Today women coffee farmers account for 30% of the world’s coffee producers, yet they still struggle to gain economic, social, or political power. In the Dominican Republic  the number of women coffee farmers dramatically increased after Hurricane David  devastated much of the coffee region in 1979 and destroyed many jobs. Cultural stigmas forced women to accept work in the most labor intensive phases of the harvest because they were excluded from mechanized and skilled agriculture work, often receiving piece rates (instead of wages) far below those of men. Access to land remained fixed within a few families, and the devastation of the hurricane left constraints on land and money for many farmers. Forced to remove their children from school to help out on the farm, parents’ hopes for their children’s education and the future were challenged. The assistance that neighbors and families relied on from one another developed into a relationship between small land holders who needed laborers and laborers who needed work.
In a recent interview, Fair Trade coffee farmer and cooperative leader María Balbuena explained how the establishment of cooperatives has offered new channels for sustenance and given hope to women’s efforts for equality in the Dominican Republic.
Meet María Isabel Balbuena, a beautiful woman in character and tenacity, a Fair Trade partner and member of the FEDECARES  cooperative who directly serves the needs of farmers in her coffee producing region of the beautiful Dominican Republic. Renowned for its natural richness and abundance of lush lands and dreamy beaches, the beautiful Caribbean island of the Dominican Republic produces coffee as its most profitable crop.
María Isabel comes from a long line of farmers, but her work in the coffee industry started in an office: the National Coffee Board of the Dominican Republic where she helped coffee farmers export their product to the international market. Despite growing up in the city, life was not easy for María Isabel – she began working at the age of sixteen, long before she graduated high school and became a single mother at 24 years old. For María the struggle to both work and educate herself at the same time did not deter her determination to fulfill her dreams, and at age 30 she graduated with a university degree in philosophy and administration.
María Isabel’s passion has always been to support mothers and children – as a single mother herself she understands the struggles that women with limited resources face. Her life’s mission is to empower women, and today María proudly works on building her own organization called the Association of Dominican Women in Coffee. She is also the country director for the organization Café Femenino, a social program to empower women coffee producers in rural communities around the world. In the Dominican Republic, the Café Feminino program also fights child hunger and organizes women who own land.
“All the world has the right to education and food and shelter,” says María as she explains the hardships faced by many impoverished farm workers who rely on their children to educate themselves with the money earned from the Fair Trade premiums. Education is a luxury in developing countries like the Dominican Republic, and, according to María, “illiteracy is a negation of our universal rights.” Today, with the money earned from Fair Trade, students who come from the coffee-producing villages sometimes even able to study abroad and return home to inspire their parents to pursue an education.
María's community work doesn't end with education. She is dedicated to coffee and works hard every day to support the work of FEDECARES, a Fair Trade cooperative of 7,500 members that provides social and business services to support sustainable development for coffee families. FEDECARES was one of the first organizations to become Fair Trade certified in 1991 and continues to thrive with Fair Trade coffee benefits, improving income of producers and caring for the natural resources of the Dominican Republic. The welfare of small farmers in the Dominican Republic has improved, and María is grateful for the efforts of Fair Trade as it continues to benefit producers in coffee producing nations.
María Balbuena is a remarkable woman who is dedicated to the plight of the coffee farmers. She hopes U.S. consumers will make a concerted effort to consciously purchase Fair Trade products to improve the lives of the farmers who work so hard to provide the special treat that coffee offers us each day.
When asked what she would like to tell people in the United States about Fair Trade, María said, "The most important thing you can do to support us is to buy Fair Trade. When you drink Fair Trade Certified coffee from the Dominican Republic, know that you’re consuming with the concept of conserving the environment. And you are also adding a value directly to the lives and incomes of the producers. Thank you!"