Archive for January, 2009

A recent article in the Times On Line, Tea workers still waiting to reap Fairtrade benefitsby Parminder Bahra reveals the contradictions the fair trade system has brought upon itself by embracing large scale plantations into a structure originally created to benefit small scale farmers in the developing world. In the Times article, tea workers in Kenya claim to have been denied the promised benefits of fair trade and “suspect that the scheme is being used to make estates appear socially responsible as demand increases in the West for Fairtrade-labelled goods.”

We are not surprised to hear of these shortcomings and abuses occurring on Fair Trade plantations. In fact, the findings presented in this article only serve to reaffirm our belief that plantations do not belong in the Fair Trade system in the first place. Equal Exchange doesn’t debate whether “good” plantations exist (for example, those where workers are treated “well”), nor whether estate workers deserve to enjoy better working conditions. They do.

Since its founding in 1986, Equal Exchange has held to the belief that the very nature of plantations is antithetical to the goals of Fair Trade, namely:

  • to strengthen the autonomy of small farmer organizations;
  • build a sense of ownership and control over one’s business;
  • encourage entrepreneurial attitudes and a risk-taking culture;
  • strengthen and build community; and
  • practice and strengthen debate and participatory decision-making.

We believe that “Fair Trade” needs to mean “Small Farmer,” and that the standards which apply to Fair Trade coffee can and should be the sole standard in tea as well as coffee.

Fair Trade has achieved dramatic results in building market access for small farmers who would otherwise not have the means to invest in their business and take the necessary risks to establish markets in their own countries – let alone in the global arena. This preferential market access has been very powerful in building a link between consumers in the North and marginalized small farmers in the Global South. The multiplier effect of this market access and network of Fair Traders has had huge impact on small farmer communities.

Plantations do not need this market access. In the U.S., 98% of the tea that is sold as Fair Trade comes from plantations. Plantation owners have networks within the banking, government and export sectors of their countries. One could argue that there is almost no additional economic or social benefit deriving from Fair Trade plantation products. 

Further, plantations or “estates” as they are often called, have been accused for decades of exploiting workers. Having changed little in a century, they tend to be run as small kingdoms.  For these and other reasons, the role of tea plantations in Fair Trade has always been controversial from the outset. Historically, the two Fair Trade certifying agencies Max Havelaar and Transfair were locked in fundamental battle about whether plantation tea could ever really be “Fair Trade.” This was the core reason that the two organizations could not join forces. When they finally did merge in 1997, Transfair’s vision of a Fair Trade system which included virtually all models of farm production, won out and tea plantations were allowed into the system.

Equal Exchange and others believe that no matter how “benevolent” a plantation owner is, a joint labor-management council and social premiums cannot in and of themselves correct the huge imbalance of power that exists on a plantation. We just don’t believe that deep, structural goals oriented to change the playing field for small farmers can be achieved in a plantation setting.  For these reasons, we are committed to building market access for small farmer tea organizations, just as we are doing in the coffee and cocoa industries.

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Equal Exchange joins a large number of organizations who are asking President-elect Obama to re-negotiate our trade agreements to ensure that all trade is fair trade, putting people and the planet over profits.

Press Release

For Immediate Release
January 5, 2009


Nearly 60 organizations and networks sent a letter to President-elect Obama  urging him to follow through on his campaign pledge to renegotiate NAFTA as a first step towards crafting an alternative trade model that puts people and the environment first over the profits of global corporations. 

“Our letter outlines the areas we think need the most urgent attention,” said Tom Loudon of the Quixote Center. “Based on many years of work, we have identified ten priority areas: agriculture, energy, foreign investment, financial services, the role of the State in the provision of services, employment, migration, environment, intellectual property rights and dispute settlement provisions.”

“To be effective, any new approach to trade must take into account that agriculture and food are unique and should not fall under the same trade rules as TV sets,” said Dennis Olson of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP). “Countries must have the policy flexibility to address the current global food crisis.”

Earlier this year, many of us were part of a three country effort which drafted a policy proposal entitled NAFTA Must be Renegotiated; A Proposal from North America Civil Society Networks,” Loudon continued.  “We envision new relationships between our countries that establish economic relations based on social justice within a paradigm of sustainable development.”


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