By Ted Weihe, Consultant to Equal Exchange

Yesterday in Paraguay and earlier in Bolivia, Pope Francis praised co-operatives and other localized organizations that he said provide productive economies for the poor (See NYT, July 11, 2015).

“How different this is than the situation that results when those left behind by the formal market are exploited like slaves!” he said. In his Encyclical Letter, Laudato SI (available on line), he said “Liberation from the dominant technocratic paradigm does in fact happen sometimes, for example, when cooperatives of small producers adopt less polluting means of production, and opt for a non-consumerist model of life, recreation and community.”

He has reframed inequality and poverty around a new economic theory and defining it in moral terms. “Working for a just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor is not mere philanthropy,” he said on Wednesday. “It is a moral obligation. For Christians, the responsibility is even greater: It is a commandment.”

Francis acknowledged that he had no new “recipe” to quickly change the world. Instead, he spoke about a “process of change” undertaken at the grass-roots level by priests, NGOs and community organizers.

“What can be done by those students, those young people, those activists, those missionaries who come to my neighborhood with the hearts full of hopes and dreams but without any real solution for my problems?” he asked. “A lot! They can do a lot.”

“You, the lowly, the exploited, the poor and underprivileged, can do, and are doing, a lot. I would even say that the future of humanity is in great measure in your own hands.”

But, if there are “real solutions” in promoting co-ops, the Catholic Church, community leaders, NGOs and Fairtrade advocates have a lot to learn, too.

Most credit unions in Latin America were formed by priests and nuns. Yet, it took decades to restructure them as sound financial institutions for the poor with appropriate interest rates for savers, and market-based loans to members.

Similar U.S. efforts in the 60s and 70s to create worker co-ops also failed because they were seen as utopian democratic experiments instead of successful group businesses where worker-owners needed to provide equity. In the case of Equal Exchange, they allowed for non-voting investors to raise capital – all with a profit focus while true to their democratic workplace and mission to buy from and support small farmer co-ops.

We know that cooperatives in Western countries probably did more to reduce poverty among the poor than any other interventions. For example, in the U.S. during the 1920s recession in agriculture after World War I, most of today’s producer co-ops were formed; in the 1930s rural credit unions took off during the Great Depression; and in the 1940s electric coops transformed rural America. This same U.S. experience parallels successful earlier co-ops in Europe, in Japan with General MacArthur reforms after World War II and in India where in the 1960s, they created the most successful and largest small farmer dairy co-ops in the world. Many of the most successful co-ops in the world such as Sunkist were formed before 1900 – so there is a rich and long history to draw on.

Yet, we in the development field have not learned the most important lesson about co-ops in that they must be properly structured financially so that the poor contribute through their usage and delivery of products, and they generate member equity so that the co-op can prosper and grow. Do-gooders, Fairtrade advocates and industries such as chocolate companies that are dependent on small farmers to provide their raw products, cocoa beans, do not understand co-ops. Donors certainly do not when they shower money on co-ops “to help the poor” instead of creating sustainable co-ops that can be self-supporting and uplifting through the farmers own efforts.

With Equal Exchange’s on-going project with cocoa co-ops in Dominican Republic, Peru and Ecuador, they have proven that getting poor farmers to contribute to their co-ops through the delivery of products is not only possible, but supported by managers, boards of directors and delegates to the General Assembly. Members now have a financial stake in their co-ops which generates lower bank loans, more purchasing of cocoa beans from fellow members and greater loyalty to the co-op. They are breaking away from the current donor-driven paradigm.

So we do have successful models to respond to the Pope’s call, but how can we spread the message, design and advocate true co-ops? At least, I have tried to lay out these premises in my book: Saving Fine Chocolate: Equity, Productivity and Quality in Cocoa Co-ops. But, I feel like a lonely voice. I hope that others can join me.

By Peter Buck, Senior Representative, Interfaith Program & Community Sales

There’s excitement here at Equal Exchange about Pope Francis’ encyclical letter on the environment, “Laudato Si’ (Praise Be): Care for our Common Home.” In the Pope’s encyclical, he makes a powerful call for urgent action on climate change and environmental pollution. These issues are of paramount importance to many, including us at Equal Exchange.

