The following post is offered by Nicholas Reid, Sales Representative of the Natural Foods Department at Equal Exchange. His original comments were published in response to a post on GreenLAGirl’s blog about the Business Week article, “Is Fair Trade Becoming ‘Fair Trade Lite’?”.
At Equal Exchange we feel strongly that small-scale sustainable farming is the most effective way to feed the planet, care for the environment, and sustain healthy and vibrant communities and businesses. We believe that small farmer co-operatives provide a model for participatory decision-making, local control, and economic development that is desperately needed to fix a broken food system and an ailing planet.
In this blog, we have tried to make our case by highlighting inspiring stories from our farmer co-op partners and referencing articles written about the importance of agroecology, organic farming, and consumer and farmer movements that are trying to make changes to agricultural and trade policies that serve no one but large scale agribusiness. We have deliberately tried not to focus too much on the debate around plantations, or the competition between different coffee roasters. Nevertheless, I wanted to share Nick’s observations as I thought he did a great job of highlighting some of the history of plantations and the reasons why we choose to focus our work, and continue to build strong relationships, with small farmer organizations in the Fair Trade system.
Fair Trade as a Tool For Transformation: Can plantations play that role?
by Nicholas Reid
For years now, folks have been questioning whether the Fair Trade certifiers should have allowed plantations into a system which was founded by and for small farmer co-operatives. One of the arguments put forth to justify the entry of plantations into the system is that there are many products (such as bananas and tea) which are primarily produced by plantations and therefore are not possible to source from small farmer co-operatives. This is a false premise. The majority of bananas and tea ARE produced by small farmers. More importantly, by allowing plantations into the Fair Trade system, the certifiers are ensuring that products produced by small farmer co-operatives will never thrive in the Fair Trade system.
I would buy the argument that the majority of the world’s tea, bananas and cocoa for export are grown by plantations and large-scale agriculture. But seriously, Fair Trade exists to support small farmers because plantations dominate banana and tea production for export. It aims to create the systems that would allow small farmers to benefit from exporting those products.
Allowing plantations into the Fair Trade system is a complete departure from the principles upon which Fair Trade was created. More importantly, it is also a betrayal of the farmers who built the system and a continuation of the marginalization of small farmers in the most impoverished countries in the world. Fair Trade was created to support organized small-scale producers and connect them to export markets. It was a response to the failure of plantation economies, and development policies designed around centralized ownership and production, to affect transformative change or economic growth that empowers and benefits people. Plantation-based Fair Trade is a slightly less gruesome extension of colonialism and slavery, and a system that for half a millennium has served only to increase global inequality.
Plantation Fair Trade does not offer a viable economic alternative to global poverty, exploitation and marginalization; it strengthens the very system that caused it. Economic history has been a stream of “slight improvements”; colonial powers invaded the “south”, appropriated the land and resources, enslaved or murdered most of the population and marginalized the rest to the least productive lands. The end of political colonialism saw European plantation owners, regional despots, “princes” and “rajas”, who thrived under colonialism by adopting the disastrous plantation model, quickly fill the gap of colonial magistrates and virrey. Slavery was replaced by share-cropping and “slavery lite”. Colonial interests were replaced by American and British business interests, and then transnational business interests like Chiquita and Cargill; all of whom continue to rely on the plantation model to extract resources and “produce” profits; with the added benefit of decreasing production for local consumption, making laborers more reliant on food imports; graciously provided by Cargill.
Without the Fair Trade system to provide credit and access to export markets, there is no chance a small farmer with a few acres dedicated to subsistence agriculture and a small plot of bananas could compete with Chiquita, its $4.6 billion in annual revenue, and gargantuan banana plantations. In the case of bananas, 10% of banana production is intended for export (the so called “dessert bananas”), as opposed to their starchier cousins, plantains, which are a dietary staple grown by millions of small farmers across the southern hemisphere. (According to the recent book: Banana Wars: Power, Production and History in the Americas, edited by Steve Striffler and Mark Moberg.) Bananas could be a viable and potentially lucrative and empowering market for small farmers, but allowing plantations into the Fair Trade system has marginalized small banana producers even further and ensures that they will never be successful.
Even the United States has failed to rectify the destruction of its slave/plantation economy through slight improvements. Starting with post-Emancipation Proclamation share-cropping, the advent of the “minimum wage”, the civil rights movement and then affirmative action, improvements (similar to what plantation Fair Trade would represent) to the current labor model have not addressed, corrected or righted the destruction of the colonial-slave model. Are African-Americans better off today than they were in the early 1800’s? Yes. But that leaves much; everything, in fact; to be desired: Statistics vary widely, so I won’t quote them but let’s just say that the number of African-American men in jail compared to college is not something this country should be proud of. The same goes for the percent of unemployed African American men compared to white Americans. Plantation Fair Trade ignores the failures of “more fair” plantation-based economies throughout history.
What did work in the United States was an economy based on small land-holders in the Northeast and a decreased reliance on mono-crop exports. Fair Trade attempts to strengthen those economies in developing countries; to invest in small land-holders, who have the opportunity to accrue transformative assets like land (in the United States it is estimated that 44% of the average American’s wealth is in land or housing) and are infinitely more self-reliant through local cooperation and subsistence production. On a national level, vibrant local economies decrease dependence on foreign aid, food imports, and investment, and strengthen the ability of governments to resist egregious trade agreements and concessions.
And why, you have to wonder, are plantations and Wal-Mart so eager to join the Fair Trade system (well… to gain access to the certification)? Is it the goodness of their hearts? Or in that case wouldn’t they just pay workers a fair wage because it’s the right thing to do? Is it to raise their production costs through higher wages? To lower their margins for the benefit of Honduran banana farmers? Or is it that the success and hard work of small-farmer co-operatives and alternative trade organizations has led corporations and plantations to see the potential for profits in the Fair Trade system. Plantations, corporations and venture capital are banging on the doors of Fair Trade; begging for more quantity, more products, bigger, better, more streamlined supply-chains and relaxed regulations, because they see an opportunity to increase margins within their existing supply chains (i.e. plantations). They see people paying more for a tiny stamp on a bag of coffee; they want a piece of it. The farmers who built Fair Trade certainly don’t want plantations in the system. Many consumers are confused by the debate; they trust the seal and the ideology for which it once stood.
Co-operative Fair Trade is about empowerment of people (both producers and consumers) and communities. It’s about food sovereignty for people, here and in developing countries. For over twenty years, farmer cooperatives in the Fair Trade system have organized as a social and political force with which to be reckoned. Communities, tied together through economic ownership, have defined their values and developed according to their own paths of economic development. They are asserting influence and fielding politicians. Women have been empowered through shared assets and accountability, and development projects. Children are attending schools. Communities are growing their own organic food and rehabilitating the land. They are tiny green patches in the scarred and barren landscape of a scorched earth policy; vibrant local economies that value people and their connection to the earth.
Plantations, even those with labor unions and fair wages, represent continued dependence on patriarchal land-owners, predatory capital markets, transnational corporations and developed countries. American consumers should not be duped into supporting plantations because they agree to pay their workers a “fair wage”, we should be investing in a viable alternative that doesn’t rely on cheap labor and minority ownership. Allowing plantations into Fair Trade threatens to reverse the gains of the alternative trade movement, strengthen the competitive advantage of plantations and agribusiness, and further marginalize and exploit small farmers.