As the eighth-largest country in the world and with the third-largest economy in Latin America, Argentina is not necessarily a place you would imagine people are living under the poverty line and scraping by to make a living.

However just one and a half hour's flight from the buzzing metropolis of Buenos Aires, lies La Rioja, a province with the second-smallest economy among Argentina's 23 provinces and also home to La Riojana, Argentina's largest wine co-operative.

From the very beginning, at La Riojana we have always held good ethical practice as a core value and with over 500 members now, the majority of who are small-scale producers, this practice has become more important than ever before.

We have always believed in allowing our members an adequate return for their raw material and have provided our members with the standard co-operative benefits. However seeing the day-to-day challenges that face many of our growers, workers and their families, we felt that by going the extra step and certifying our wines as Fairtrade, we could make a real difference to the quality of their lives.

We first received Fairtrade certification in 2006, making us the first winery in Argentina to receive the certification, and in August this year, we received certification for 100% of our production and growers, making us the largest producer of Fairtrade certified wines in the world today.

Currently Fairtrade wines account for over 90% of our total sales into Europe and the markets where we predominantly sell our Fairtrade certified wines are the UK and Sweden, with smaller markets being Belgium, Norway, Finland, Holland and the USA.

The first Fairtrade certified wine product imported in the UK dates back to 2004 and since then we have seen significant growth in the category. There are currently over 250 Fairtrade wines certified in the UK and in 2012 Fairtrade wine grew by 8% in value and 42% in volume, totaling 8.7 m litres sold during the year.

Since becoming Fairtrade certified and with careful investment of the Fairtrade premium, we have been able to implement a large number of different projects, some small and some large ones. On every scale we have witnessed the incredible impact of the projects and have seen the benefits they not only bring our growers, workers and their families but also their wider communities.

There is one community in particular, the small, isolated village of Tilimuqui, which has seen the benefits of our larger projects. Located 10km from our main winery in Chilecito, it is home to many of our workers and their families and it is here where we have witnessed first hand the life changing power of Fairtrade and our projects. A place where a new water supply, a new secondary school and a school minibus have made an extraordinary difference to people's lives – much more than we ever first dreamt of.

The first project we set up in Tilimuqui was the construction of a new water facility and we carried this out in close partnership with The Co-operative. Its aim was to replace the village's old, unreliable water supply and was funded by sales of The Co-operative's Fairtrade wines.

Before the water project's inauguration in 2008, the situation had been desperate for the villagers, affecting both their health, hygiene and education. There were days when there was no water at all and in a place where summer time temperatures can reach 45°C, having an erratic water supply made life very hard for the residents. We realised the importance of this project when on the day of its inauguration, residents of Tilimuqui thanked us with tears in their eyes.

In addition to the day-to-day struggle with water, we found that Tilimuqui also faced another problem and that was education, with children struggling to continue their education past the age of 14, normally due to the remoteness of the village and the cost of transport to secondary schools in the area.

The Fairtrade premium has allowed us to change all this, and in 2010 we saw the opening of a brand new, first-class secondary school, which specialises in agricultural studies. This project was once again largely funded by sales of The Co-operative Fairtrade wines, as well as by sales of our Ecologica Fairtrade wines in Sweden.

For us the new school represents an icon project. Not only is it the first pre-university technical college to be built in La Rioja province, it is also the first Fairtrade-funded secondary school ever built in Argentina, and is one of the single largest Fairtrade-funded projects in the world.

The school, which is attracting children not only from Tilimuqui but from all over the local region has become immensely popular in its short existence, with currently over 200 pupils and still growing. The high demand for places has even taken the head teacher by surprise.

Fairtrade premiums from the Tilimuqui Fairtrade range, which we sell in Waitrose and in Jumbo, the second-largest retailer in Holland, are also going towards the development of the new school, by helping fund its infrastructure. This extra support has enabled the purchase of a school minibus and is providing transport for the school children.

In addition to offering children the chance of a better education, we have seen how this project has provided the perfect catalyst for local development, leading to increased employment, improved transport links and improved public services within the local community of Tilimuqui.

Edward Robinson, Fairtrade wine buyer for The Co-operative comments: "Tilimuqui for us is a prime example of how the Fairtrade premium can bring substantial benefits to the wider community, changing people's lives forever. Tilimuqui is a community dear to our heart and we are delighted to be part of its ongoing development."

Nick Day is the Europe Sales Director for La Riojana co-operative.


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