A central theme of the Pope’s encyclical is that there can be no solution to the climate crisis without redressing the gross disparities of wealth between the global north and the impoverished global south, and bringing real, sustainable economic progress to the developing world. The problem, he says, is not just one of education or resources, but of unequal power relationships between the north and south, the wealthy and the poor, and the disproportionate effect of pollution and climate change on the most vulnerable communities. As a Fair Trade organization, these issues are ones we know well, and challenging this inequality is at the heart of our mission.

In the first chapter, Pope Francis discusses pollution, climate change, water, and the decline of biodiversity. He emphasizes the ways in which the poor, individually and as nations, bear the brunt of environmental degradation and climate change. These problems are worsened by the reckless business practices of “companies which operate in less-developed countries in ways they could never do at home.” When such companies close down their mines, factories or plantations, “they leave behind great human and environmental liabilities” like unemployment, deforestation, open pits and polluted rivers.

In illustrating an alternative, the Pope highlights communities of small farmers, like those who partner with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and Equal Exchange. He describes them as “co-operatives of small producers [who] adopt less polluting means of production, and opt for a non-consumerist model of life, recreation and community.” We were thrilled to see the Pope recognize and promote the importance of small farmer co-ops and their role in driving forward a more sustainable farming model.

guatemala_nov2014_ashleycheuk-212Equal Exchange and our interfaith partners have had close relationships with such communities for decades, and we strive to champion and support them in all we do. For example, Catholic Relief Services has helped farming communities develop organic coffee farming and processing systems, among many other projects. Equal Exchange has consistently offered a premium price to communities which produce their coffee organically and helped encourage organic innovation wherever possible. Recently, both Equal Exchange and CRS have worked to support efforts to implement organic solutions to the one of the most pressing environmental issues in Latin America: coffee rust fungus, a widespread and devastating crop disease exacerbated by climate change.

The Pope also praises the “great variety of small-scale food production systems which feed the greater part of the world’s peoples, using modest amounts of land and producing less waste.” He describes the central problem that Equal Exchange and other Fair Trade organizations work to resolve: “[Communities’] attempts to move to other, more diversified means of production proving fruitless because of the difficulty of linkage with regional and global markets, or because the infrastructure for sales and transport is geared to larger businesses.”

Finding access to the market as a small farmer is a serious challenge, and historically it has not favored the farmer. Trading with small producer co-ops and giving them market access, without middlemen or exploitation, is a central tenet of Fair Trade. Co-ops also allow farmers to pool resources to build up the essential “infrastructure of sales and transport,” supported by Fair Traders like Equal Exchange and development organizations like Catholic Relief Services.

Pope Francis has written a profound, rich document that warrants several careful readings.  Read more here.


Social movements around the world, including Grassroots International partners, take action on World Environment Day (June 5) to highlight the importance of ecological justice.  On this day, we are happy to share a video from a recent talk that Grassroots International had the opportunity to be a part of, along with Anim Steel, founder and Executive Director of the Real Food Challenge, and Mark Bittman, New York Times journalist and author.Titled, “With Liberty, Justice, and Sovereignty for All,” this talk was part of UC Berkeley’s Edible Education series.  In it, we discussed several themes of ecological justice, including what we’ve learned from our partners such as La Via Campesina: how food sovereignty and agroecology are two of the most powerful real solutions to both the causes and impacts of climate change.

Many thanks to UC Berkeley for inviting Grassroots International to be part of this series, and to Mark Bittman and Anim Steel whose insights, questions, and experiences made it such an exciting conversation.  We are looking forward to continued collaborations to strengthen connections between food justice/food sovereignty efforts and climate justice.

The following article was written on May 5th, by Jerónimo Pruijn, Executive Director of the Foundation of Small Producers (FUNDEPPO)

SPP members voting at the Annual Meeting in Panama, May 2015

Rosa Guaman, President of the SPP, and other members voting at the Annual Meeting in Panama City, May 2015

There is no better day than today, May 5th, to share some words about the Small Producers’ Symbol (SPP, for its Spanish Acronym). I was born in Holland, and on May 5th  in Holland, we celebrate Liberation Day, the day the occupation ended during World War II.

The SPP is also a symbol of liberation: the liberation of small producers of the global South.

