23 July 2014

Fair Trade: Where Are We Now?

Written by 
A farmer-member of the Manduvira cooperative A farmer-member of the Manduvira cooperative http://www.fairtrade.net/meet-the-producers-details+M5afebfed42b.html

If you’re like me and plan to enjoy a cup of coffee tomorrow morning, we will be in the company of 1.6 billion others across the globe. Coffee is one of the most traded commodities on the planet – at more than $100 billion a year! Still, 70 percent of that coffee was hand picked and processed by small farmers who remain dirt poor. Thankfully, that is changing, thanks to the Fair Trade movement.

I have to add, though, that my cup of coffee tomorrow morning will remind me of the poor farmers I just watched on the screen. They were picking those red beans on the stem, dropping them in a basket tied to their waist, probably doing this all day, and then brought home several large burlap sacs for the next stage of a long, work-intensive process before the coffee beans are ready to be exported.

Just for the record, that cup of coffee is made from 70 of those red berries picked in the forest of Central America’s highlands (or in Africa, or Indonesia, or elsewhere).

That both moving and delightful documentary film I just watched was called, “Connected by Coffee.” Two American coffee roasters take us along on a 1,000-mile trek from southern Mexico to Guatemala, and from El Salvador to Nicaragua, visiting the small farmers – mostly indigenous peoples – who have supplied them with coffee for over a decade. These coffee growers are all organized into cooperatives (the one in Nicaragua was all women) and our two hosts are truly their friends, through thick and thin, dancing with them and, in one instance, crying with them. For the sad fact is that, largely due to global warming, a deadly fungus (“coffee rust”) has destroyed virtually 70 percent of their crops in the last two years. Yet they carry on with their friendship, because “it’s about a lot more than coffee.”

“Connected by Coffee” introduces us to the Fair Trade idea – an amalgamation of the environmental movement, the human rights movement, the feminist and peace movements, and more. Here it’s defined it as “an approach to business that strives to replace exploitation with direct, long term relationships based on dignity, respect and equality.” On a subcontinent where coffee powered most of the economic growth for over two centuries, it has mostly been the symbol of shameless abuse – large plantations run by the rich who treat their workers hardly better than they would treat slaves.

Fair Trade, then, is an encouragement to small farmers to pool their resources and leverage their selling power, to invest in the machinery that enables them to bypass all the middle men, fetch a higher price for their product and export directly.


Revolutions and social justice

I had written about “the fourth world” in my book, Earth, Empire and Sacred Text, and showed how the indigenous peoples of the earth are so often forgotten and shoved aside as the poorest of the poor. I also gushed about how the indigenous uprising in the southern tip of Mexico was launched on the very date the North American Free Trade Agreement was to come into effect, January 1, 1994. The Zapatista movement and especially the nonviolent branch Los Abejas (The Bees), which included 48 different indigenous groups, fought against unfair government policies, violence on all sides of the current conflicts, and the predatory practices of the multinational corporations that effectively crippled their already weak economic potential. Yet their weapons of choice were fasting and prayer, and peaceful marches, including one that ended up in Mexico City.

The Zapatista revolutionary movement caught the imagination of the world as the Internet was just getting underway. Thousands of websites were launched to support their agenda and they became a cause célèbre for the anti-globalization movement, which spread dramatically after the 1999 Seattle WTO protests.

The very first stop in “Connected by Coffee” is to the small village of Acteal, in the southern most Mexican province of Chiapas. That’s where in 1997 a band of paramilitary fighters aligned with the Mexican government mowed down in cold blood – and most of them while worshiping in church – 45 men, women and children. The film shows you a heart-wrenching clip of the funeral, pictures of some of the victims and then you meet Antonio, one of the survivors, who since then helped to start the Maya Vinic coffee cooperative.

Fair Trade is about justice for all, and as Martin Luther King, Jr. liked to say, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

That idea of social justice runs through the whole documentary, and if you didn’t know this before, these countries are still barely emerging from revolutionary movements that fought for equality under the law for all, women, workers, and indigenous peoples alike. So many innocent people disappeared in this caldron of torture and death, with the USA, sadly, almost always backing the wrong side.

This is only the second blog I’ve written on Fair Trade on this website. The first one dealt at length on the issue of Free Trade versus Fair Trade, so I won’t go over that here. But notice the connection once again: the Zapatistas launched their revolution on the day NAFTA came into effect . . .


Closer to home

You also know from my first blog that when my family and I moved from Connecticut to Media, PA in 2006, Media had just declared itself North America’s “First Fair Trade Town.”  Fair Trade towns was the brainchild of Bruce Crowther in Garstang, Lancashire, UK. It became a reality in a town meeting in April, 2000. Since then, we count more than 1,500 Fair Trade towns and cities around the world, many small like Media, but others like London, Paris, Rome, Madrid, Oslo, Chicago, Boston and San Francisco.

The American story begins with Hal Taussig, the inventor of a new way for Americans (first for teachers like himself) to spend a vacation in Europe. Connect them to local people and immerse them for a short time in their lives and customs, Hal said. That was the birth of Untours. Hal was always much more than a creative vacation planner. A 2011 article in the Huffington Post called him the “UnMillionnaire” – and for good reason. He literally gave away all his income, lived very simply, and invested everything in the Untours Foundation that lends to innovative social projects that have the best potential for solving problems of poverty.

