Archive for September, 2008

Once again, I’d like to thank all of you for your thought-provoking comments to Nick’s post, “Co-operatives: The Democracies of our Economy?” Many interesting issues were raised relating to the current financial meltdown and the roles and responsibilities of corporations and governments. Another common theme that many of you discussed was the question of the size of these institutions and the degree to which power has been corrupted as more and more of it gets retained in the hands of a few.

So I’d like to ask you all a question which might seem a bit naïve…

It seems like we all agree that small is better. Andrew quotes Schumacher:  “for a large organization to work, it must behave like a related group of small organizations.” Nick writes, “Bigger is not better, and the further removed corporations become from their clients, the less democratic, and quite frankly, human they become.”

So here’s the question. (more…)

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In July, the Twin Cities Daily Planet published an article by Doug McGill about the exciting work our Minnesota office is doing to educate consumers about our small farmer co-operative partners. They’re also strengthening existing relationships and building new ones among local food co-operatives, consumers and the Oromian community in the Twin Cities area.

I asked Joe Riemann (pictured above with Scott Patterson) to write a bit about their endeavors and how it all got started:

“I came to Equal Exchange after working on Domestic Fair Trade issues with the Wedge Cooperative, Local Fair Trade Network. My experiences led me all over the Midwest, visiting small farmers and farmworkers and sharing their stories. Those relationships represented a cornerstone of fair trade that I really wanted to replicate in my new position with Equal Exchange. Of course, the majority of farmers we partner with live considerably further than a day’s drive away, and I felt dumbfounded by the lack of knowledge I had about any of the producers we purchase from.

I quickly started to ask questions of my coworkers and learned about the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union, a more well-known coop thanks to the critically acclaimed documentary “Black Gold”. The part that isn’t well known is that Oromia, the coffee growing region and namesake of the co-op, is homeland to the Oromo people – the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia. But it got really interesting once I discovered that Minnesota is home to one of the largest populations of Oromos living in diaspora. (more…)

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Twenty-two years ago, Rink Dickinson, Jonathan Rosenthal, and Michael Rozyne founded the first Fair Trade coffee and tea organization in the United States. Soon thereafter, their first Fair Trade coffee line, Café Nica, was launched. At that time, the Sandinistas were governing Nicaragua and there was an embargo preventing Nicaraguan products from being exported to the United States. The specialty coffee craze hadn’t yet caught on like wildfire throughout the country. There was no Fair Trade seal. People thought these three guys were crazy.

The times have certainly changed since then. The Sandinistas were voted out of power (only to have been voted back in a few years ago.) Neighborhood coffee shops abound and many consumers can differentiate between a high quality, fairly grown cup of coffee and the majority of everything else being served out there. The Fair Trade seal is stamped on many lines of coffee, tea, fruit, flowers, and other products.

But what has been the overall impact? (more…)

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I’m dashing off to the Farm Aid Concert in Mansfield, where Equal Exchange is the official coffee sponsor, so I’ll have to be brief. But I wanted to thank everyone who responded to Nick’s posting, “Co-operatives: The Democracies of our Economy“, with all of those thoughtful comments. I just wanted to add one more voice to the point raised by Keith. Yesterday I attended a meeting of the National Family Farm Coalition. A number of small farmer organizations, progressive NGOs and researchers advocating for more fair trade and agriculture policies have come together to work on the current food crisis. October 16th is National Food Day and they have been preparing a Call to Action to launch on this day. (stay tuned for more on that). The meeting was held here in Boston to piggyback on the fact that many of the Coalition’s members and allies will be attending the Farm Aid concert today.

Among those present at yesterday’s meeting was a group of small farmers who belong to the Federation of Southern Co-operatives, one of Equal Exchange’s partners in our Domestic Fair Trade program. Several of them got up and expressed outrage at the $500 billion* bailout of financial institutions being proposed this weekend by the Bush administration. Where are the subsidies or any support for small farmers who are responsible for growing the food we eat?

We talked about the recent Farm Bill and how most of the subsidies and other support went to agri-business. I couldn’t help thinking about the wave of recent articles criticizing the Fair Trade system for offering a minimum price to small farmers as an affront to the “free market”. As John Lewis, a dedicated life-long civil rights activist who was present at the meeting stated: “Small farmers are always last. And they should be first to receive some of this support. But, instead the corporations are getting it, most of whom don’t even need it.”

* by now everyone knows the bailout went up to $700 billion….

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Big Tree Almonds, located in the Central San Joaquin Valley, is the only organic almond co-operative in the state of California—the only state in the U.S. where the nuts are grown. The co-operative is Equal Exchange’s first trading partner for organic almonds.