The SPP was given birth the 26th of March 2006. Of course, a period of pregnancy came first. To fully understand the origin of the SPP, it is important to go back to the beginnings of fair trade. The first fair trade label, Max Havelaar was a result of a search by the Mexican small producers’ coffee cooperative, UCIRI, for better access to preferential, solidarity markets, in close collaboration with the Solidaridad Foundation in Holland. Fair trade soon turned out to be an important tool and ‘motor’ for small producers’ organizations that were in the process of consolidating their organizational and entrepreneurial efforts in different countries of the South. We should not forget that some of these producers’ organizations have their origin in the eighties, others even in the seventies or the sixties of the last century.

As a result of the rapid progress and positive impact of fair trade, in the 1990s, producers’ organizations of Latin America involved in fair trade, but also from Africa and from Asia, started organizing or strengthening existing international networks of producers’ organizations involved in fair trade. In the beginning, these networks were mainly coffee producers, but soon also came small honey, fruit and other producer’ organizations. In the case of Latin America, these international networks were mainly promoted and maintained by the coops themselves, without any external support. This process ended up in the constitution of CLAC, the Latin American and Caribbean Network of Small Fair Trade Producers, in 2004.

By then, discussions around the content and parameters of the concept of fair trade were starting to become more and more common. At the start of fair trade, at the end of the eighties, both producers as well as consumers, viewed the idea of fair trade as equivalent to that of supporting small producers’ organizations. By the time the CLAC was created, this equivalence (that fair trade was synonomous with producer support) was no longer that clear. In some new products, such as bananas, the fair trade concept was extended to private plantations, meant to benefit their workers. On the other hand, fair trade´s success also had attracted the attention of multinational companies which before had not shown any interest in this model. The broadening of the concept went along with the growth of the market for small producers. Producers were happy with this growth of opportunities, but also worried about the role small producers’ organizations played in the concept and decision-making of fair trade.

The SPP was launched as an effort to identify small producers’ organizations in the wider movement of fair trade. At the same time it was a next step in the appropriation process of the supply chain. Producers’ organizations have always been looking for ways to increase their influence and control in the different stages of the supply chain, aiming to maximize the benefits for the small producers and their communities. Producers’ organizations had been increasing their capacities, partly with the stimulating power of fair trade, to sell their products more professionally, looking for the improvement of quality as well as the increase of added values. More and more producer organizations started to get involved in the production of end-products for local markets. The SPP was meant to help these organizations to promote their products, both in the local markets, as well in the international markets, as being exclusively from small producers’ organizations.

In the beginning, the SPP was not launched as a certification system, just as a distinction for small producers’ organizations within the fair trade movement. As traders and also producer’s organizations started to request the active use of the label, feasibility studies were done, with positive results. The main expectations of the producers’ organizations by that time was that it should identify themselves; be an accessible system, in terms of costs and of simplicity; it should be adaptable to the circumstances of each and every producer organization; it should not be prescriptive in terms of detailed compliance criteria; it should be applicable to both local and global markets and it should be credible. Finally the development of the SPP ended up in the launch of a full-fledged standards and certification system at the beginning of 2011.

Currently, around sixty thousand families of around 60 small producers’ coops are certified, from 13 Latin American countries and Indonesia. Volumes of purchases and sales on the markets have been increasing steadily, both in the Northern markets, as well as in the local markets of producers’ countries. We expect this year to have the first couple of African producers-organizations participating.

What makes the SPP different from other fair and sustainable trade labels?

This is a very relevant question in the context of an avalanche of labels around the world. In the very first place, it is a 100% producer-owned initiative. It was launched in 2006 as the ‘open home’ of small producers, a place in which they can build their own future, a place where they have control and where they can receive friends. The producers are the ones who have developed and still fully steer the SPP.

It is a place where they can build their ideal world, a different economy and society, with the help and solidarity of friends. As it is built by their own efforts, it is being built and expanded step by step, guaranteeing the foundation is strong enough to carry the weight of the building when it grows. Producers decide on standards and carry the full responsibility of what they decide. In the SPP, nobody tells producers what´s good for them; they know what they need and what´s reasonable and they fight for it. At the SPP, producers do not have a share in decision-making, they make the decisions, and, wisely involve their trade-partners in the decision making process. The SPP as the incarnation of the empowerment of small producers, the ultimate goal and result of fair trade.

