Integral ecology

María Jesús Pérez: "Fair Trade is based on a spirituality of life that, together with the Creator, cares for and generates life with dignity".

This missionary Franciscan Sister Estigmatina, a native of León, is one of the founders of "Maquita", one of the oldest and most important Fair Trade organizations in the world.

Marta Isabel González Álvarez-December 2, 2023-Reading time: 9 minutes
fair trade maria jesus

Photo: Maria Jesús Pérez in front of the poster of Maquita's 12 principles at the cooperative's headquarters (Quito).

Black Friday, seasonal offers and sales, Mother's Day, Father's Day, Valentine's Day and of course Christmas... Even if we want to live soberly, it is difficult to escape the wild consumerism of our time. However, there is an alternative that respects people and the environment, helps the development of countries and promotes fair trade relations: Fair Trade.

We interviewed in Quito (Ecuador) the missionary Franciscan Sister Stigmatina, María Jesús Pérez, executive director and co-founder, together with the Italian Father Graziano Masón, of "Maquita", one of the oldest and most important Fair Trade organizations in the world. She explains her steps and the inspiration that has led her from the Diocese of Astorga (León) to Ecuador, where next year it will be forty years since her arrival.

fair trade
Photo: Fr. Graziano Mason, the interviewer and Maria Jesus Perez at Maquita headquarters ©Yvette Pullas.

María Jesús Pérez was born in Regueras de Arriba, La Bañeza (León) on July 20, 1955. In 1975 she began her formation with the Stigmatine Franciscan Sisters in Astorga (León) and completed her novitiate in Italy, from where she returned and spent eight years with the Stigmatine communities of Sueca (Valencia), Ponferrada and Astorga (León).

She felt well, but something different was being born in her: the desire to know the journey of the church in Latin America and to experience life walking with groups seeking justice and dignity of life from a liberating faith committed to life. She asked to join the pastoral work of her congregation in Ecuador, and arrived in August 1984, living in the peripheral neighborhood of Santa Rita (Quito). There he coordinated pastoral actions with several religious communities from other neighborhoods, priests and lay people, forming a pastoral team very committed to the causes of the poor.

In those years, Ecuador suffered the consequences of strong neoliberal measures imposed by international organizations, which caused misery, hunger, exclusion and strong persecution of both civil and religious organizations, resulting in deaths and disappearances of leaders. In this context, the Ecuadorian church, in the light of the of the Puebla Document of the Latin American EpiscopateThe Christian commitment to the document Pastoral Options which states, among other things: "May the pain and aspirations of the people and particularly of the poor make us feel deeply their needs and problems, so that we may share them and seek together the light for the way and possible models for a more just society" (OP I, 3).  

As she herself says, this was the beginning of "a new way of knowing, listening and living from a spirituality of life rooted in the culture of the impoverished people; where community, organization, care for "Pachamama" (mother earth) and other values, make sense in daily life. Where the Word of God strengthens life and illuminates action in strong solidarity and commitment." And with all this the foundation of Maquita.

But what is a nun doing founding and leading a Fair Trade cooperative like Maquita? What does all this have to do with the Church?

-Everything is born from a deep desire to live, in the concrete reality of the people, in following the ideals of the Kingdom that Jesus of Nazareth lived and left us as a life option. The forms of constituting and living in community are diverse and all are necessary to follow the path that He left us traced out: a model of society transformed into the Kingdom of God here in this world, in the world that God the Father and Mother gave us and dreamed of: "a paradise of human and cosmic fraternity".

Pope Francis, today's prophet, urges us to go out to the peripheries, where people live and suffer, to live with them and like them, in the style of the first missionaries of the Christian communities.

The strategies, the actions that are deployed are different and all of them are impregnated with the spirituality of the life that Jesus led along the roads of Israel. Fair Trade is a philosophy of life that is put into practice from the care of the earth and the products it offers us, through the dignity of work and the respect and service with which we exchange products; products full of life stories, of love for all creation, following in the footsteps of Francis of Assisi.

According to the State Fair Trade CoordinatorFair Trade is an international movement that strives for greater global economic, social, human and environmental justice. It has developed a business model that protects human rights and the environment. Its organizations comply with ten principles How do you define Fair Trade and why should we support and promote it?

