Tea and spice growers working for healthier futures


May 15, 2015

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  • Growing the ingredients for tea can be a precarious livelihood. That's why we've partnered with Tazo Tea for more than a decade to improve lives in vulnerable tea-growing communities in Guatemala and India. Photo: Laura Hajar for Mercy Corps

Drinking tea is a relaxing ritual all around the world, but for people growing the ingredients, life can be challenging. Seasonal crops only provide income to families for part of the year, and during the off-season they often struggle to put food on the table or send their children to school.

For more than ten years, we’ve worked with Tazo Tea to support more than 84,000 people in India and Guatemala who grow tea ingredients for a living. Together, we are helping families build better lives and transform their communities for good.

Most of the Guatemalan families in the Alta Verapaz region where we work rely on growing cardamom to earn income, but prices have plummeted and people are struggling to make ends meet.

Families in these rural areas have scarce access to health care, education, or financial and business opportunities. Child malnutrition rates are alarmingly high, infant mortality is a consistent problem, and primary school attendance hovers around 20 percent.

In partnership with Tazo, the programs we’ve developed in Guatemala work to address these issues in a holistic way. By combining health education, business training, and youth and women’s empowerment, we are helping small communities move toward a brighter and more successful future.

Below, meet just a few of the people we’ve helped in rural Guatemala, and read their stories of transition, change and triumph.


Photo: Laura Hajar for Mercy Corps

Vilma can usually be found with the youngest of her four children sleeping in a sling across her back. Like most mothers in rural Alta Verapaz, the outgoing 24-year-old only knew how to feed her family an incomplete diet of primarily corn and beans, which didn’t provide the key nutrients for a child’s youngest years.

But thanks to training provided by Mercy Corps, Vilma now grows yucca and a variety of other crops in her home garden. At first, she only knew how to boil the yucca and serve it with a dash of salt or sugar. The taste was lacking, so she and her family were reluctant to keep eating it — but at community cooking lessons, Vilma learned new and better recipes.

“Today I am learning how to use yucca,” she says. “I use it in pancakes and different food preparations. Mercy Corps is teaching us how to make the best use of the food we grow here.”

Through our programs, women like Vilma learn to grow and incorporate a wider range of nutritious foods into their family’s meals, such as plantain, yucca, maize, pineapple, cocoa and malanga.

Now, Vilma and her family eat a larger variety of healthy foods that she’s learned how to prepare. Because of her new knowledge, Vilma’s children get sick less often. “My children are healthier. It helps them in school especially,” she says. “Whether Mercy Corps goes or remains here, I now have the tools to teach my children.”


Photo: Laura Hajar for Mercy Corps

Floridalma, a soft-spoken young mother, nearly encountered tragedy during her first pregnancy at just 17. As her labor began, it was clear that something wasn’t right. She needed to get to a hospital for an emergency C-section — fast.

But in rural areas of Guatemala, getting health care during an emergency is no easy feat. Transportation to a hospital can be costly, and most families don’t have enough money when a sudden health issue arises.

Thankfully for Floridalma and her husband, Mercy Corps had already helped her community band together to start an emergency fund for women and babies needing critical care. Each family contributed what they could so that anyone could take out an emergency loan when needed.

Because of the community fund, Floridalma was able to pay for transportation to the nearest hospital, and she gave birth to a healthy baby boy. The young family paid off their loan in just a few weeks, and now Floridalma is eager to learn more about maternal and child health.

“If I didn’t have access to the emergency fund, I might have died or my baby would have died,” she says. “A lot of things can happen in our community, so we need to have the resources to respond to the different emergencies that we face.”


Photo: Laura Hajar for Mercy Corps

Like many 16 year-olds, Erwin dreams of a bright financial future. He was chosen by his peers to lead a group of young men and women in a cooperative business project.

After business training through a Mercy Corps program, the group embarked on their first project — growing crops on a small plot of land. Using the modest profits and land borrowed from a local farmer, they planted a new and larger crop — a field of pineapples.

Erwin is happy to have this valuable experience while he’s still in school. “I feel good because I am practicing what I've learned at age 16 so that one day, I can be better for my family,” he says. “I feel good because the things that I didn't know before, I know now.”

Mercy Corps’ youth programs teach young people like Erwin important business skills that will help them achieve their goals later in life. The youth also learn how to work with their peers and what kind of projects can better their communities.


Photo: Laura Hajar for Mercy Corps

When Margarita suffered the loss of her husband, she had four young children to provide for, and her seasonal cardamom crop wasn’t enough to keep her family afloat. They often didn’t have enough to eat, and experienced health issues as a result.

But Margarita picked herself up and joined a Mercy Corps program where she learned how to grow a wider variety of crops and increase her production. Now, Margarita can feed her family year-round, has extra produce to sell for profit, and has even expanded her farm.

Because of her determination, Margarita’s family is thriving. Her oldest son is studying to be a teacher at university, and both of her daughters completed high school — a rare feat in a place where most children only make it to 5th grade.

Her second son has his own growing family now and contributes to Margarita’s farming efforts. Now, Margarita grows yucca, plantain, malanga, corn, pineapples and cocoa. “I have become more empowered since the program came here,” she says. “I have the opportunity and right to learn, and to participate in decision making processes in my community.”

Now she dreams of buying a house in the nearby city. “I don’t want to rent one,” she says. “I want to own one myself.”


Photo: Laura Hajar for Mercy Corps

It’s easy to see why people elected Olivia the first female community leader in her area. The mother of four carries a confident smile and a contagious laugh — because of this, she’s become a standout role model in a culture that doesn’t often encourage women to speak out.

Like most women here, Olivia started her journey with little information about the resources available to her. After she participated in Mercy Corps’ household management and business training, she realized she has what it takes to improve her family’s future and help her community.

Now, Olivia is a proud teacher and role model for her family — she’s spent the last three years educating groups of women about household management, nutrition, empowerment and self-esteem, and reproductive health.

“Before, no one talked to each other, what they did before is hide and not talk,” she says. “But now the majority have their heads up and they express what they are feeling. I represent my female friends. And because I am a doer and a fighter, I will do the impossible to bring my female friends ahead.”


Photo: Laura Hajar for Mercy Corps

Claudia is easy to spot in her small community — she’s cheerful, quick to smile and often forgoes traditional attire for jeans and a t-shirt. It’s no surprise that she’s the daughter of Olivia (above), who is a prominent leader in their community.

Watching her mother’s success has helped Claudia dream big — she’s attending school to become a nurse, and she recently took on a leadership role in a local youth committee.

At 20 years old, Claudia is one of few unmarried young women her age in her community. She’s holding off to focus on school and help others speak up for what they want. “I continue my studies and my struggle because of the example that my mother has set for me,” she says.

The youth program that she’s involved in teaches young people about health issues, knowledge building and how they can work together to create projects that will help their community.

“I want to be with my peers. Many of them are ashamed and afraid,” she says. “I want them to understand that those feelings are a hindrance to a better future. I want to help them through those changes.” And she’s confident that her efforts will all be worth it.