Recently the new General Assembly of the SPP, run by the Foundation of Small Producers (FUNDEPPO) was established and a new board was appointed. The board is composed of six small producers’ representatives from 6 different countries and of three representatives of committed traders, also from different countries and continents. This way the SPP brings the producers and the traders together to make trade and consumer-involvement possible, without anybody standing in between. The newly appointed Chair is Mrs. Rosa Guamán, the indigenous leader or an herbs-producing co-operative from Ecuador. She is an example of the process of liberation of indigenous people in producer countries as a result of an historic struggle and somebody who has a lot to show and teach to the world about the importance of creating a more inclusive and equal economy and society.

The SPP is about building a different and better reality ‘down-top’, not ‘top-down’. Small producers increasingly feel the menace of the tendency of many labels to become some kind of wishing list of perfect practices and behavior, politically, socially and ethically. Expectancies towards producers have become lists of strict requirements and high thresholds. Criteria are imposed from the North on the South, on an increasing amount of topics. This without considering all the costs involved in fulfilling all these criteria. Democratic small producers are put to compete with huge private production companies with strong hierarchical structures and which logically have lower production costs.

Fair trade should always recognize the multiples values and contributions of the work of democratic small producers and their organizations. The SPP makes these values visible, such as building stronger local economies, more democratic societies and fighting climate change. Values which have strong direct and indirect impacts, even on the wellbeing of consumers far away. The producers of the SPP look for traders, consumers and professionals that believe in the importance and capacities of small producer’s organizations and fair trade as a model of sustainable and self-managed development and inclusionary processes.

At the SPP we want to invite people to build a better world together, as a joint responsibility, not only as the responsibility of producers.

The minimum prices and compensations for organic production are key for the SPP-producers. The SPP prices are probably the highest in the market, but this is the only way fair and sustainable trade can really offer the impact and changes it promises. The producers of the SPP want to show the world what their work and lives are worth and have decided not to bargain away their dignity ever again. They know it is not easy and that it will be a long and probably endless struggle. But that is what liberation is all about, to be able to take responsibility for your own life and future.


A Cry for Change!

After weeks of eager anticipation, yesterday’s unveiling of Pope Francis’ Encyclical on Climate Change has finally arrived: in newspapers, social media, television and radio, the world is abuzz with his message: it is time that the conversation about economic inequality and the devastation of our planet be treated as one struggle. The roots of these injustices are the same and the way out of the crisis is the same: a sustainable economy that places people and the planet before greed and the reckless pursuit of profit.

It is not just the environmentalists for whom Pope Francis’ message comes like water following a drought. For all of us working toward a more just economy (food system, trade system, etc.) the Pope’s Encyclical strongly resonates and underscores our own values, the work we are doing, and our vision of the world in which we want to live. We applaud the sense of urgency and moral imperative in which he delivers his message that nothing short of radical transformation will get us out of the mess we’ve created.

At Equal Exchange, we have long seen the almost Sisyphean struggles that our farmer coop partners go through on a daily basis to survive, earn dignified livelihoods, strengthen their businesses, cooperatives, and hopefully, for some of them, to one day thrive. How ironic, sad, and powerful that those who are most marginalized by government disinvestment, international trade policies, neoliberalism, colonialism and racism (the list goes on) and suffer the most from devastating climactic changes – droughts, extended rainy season, hurricanes, rising tides, etc., are the very same hardworking small-scale farmers whose organic and sustainable farming practices are both sequestering carbon, protecting watersheds, conserving forests and providing us with our high quality, healthy, food.

Yesterday Naomi Klein was interviewed on Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now,” providing her analysis on the Pope’s Encyclical. Like Pope Francis’ message to us, Klein’s recent book, “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate” also makes a powerful argument that we must take action now to reverse climate change. She also urges us not to see our struggles for economic, political, and social justice as separate from those fighting for climate justice, but to take a more holistic view and unite our struggles to fight for one common goal.

The link to the interview is here.  It begins at 36:48

Here at Equal Exchange, and our sister alternative trade organizations, Oke USA, Equal Exchange UK, and La Siembra, (Ottawa Canada), we will continue to do our part to promote our alternative model of trade, which places relationships at the forefront of all we do. We will continue to support our farmer partners, to bring high quality, healthy products to market, and to build relationships between those in the Global North and the Global South. We will also continue to strengthen our own worker coop, the democratic small farmer coops with whom we work, and to support and strengthen the coop model and cooperative movements where we can.

We are so grateful for the courage that Pope Francis has shown in delivering this message.

On May 1st Equal Exchange turned 29!