-Fair Trade is a way of life proposal that seeks to influence society and economies, proposing a form of care and protection in the way of producing, transforming, trading and consuming in a sustainable, sustainable, inclusive, supportive and fair way with people, the planet and everything created. It is a proposal of life that considers humanity, the planet and the economy from a fair and sustainable trade with a responsible and conscious consumption.

For me, the important thing about Fair Trade is that it is based on a spirituality of life that, together with the Creator, cares for and generates a dignified and just life for all in each of its actions.

I am participating in this movement because, based on its principles, it harmonizes faith and life, in the light of Jesus of Nazareth, who saw the needs of the poorest, felt compassion and acted to free them from suffering and give them a dignified life.

Another important area of Fair Trade is that from their trade relations for the benefit of all persons involved in the chain (from production to conscious consumption) also makes a prophetic commitment to denounce the "exploitations" of the market and impacts with concrete actions for the respect and fair recognition of labor rights, the value of products and productions that respect and care for the planet.

But what is Maquita? Tell us more about its creation, its achievements and its current challenges.

-In the desire of families to "to seek models of a more just society"In 1985, a consumer movement was born, led by women's groups, young people, Basic Ecclesial Communities (CEBS) and peasant organizations, which markets directly from the countryside to the city in order to respond to the right to healthy food.

In an assembly reading the Gospel Mk 6:35 "feed them yourselves" will The result was a concrete action: the creation of an organization with participating families from the outskirts of the city (mostly made up of rural migrants) and rural organizations: "Maquita Chushunchic Comercializando como Hermanos" (Maquita Chushunchic Marketing as Brothers). Two words that in the Kichwa language mean: let's shake hands and trade like brothers.

We were born from the impulse of the Word of God and throughout these 38 years it has been the Light that has illuminated the way and given us the strength and simplicity to be "yeast that leavens the dough". Our achievements are measured by the level of organization and solidarity to move forward together, each person contributing what he/she can and knows. In this journey we have been accompanied in strong alliance and generosity by European institutions that believe and work for a more just society, for a fraternal society such as: Manos Unidas, Proclade, Ecosol, Entrepueblos, ADSIS, among others.

It is important to highlight women's leadership and their great capacity to seek and develop work initiatives to generate income and improve the conditions of their families and themselves.

We articulate ourselves in Social and Solidarity Economy Networks, so that organizations can exchange knowledge and collect products to be able to sell them together in local, national and international markets through the World Fair Trade Organization .

The organization currently coordinates and facilitates work in 20 of Ecuador's 24 provinces.

We have two lines of Social-Solidarity Economy Marketing and Fair Trade: Maquita Products, Maquita Agro and the Community Tourism Operator Maquita Tourism All of them work through two areas: Social Productive and Commercial Solidarity. The following chart defines the functions of both and their unique purpose of leading networks of organizations' enterprises, with collection centers for primary products (quinoa, cacao, beans, corn, etc.), community tourism centers, agro-industrial enterprises (jams, honey, etc.), handicraft workshops and bio-inputs production centers.

The work teams that accompany the organizations are 114 people, professionals and technicians who, grateful for the education they have received, have decided to work and walk in this organizational process giving meaning to their lives and as an option that promotes processes of dignity of life and against the established system that generates so much exclusion, "environmental deaths" and poverty.

Our 12 principles, inspired by the spirituality and commitment of Jesus, guide our journey and encourage us to move forward in the midst of so many difficulties:

  1. We live a liberating ecumenical faith, which provokes the practice of solidarity, commitment and mysticism with the impoverished people, in the style of Jesus of Nazareth.
  2. We practice transparency and honesty, with austerity and simplicity.
  3. We consider the family as the pillar of the community's organizational journey.
  4. We facilitate the empowerment of women and their positioning in the family and society.
  5. We support the active participation of young people based on their identity and work proposals.
  6. We promote gender, ethnic-cultural, generational, territorial, environmental and socio-economic equity.
  7. We practice active non-violence and encourage dialogue between the different stakeholders.
  8. We do non-partisan political, social and economic advocacy.
  9. We walk in a network with the active participation of people and organizations.
  10. We value the cultural identities and ancestral knowledge of the people.
  11. We respect the rights of Mother Nature and care for the environment.
  12. We practice equity and solidarity in the production, transformation, commercialization and responsible consumption of healthy products.