From the Equal Exchange website: The farmers who would one day form Big Tree Organic Farms Co-op were pioneers in organic almond farming in California. They had been working since the 1980s to convert their farms to more ecologically sound practices. But in 1997, they found themselves with a bumper crop and no processors in the area who would handle organic almonds.

What could they do? Like family farmers elsewhere, they decided to organize themselves. In 1998 they established their co-op, and in 2003 they opened their own processing facility so that they could shell, store and market their almonds.

Today, Big Tree is a co-operative of 28 members whose farms range between 11 and 150 acres. Seasonal workers in the shelling plant receive above minimum wage and most return to work in the facility year after year. All of Big Tree’s almonds, including Nonpareil, Carmel and Mission varieties, are grown organically. And as consumer awareness of the health benefits of almonds continues to grow, the members of Big Tree are growing their co-operative.

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Most of us can agree that political democracies, based on equality and individual freedoms, are the best systems of government in the world today. We know that democratic countries are the least likely to go to war with each other; they suffer from the fewest internal conflicts, the lowest counts of terrorism, and the lowest number of human rights violations. It’s also very clear that democratic political systems are the most fertile grounds for economic prosperity; the countries that rank highest on the United Nations Democracy Index also head the Human Development Index. Freedom, equality and prosperity appear to go hand-in-hand.  Why then, do we only apply the principles of the democracy to politics, and not the economy?

The global economy is one of the most undemocratic and inequitable systems imaginable. In 2000, the UN estimates that 10% of the world’s richest adults control 85% of the world’s wealth. According to Forbes, the three richest people in the world control as much wealth as the poorest 47 countries combined. Almost 3 billion people live on $2 a day or less, while the average American lives on $119. The Royal Bank of Scotland controls more assets than the entire GDP of Brazil. Wal-Mart is richer than Thailand. (more…)

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“When I am there [on the farm] I like to feel the fresh air, and when we are harvesting and cutting open the cacao, it’s a very beautiful thing … When I am in the cacao trees I feel very happy. With all it has given us, it’s a very beautiful thing.”

-Abel Quezada de la Cruz

Abel Quezada de la Cruz, 12, lives in Yamasá, Dominican Republic. His parents grow cacao (the main ingredient in chocolate products) and are members of CONACADO co-op, one of Equal Exchange’s farmer partners. Abel likes to spend time on the farm with his family, where he can walk among the trees and help harvest the cacao pods. For him, cacao farming is “a very beautiful thing,” but for many children in cacao-producing areas, it’s quite a different experience. (more…)

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By now, many of us are well aware that Fair Trade products provide small-scale farmers with higher prices, access to credit, technical assistance, global markets, and solidarity networks. Most of us here at Equal Exchange enjoy a daily cup (or more) of fine coffee. And knowing how incredibly labor intensive coffee cultivation is, we deeply appreciate the farmers who climb those mountains, under the hot sun or in the torrential downpours, to pick the beans just at the right moment so that we in the North can have nothing less than the finest quality of coffee.

But most of us who work at Equal Exchange aren’t here simply for that artisanal coffee (tea or chocolate). We’re here because we think about farmer livelihoods and want to work in an industry that values the rights of small farmers to have the same dignified life and opportunities that many of us enjoy. In short, we think high quality coffee is not just desirable in its own right, but when it’s grown and sold through the Fair Trade system, it can also be a powerful tool for economic advancement. (more…)

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The following article, written by Patty Kupfer, was printed in the September/October 2008 issue of Sojourner’s Magazine. Patty used to work for Witness for Peace and co-organized some of Equal Exchange’s Interfaith Department’s delegation visits to Chiapas. During these trips, we visited our coffee farmer partners, CIRSA, an amazing organization of Tzotzil and Tzeltal -speaking indigenous farmers located in the highlands of Chiapas. Patty interviewed some members of the co-op for this article. You can also read more about CIRSA in the Viroqua Food Co-op’s May/June 2008 newsletter.


Ask the nearly 600 members of the CIRSA coffee cooperative in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico, how things are going and they’ll tell you, “Little by little, we’re moving forward.” Considering that a couple of decades ago the parents of these indigenous farmers worked in slavery-like conditions on large coffee plantations in the region, and that their region has been ignored and marginalized throughout its history, their progress is tremendous.

The Indigenous Communities of the Simojovel de Allende Region (CIRSA in Spanish) shipped 235 tons of fair trade coffee last year to the United States and Europe. Through the fair trade certification system, the small farmers of CIRSA and similar cooperatives throughout Latin America are guaranteed a minimum price for their coffee. This provides stability to small farmers, who live in some of the world’s poorest regions—and who are especially vulnerable to the volatile market that dictates world coffee prices. This is why, on our weekly trip to the grocery store, many of us fork over some extra change for fair trade coffee. (more…)

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