In 2005 Hal told Elizabeth Killough who was now managing the Untours Foundation that he thought Media should become the first Fair Trade Town on the continent. Understandably floored, Elizabeth looked into it, however, and discovered Bruce Crowther’s movement that was starting to pick up momentum. They contacted Bruce and a year later the Media borough voted to implement the requirements for being qualified “a Fair Trade Town.”

Yesterday I went to visit Elizabeth at the Untours Foundation. I know her well, since I have been a member of the Media Fair Trade committee since 2008 and she has been its coordinator from the beginning. But this time I wanted her to tell me how she felt about all her efforts to promote Fair Trade over the last eight years. Here’s my summary of her main points:


“I’m thrilled with how the movement has mushroomed and attracted so much enthusiasm. The Fair Trade Campaigns movement now has over 1,000 towns, but also a growing number of schools, universities and even religious congregations. Here locally we now have a Fair Trade elementary school; the local high school is Fair Trade and so is the local branch of Penn State University. My one disappointment is that Fair Trade sales haven’t followed. It’s like the organic movement: 40% of respondents will tell you in a survey that they support organic foods, but only 10% actually buy them. Our job is to put ourselves out of business. But we have a long way to go before we can reach a critical mass of consumers who will systematically buy Fair Trade products over all other choices.”


Exactly. Fair Trade is about connecting coffee drinkers to coffee growers. It is about me asking, “where was this garment made? In a sweatshop or in a factory that cares for the welfare of its employees – keeping them safe, paying them a living wage, and allowing them to organize.” Fair Trade is also a commitment to social justice – leveraging my buying power as a consumer in a rich nation in an ethical manner so as to ensure that the producer is paid fairly. So if people pay only lip service to Fair Trade, the concept of a “Fair Trade town” is meaningless.


Dreams coming true in Paraguay

I end with a story I find very heartening. It’s not about small farmers, but about the Fair Trade concept applied just as judiciously in another context. I tell this too, because, as Elizabeth made clear to me, the global success of Fair Trade (over $5 billion in yearly sales) has spawned a lot of debates and disagreements. Part of this comes from large corporations like Starbucks who have jumped onto the FT bandwagon. As a result, there are now many certifying agencies and two main philosophical positions on Fair Trade – those who limit FT to small farmers or small factories co-owned by their workers, and those who accept plantations and larger factories that seek to apply more ethical standards. I say, all of this marks progress over the old oppressive status quo!

Now to my story, which you can read on the website of the most influential FT certifier, now called FLOCERT (I recommend you browse that site for any FT questions you may have).

The small town of Manduvira, in a district inauspiciously called “swamps and streams” about 40 miles from the capital Asuncion, just saw the inauguration of a new sugar mill with – amazingly – the presence of the vice-president and several government ministers. This was a big deal, for several reasons.

It garnered national attention mostly because of the economic model it showcases. In the article, “Sugar Farmers in Paraguay Realize their Dreams,” we read about their humble beginnings:


“Founded in 1975 by a group of teachers and agricultural producers as a savings & credit cooperative, Manduvira’s objective was to help members gain access to credit and, through the creation of projects that would benefit the community and create mutual support. Then activities were widened into crop production and Manduvira received Fairtrade certification in 1999.”


But their one great obstacle was that farmers had to transport their sugar cane 100 kms to the nearest sugar mill. Lots of money was lost in transport and milling costs. Worst of all, they had to collect the finish product there in order to get the organic and FT sugar exported. Hence, the idea of their own sugar mill.

That idea became a reality thanks to their FT connections. Another article puts it this way:


“Manduvira’s new mill will be a boon for the 1,750 member-strong farmers’ organization, which will no longer have to pay to rental and transport costs to another mill, 100 km away along dirt roads. This $15 million project was funded through a combination of national and international loans, contributions from the Fairtrade Premium, and the Fairtrade Access Fund . . .

“The Manduvira Cooperative exports certified organic and Fairtrade sugar to almost 20 countries, including most of Europe, Canada, Latin America, New Zealand and South Korea. Fairtrade staff have worked with the producer group helping it to achieve organic certification and long-term relationships with international clients.”


Several restaurants in Media where I live serve organic FT sugar and coffee. If you poke around you may discover more of those products where you live too. And if not, I urge you to ask questions and prod local businesses to look into this. Who knows, you too might start a FT movement in your town! At least, I hope we all become a lot more curious about where our products come from . . . and even travel to develop some relationships with small producers.

By the way, one of the loan recipients of the Untours Foundation is the amazing cocoa cooperative of New Koforidua, Ghana, now the proud owners and producers of Divine Chocolate. What that story doesn’t tell you is that Christians and Muslims are members of that cooperative – yes, you can imagine how happy I was to discuss this with one of the four farmers who came to Media on a tour of the US East Coast!

Oh, and I forgot to tell you. I walked out of Elizabeth’s office with a Divine Chocolate bar . . .