What connections does Maquita have at the international level, what aid and from which organizations have you been receiving support?

-It is a gift of the Spirit that has provoked and given rise to so many organizations whose mission and purpose is to work for justice, the redistribution of goods and against the shameful accumulation of wealth and depraved consumerism.

Over the years there have been many organizations with which we have worked in strong alliance in Italy, Holland, France, Germany, among others, currently, our main allies are: Bread for the World, Manos Unidas, Ecosol, Entrepueblos, Proclade, SETEM, ADSIS, Caritas of Bilbao together with their allies: autonomous governments, Spanish Agency of International Cooperation for Development, EU, etc.

Its participation is of closeness, guidance in the work and support for investments that promote the improvement of production and management of work initiatives with the different strategies of social and solidarity economy that, focused on the dignity of life of people and care of the planet, different work axes and strategies are implemented according to the needs of the territory.

Could you tell us about a case or anecdote that you remember in which you clearly felt that what you were doing really helped people?

-When I want to share some shocking story in my life, my mind and heart are filled with so many faces... women and men with calloused hands and faces marked by discontent and the harshness of life... so I am going to share with you the experience of the women's population. When they join the movement, they are marked by experiences of violence, exploitation and saturation in the burden of domestic work, animal care, land, market exploitation in the payment of the product, and often alone in the education of children.

When you talk to them today, they tell you that they educate their daughters and sons equally, that there is collaboration in household chores, that they no longer sell their products at the middlemen's fairs and how their organization pays them a fair price, but also delivers a healthy and better quality product, that they participate in social and local government spaces demanding works for their sector. Most importantly, they feel that they are valuable women, eager to continue growing and knowing that they also have the right to take care of themselves and to rest.

It is exciting to see that, in the commercial production chain, they no longer submit to what is established by the market, they know how to respect and value their work and, faced with the difficulties that the market poses (price manipulation, weight and devaluation of quality), they are defining organizational alternatives to reduce the intermediation chain and reach the families with agroecological products that are well cared for throughout the process.

They have very much in mind the God who denounces exploitation in the marketplace as the prophet Amos 8:4ff narrates when he says: "You think only of stealing from the pound or overcharging, using poorly calibrated scales. You gamble with the life of the poor and the wretched for some money or for a pair of sandals..." And in all these situations also today, they live and struggle knowing that they are accompanied by the Divine strength and protection.

How do you see the situation in Ecuador at the moment and how can it affect your cooperative's ability to continue helping?

-Ecuador has been deteriorating very strongly in recent years, due to governments that have not known how to administer and govern in favor of the people, but rather in favor of the large national and international economic sectors. Maquita is affected as much as the territories where we collaborate and therefore we try to promote hope and organization to defend the land against mining and oil companies.

We are paying special attention to the opportunities that young people can have to stay on their land by generating momentum for agroecological proposals to produce sustainably and offer healthy products to support food security.

Migration due to the major problems experienced, among other insecurities caused by narco-criminal gangs and the lack of government attention to the rural population, also affects in the sense that leaders who have been trained as social promoters and who provided transfers and agricultural assistance to families in their communities and other services, are forced to migrate.

Working mainly with the rural sector, the proximity of the "El Niño" climate phenomenon with heavy flooding will affect agricultural production, but also access to products in the family basket, and therefore the population's food supply.

The crisis of the European society also affects us because it diminishes the cooperation that boosts production and work and decent living conditions for the impoverished population.

Throughout these 38 years, we have lived through very hard times and economically on the verge of bankruptcy, but always in the most critical moment there have been actions, people, institutions that unexpectedly have been present and have pushed us to move forward, so we always trust in God who walks with his people and when it is necessary to free them, He does it with "the Moses" of today. Therefore, every day we wake up trusting in Him and feeling His presence in the building of the Kingdom.

The authorMarta Isabel González Álvarez

D. in journalism, expert in institutional communication and Communication for Solidarity. In Brussels she coordinated the communication of the international network CIDSE and in Rome the communication of the Dicastery for the Service of Integral Human Development with whom she continues to collaborate. Today she brings her experience to the department of socio-political advocacy campaigns and networking of Manos Unidas and coordinates the communication of the Enlázate por la Justicia network. Twitter: @migasocial

La Brújula Newsletter Leave us your email and receive every week the latest news curated with a catholic point of view.