiness that supplies around 400 baskets of fresh produce every month to subscribers in the country’s capital, San Salvador. All of the produce is organic and locally grown on small family plots in the rural community of Comasagua, about 30 km outside the capital.
According to La Canasta Campesina’s President, Kasandra Portillo, about 30 percent of their staff are made up of youth. Portillo herself is 25 years old and entered her role as president when she was 23. The cooperative’s willingness to give youth a voice in operations is one of the reasons they have been successful in drawing youth engagement.
The average age of farmers in El Salvador is nearly 60 years old according to the country’s Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock. A statistic that reflects a problematic trend of aging farmers around the world and a lack of interest from younger generations.
“For many years work in agriculture has been associated with back-breaking labor, poverty and backwardness,” Hazell Flores, YPARD’s Communications Coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean, tells Food Tank. “For that reason it is not attractive to young people, especially rural youth, who face a lack of opportunities for education [and] decent income.” She adds that parents, many who are farmers themselves, often discourage their children from a future in farming. They do so in hope of a better life for the next generation.
René Castro, IFAD’s Country Director for El Salvador and neighboring countries, tells Food Tank that youth reluctance to engage in agriculture is driven by a perfect storm of factors seen across the region. Low pay, migration pressure, climate change, and lack of industry adaptation all strain an already difficult occupation.
Younger generations also desire more modern systems that adopt new technology and care for the environment, according to Castro. These elements are often lacking in the traditional agriculture that dominates the region. And Salvadoran youth are not typically in a position to implement change.
“A lot of times to be able to actively participate in agriculture within these communities, you need to be part of a producer organization, because it’s very hard for young people to have assets and income sufficient to start their own agricultural business,” Castro tells Food Tank. “And becoming an active member with voting rights, with decision making power, in producer organizations can be tough, especially for young women.”
La Canasta Campesina started as a development project, led by a French NGO, in the wake of an earthquake in 2009. The cooperative now employs over 100 people, around 90 percent of whom are women.
“It’s very important that we dignify the lives of women and youth…and that we be the local enactors, either to identify the needs of our communities or execute projects,” Portillo tells Food Tank. La Canasta Campesina’s approach to agriculture offers more to the community than an income. “Agroecology gives [women] the security of being able to offer a good, balanced, and diversified diet at a low cost because we use inputs that Mother Earth provides us with,” explains Portillo.
The lead role of women in the organization has naturally brought involvement of the community’s youth, who are often their children. Opportunity has been key to retaining that involvement.
Portillo wants youth to understand that “agriculture is not only heavy work but also an opportunity for training, in ecology and in other areas…like marketing, business administration, information technology, [and] in the tourism sector.”
The cooperative offers trainings for employees through in-house workshops and through scholarship opportunities for higher education. The scholarship potential gives youth the option of pursuing a technical degree at a university to further develop their skills. Youth are also given a place in decision-making for projects and community advocacy, feeding into the development of their leadership abilities.
La Canasta Campesina helps youth develop professionally and personally, in part, so they can recognize the important role they have to play in the world. Portillo summarizes this self-recognition as “valuing the fact that we are campesinos and campesinos with pride.”
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Photo courtesy of La Canasta Campesina