Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Lavender Knows No Borders

Talk about a small world!  Two people I know here in Albuquerque, (and I have no idea whether they know each other), have a played a role in the success of a great cooperative in the the state of Guanajuato in central Mexico.    More about my friends later.

First, I want to talk about the cooperative and the project, which is known locally as El Proyecto Lavanda.  In the U.S., we know it as The Lavender Project.

The men and women who formed this cooperative grow lavender organically using drip irrigation and make wonderful products from lavender plants grown in their community of La Colorada (Rancho) near the historic town of Dolores Hidalgo in Guanajuato state.

The products are sold to hotels and other businesses in Mexico  and are also available for purchase at the retail level both in that country and through selected outlets in the U.S.  This project provides the men and women of the cooperative with some great economic development opportunities.
Yesterday, Patricia Herrera paid for her water meter. Ordinarily paying for a water meter wouldn’t be newsworthy, but for Patricia the $70 she had just earned as her part of the proceeds from the weekend sale of natural handmade soaps produced by The Lavender Project was the largest sum of money she had ever held in her hands at one time.   
One of the cooperative's leaders is Elizabeth Morales, who spent some time at a  lavender farm owned by Los Poblanos Inn and Cultural Center in the village of Los Ranchos in the Albuquerque area.
At Los Poblanos, Elizabeth learned the inner workings of a lavender farm in full production. They taught her how to make lotions, sachets and other body products, how to harvest the flowers and make fresh lavender wands and bouquets, and how to make the lavender essential oil.
Read more.   See photos

The project has a lot of supporters, including US author Jeannie Ralston and photographer Robb Kendrick, who live in nearby San Miguel de Allende, and two organizations/businesses in the Albuquerque area: St. Anthony Alliance and Los Poblanos Inn (which is also known for its organic farm Los Poblanos Organics).  Los Poblanos Inn is a major participant in the annual Lavender Festival sponsored by Los Ranchos.  Aquinas Newman Center in Albuquerque has also backed the project with some funding.

The Mexican online newspaper Milenio made a mention of this project in a recent article about microenterprises in central Mexico.

Tess Balcom of St. Anthony Alliance offers more details about  the support for the project from folks in Guanajuato.
The Azul Lavanda project which encompasses the farmer's side of the Lavender project got a 30/70 matching grant from the municipality of Dolores Hidalgo to build a workspace, put in two hectares of drip irrigation and buy a distillation unit for making oil. St. Anthony's put up 30%.  They put up 70%,

In addition the  took Aucencio Domenzain and Azul Lavanda in Universidad Tecnologica del Norte de Guanajuato as one of it projects for it's Business Incubator Program.  They have provided training for Azul Lavanda in all things pertaining to starting a small business, provided legal advice and support, helped them get their permits, designed a website, business cards and everything short of providing actual money for the program.  They remain a valuable supporter of the program to this day.
St. Anthony Alliance, which recently took a major role in sponsoring the project, not only helps with coordination from the U.S., but also held a successful benefit in San Miguel de Allende in  August 2009.  St. Anthony's is developing a strategy not only to expand the market for the products but also ensuring that all aspects of the operation comply with the concepts of fair trade.  But despite the big participation of St. Anthony Alliance and others, the men and women of the cooperative have a major say in all aspects of the operation.
The women are daring to dream, to make a plan for the future. Their horizons have expanded beyond the dusty highway of their village. One women’s husband may be able to come home soon if profits remain as they are or begin to grow.
And now to my two friends who have also provided their talents and time in some very important ways to this project.

Mary Quinalty, a member of our Peace and Social Justice Commission at Aquinas Newman Center, was involved with projects in Ranchos and other nearby communities for many years through an organization known as Esperanza de Joaquin (EDJ).  The organization recently merged with St. Anthony Alliance.

And then there's Rhetta Harlan, who owns Rhetta’s Soap Company, a home-based operation and a cornerstone of the Saturday growers market at Los Ranchos.  Rhetta, whom I met through my friend Vanessa Guerin, offered an internship to Elizabeth, where she learned  the intricacies and techniques of making soap and other products.

Here's a quote from St. Anthony's:
Elizabeth was a quick study. Rhetta told us she didn’t know how she was going to live without her after she left! Hardworking, meticulous and a perfectionist, making beautiful and aromatic artisan soaps from scratch was a natural extension of Elizabeth’s talents.

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