Fellow Since 1997
This profile was prepared when Raúl Cabrera was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1997.
Raúl Cabrera is recovering abandoned and underutilized land on Ecuador's coast and offering new options to coffee farmers who have been affected by shifts in international markets.
The New Idea
As the part-owner of an international agricultural exporting company, Raúl understands the issues involved in the production and marketing of nontraditional crops. His idea is to work with small producers in distinct regions of Ecuador in the cultivation of ginger, cardamom, black pepper, eucalyptus, aloe vera, and maracuya, while simultaneously undertaking a program of reforestation for ecological consciousness. Raúl brings farmers the technology to produce and manage new crops, guidance in all phases of cultivation, a farm to demonstrate the results, and assistance with commercialization. Among others who promote nontraditional, higher value-added crops as generators of both employment and increased income, Raúl adds a link with conservation measures: to receive his services, farmers must also agree to plant a certain number of trees, and attend courses on ecology. Raúl has developed an integrated project which provides farmers with a source of income throughout the year that is not dependent on the booms and busts of one traditional export crop. He is also finding new markets to export the crops he proposes, to promote a sustainable economy for small farmers. He establishes contacts and business relations for farmers, and he acts as an intermediary between producers and the enterprises which buy the products.
Seasonal unemployment for farmers specializing in only one or two crops is a major determinant of economic hardship in Ecuador. During the periods of planting and harvesting all farmers have work, but during other times of the year they have little income. This cycle especially effects women and single mothers, who are forced to move into other areas of poorly-paid work. Given their lack of income, families cannot meet their nutritional requirements, and, in cases when they see no way to progress economically with their orchards or farms, small landholders are forced to sell their plots and migrate to the cities to earn an alternative form of income. Many remain in the cities, while others try to return to the countryside, only to find the costs of farming have increased. Still others buy cheaper land in the Amazon region, with very mixed results. Many of these farmers are coffee growers with little knowledge of modern production techniques. They face low international prices for their harvest unless Colombia and Brazil have problems with their coffee production. These farmers are at the mercy of the international market, as well as the cycles of the large-country producers of coffee, and therefore are uncertain what prices their products will bring each year. The government has not done much to solve the problem, offering the farmers little in the way of technical assistance to alleviate the problems of low productivity and poor quality. Many farmers also have difficulty finding markets in which to sell their goods, especially after years of government protection, and they do not know how to begin to operate in foreign markets.
Raúl promotes the cultivation of a mix of nontraditional crops to avoid the singular focus on coffee, or any other single crop. The crops he promotes include cardamom, aloe vera, peppers, ginger, herbs, and pineapples. Raúl and his team of engineers and agronomists show the farmers how to produce these crops, providing technical advice, assistance in getting started, and information on how to manage disease. The cultivation of one product often facilitates the generation of another. For example, worms and bees support the production of herbs and pineapples. Raúl demonstrates multiple cultivation and its results on an experimental farm, serving to motivate other farmers to undertake the same type of activities and to disseminate information about his project. Interested farmers take field trips to his farm, where Raúl conducts workshops on the techniques he employs. He also sets up experimental farms on plots of individual land throughout the region. Raúl has also created new technologies in bee-keeping to produce pollen and honey for export, for which he won first prize in a national fair. He uses local materials to build beehives, which are three times cheaper than those imported from Europe, so that many more farmers can afford to enter apiculture than in the past. He translates the technological process into simple words so that all can benefit from his knowledge. His training technique includes videos, workshops, and animated slides, so even those that don't know how to read and write are able to learn how to use his technologies. In exchange for the training the farmers receive from Raúl and his team, they must agree to a program of reforestation. Raúl begins by identifying local leaders and small farmers who have expressed interest in his idea to form local multiplier groups. These local leaders invite other farmers, who together are led through a series of workshops and training. They form cooperatives to improve their purchasing power to buy seeds and tools, increase their production and marketing, and share the costs of transportation. With experience in the export and commercial business, Raúl provides information on and access to international markets for the products he promotes. He acts as an intermediary between producers and markets, and facilitates the export of farmers' goods. The farmers are free to look for their own markets for their products, but Raúl provides an important link and access to scarce information. Raúl has traveled to Europe to research markets there, and he knows what primary products the countries want and need. With this analysis, he enables farmers to produce the goods for which market demand already exists, such as essential oils and aromas. Raúl has contacts and agreements with numerous commercial agencies in Europe; he passes this information on to the farmers. Raúl's project has been recognized both nationally and internationally. At the national level, Raúl has links to the National Confederation of Bee-Keepers, as well as to the Agriculture and Livestock Ministry. He has been invited by both to give talks and conferences in order to spread the knowledge and technology he possesses. The well-know German agency for technical cooperation, GTZ, has begun to invest in his project, based on its ecological criteria. Global Routes, a North American nongovernmental organization, has assisted Raúl with financial support, and twenty North American volunteers who built a school to teach his model, serving 100 families in Campo Bello. Through the support of Friends of the Americas, he is advancing a project in bee-keeping for indigenous women in Napo, from which seventeen indigenous communities in the Amazon benefit.
Raúl remembers a difficult childhood, which inspires him to work for the social benefit of others. His experience of poverty was tempered by lessons learned from resourceful family members who taught him how to make the most of what he had. As a student in the university, Raúl set up a program in eco-tourism where students with few resources could travel through Ecuador on a low budget. After completing his studies at the university he became interested in bee-keeping and began research on African bees. He developed a new technology to construct beehives, which he sold to fund his travel to Brazil, a large bee-producing country. Raúl had only enough financial resources to stay for two months, but when he presented his work to the Brazilian National Congress he was invited to stay and continue his studies. He learned much about the technologies of bee-keeping and production of pollen, which he brought back to Ecuador with him to share more broadly. Through his research on bee-keeping, Raúl was always looking for ways to improve technology and share it with those who could benefit most. His project continued to expand and include other areas of agriculture, always with the goal of improving the technologies and economies of those involved in agriculture. He demonstrates a life-long commitment in using reforms in agriculture for the social good and economic development of his community, to improve people's economic well-being, open doors for them to sell their products, and disseminate his knowledge to his countrymen and beyond.