We celebrate our anniversary by holding an annual meeting where we discuss the state of our business and our co-operative, among other items.   And of course, as important as that meeting is, it doesn’t hold a candle to the festivities that we engage in later that evening. : )

This year, I was in Panama, attending the Fourth Annual Gathering of the Small Producer Symbol (SPP) and couldn’t make it back in time for the activities.

The members of the SPP wanted to wish Equal Exchange greetings on this important day and sent the following video.  For technical reasons, ha!, it is only being posted today.

Ethiquable, an Alternative Trade Organization in France (that is also a co-operative) was one of the earliest supporters of the Small Producers Symbol (SPP).  Like Equal Exchange, Ethiquable recognizes the tremendous importance of this new Fair Trade system that is so-much-more than a certification system.  The first of its kind, the SPP was created, and is entirely owned, by small-scale producers. Their goal is to build bridges with alternative trade organizations, engaged, committed “consumers”, civic organizations, and other allies to create an authentic trade movement that promotes democratically-run organizations, sustainable agriculture, and high quality, healthy food.

Join with us as we say, “Felicitaciones!”

Rosa and the spp symbol

The following is a rough translation of their announcement:

Association of the Small Producers’ Symbol – France

Declaration of Principles

By creating SPP France, we – Southern producers & French actors: civil society, citizens, consumers, engaged businesses – are driven by one conviction: the strength of the fair trade proposal is based on organized peasant agriculture. This agriculture is the engine of sustainable and inclusive development; we need to support it because it is the only way to guarantee a future for everyone, healthy, high quality, and environmentally sustainable food.

However, we note that after several decades of existence and profound changes – especially in the 2000s, fair trade is no longer solely focused on this same vision.

In reality, there is now multiple visions and the Fair Trade movement displays a variety of practices that we believe dilute the strength of the original design and especially its ability to offer an alternative – of deep impact – to conventional trade.

Industry players no longer put all the focus on the goals of changing power relations within the agricultural sector or on the intrinsic link between fair trade and organized farming. By not putting more priority support on small-scale agriculture that it was proposed to support from its creation, fair trade is in danger of being emptied of its substance. Because it met commercial initiatives at variable requirements – for different certification standards and the concept of fair trade is about to approach a kind of lowest common denominator reducing the guarantee level as much for producers as for consumers.

Without denying the relevance of other forms of “sustainable trade” which is now growing, we affirm that fair trade should remain the initiative that builds on the highest level of standards. Our reading of the issues of fair trade leads us to reaffirm the fundamental values ​​and revive the pioneering spirit of the movement. By providing a clear guarantee respecting the original principles of fair trade, the Small Farmers Symbol (SPP) meets this challenge.

SPP is in fact the first guarantee system of fair trade internationally with the requirement that it belong to organized producers. The SPP was established as an initiative, not of Northern actors but of the CLAC, the Federation of Latin American producers of fair trade. The Small Farmer Symbol brings together producer organizations, which beyond a commercial aspect, share a common vision of development of rural areas, defense of a diversified and responsible agricultural production of small-scale farming families and the environment, and a willingness to defend the interests of small producers against other players (state, communities, businesses …).

Together they offer a rigorous and independent guarantee of fair trade system designed as a support tool for development, as a lever for change of peasant communities.

The SPP therefore has chosen a fair trade model centered on small producers, their families and their organizations.   It also wants to give new meaning to the concept of a guaranteed minimum price, with higher levels than current standards. It also revives the principles of independence and empowerment of producer organizations. It aims to provide direct market access for cooperatives by facilitating their ability to directly export in partnership with committed companies.

The SPP also intends to expand local markets in producing countries, facilitating its use by cooperatives on their own finished end products.

Why create an association SPP France?

  • To enforce and promote a specific way of doing fair trade based exclusively on small farmer agriculture and a label belonging to producer organizations,
  • To promote collective (producer organizations, companies, civil society, …) lines of small farmer products that meet fair trade criteria defined by SPP and meeting with French law on fair trade,
  • To facilitate the access of small producers organizations to markets.

What are its main tasks?

  • Promote the SPP with international solidarity actors, consumer associations, organizations of fair trade, to interested companies and public actors
  • Facilitate relations between engaged and committed producer organizations and French buyers
  • Represent the SPP within the Platform for Fair Trade (CCTB) and with public institutions in charge of the certification of certified commerce systems
  • Defend the interests of the SPP and to facilitate its recognition in France

Co-founders of the SPP Association – France


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