As the (former) Producer Relations Coordinator at Equal Exchange, people are always asking me why we choose to focus our relationships and purchasing strategies on small farmer co-operatives. Most people familiar with Fair Trade understand the critical importance that higher prices, advance credit and direct relationships have on growers. Through decades of organizing, educating, and advocating, the Fair Trade movement has succeeded in raising the bar for much of the “ethical trade” industry, at least in coffee. Today, many coffee companies source direct, provide credit, and offer higher than market prices –and we’re excited about that.
Yet, there’s another equally – some would say even more important – reason we work with farmer co-operatives. Sometimes I get tired of making this point, but I think it’s actually a hard one for many of us in the U.S. to fully grasp. In our culture, “individualism” is steeped into our subconscious from an early age. From the days of the Wild West, heroic individualism is applauded. It’s the American Dream that anyone who works hard enough can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” Anyone can become a millionaire – or the country’s President. At least that’s what we’re told to believe.
That’s probably why we often choose to associate “success” with the ingenuity of a CEO or the charisma of a political movement leader. Our culture has a hard time with the idea that movements are built by many anonymous, “ordinary” people each putting in “their grain of sand.” Many indigenous cultures are built around the central theme of “community”. Certainly the Central Americans who fought civil wars, formed “base communities” practicing the values of liberation theology, and created agrarian co-operatives know the value of community. For people who have had to shed blood and lose family members to earn their most basic rights, it’s a given that true success can only happen through collective efforts, organization, and cooperation.
And so when we state that one of the most important values of Fair Trade is to support co-operative movements, what do we mean exactly? There is power in organization. Yet, power is another concept that makes some people uncomfortable. We’re okay with “direct relationships”; we’re okay with poverty alleviation and charity, but somehow, when the disenfranchised organize themselves and begin taking control over their own lives, businesses, and communities, gaining economic power in the marketplace and political power in their countries… well that makes some people a little nervous.
Why? With all our talk of how important “democracy” is to “Americans”, I’ve never quite understood why the concept of a democratic organization bringing its members political or economic power should make people uncomfortable; why we’d rather raise money and give to those less fortunate, but it does seem to be the preferred strategy. For me, that’s the missing ingredient, when folks start talking about “going direct”, or seeing co-operatives as the “middle person” or the body to try to “go around”. The strategy places too much emphasis on one person’s benevolence, and gives that person, or company, the upper hand. Today, I come to your village and establish a friendship, tomorrow I might go elsewhere. Here’s a scholarship for your family’s children. It’s a strategy, that while well-intentioned and produces positive results, does little to build democratic control and power at the producer level. And it keeps the attention on the giver, trader, buyer, project developer.
These same strategies: scholarships, direct relationships, community projects, have a completely different, and I would argue stronger impact, when they occur within the framework of an organized co-operative, association, or community. It’s a question of who’s in control, who makes the decisions, who is acquiring experience, and ultimately who has the power to set the terms.
For me, Fair Trade is all about changing the balance of power. It’s about producers, consumers, and alternative trade organizations working together to ensure that the terms of trade are more fair. Higher prices – yes; advance credit; direct relationships; and social projects… all of these are critical. But the emphasis and ultimate goal of all our work needs to be about equity and social justice. That’s the point we’re trying to make when we talk about small farmers, co-operative movements and big change.