Archive for June, 2009


The response from this blog to Obama protesting the massacre in Peru earlier this month was stunning. THANK YOU. Here is an update from our friends at the Quixote Center:


Thank you again for your strong response to our urgent action alert in response to the June 5th massacre of indigenous protestors in the Peruvian Amazon.   Over 1200 of you sent letters and faxes asking the Obama Administration to denounce the violent repression of peaceful protests organized in response to the U.S.-Peru Free Trade Agreement.

The groundswell of international solidarity in support of the struggle of Peru’s Amazonian indigenous was immediate. Protests organized in Peru and locations around the world helped to prevent further violence.  The UN Special Rapporteur’s Office for Indigenous Rights and the International Federation of Human Rights both sent representatives to Peru and recommended the creation of an independent investigation Commission.

In the aftermath of the massacre, expanding protests forced the government of Peru to negotiate with Indigenous leaders.  Two of the most egregious decrees issued under the U.S-Peru Implementation process were revoked and the Prime Minister of Peru agreed to resign.  Once this agreement was reached, AIDESEP (Inter-ethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Amazon) lifted the barricades in the Amazon.

However, criminal charges are still pending against several Indigenous leaders and negotiations continue regarding the repeal of 9 more decrees and the violation of indigenous rights under the U.S.-Peru FTA.

In a strongly worded “Dear Colleague” letter, Rep. Grijalva (D-AZ) urged members of the House of Representatives to pay close attention to this matter and consider the consequence for indigenous peoples if and when another “Free Trade” agreement is considered by this House.”

Ben Powless, a Mohawk from Six Nations Ontario, Canada, was with AIDESEP leaders in Bagua just after the massacre. To read his powerful story click here:   

The Obama Administration remains silent on the massacre in Peru. 

Next Monday President Obama will receive Colombia’s President Uribe at the White House to discuss passage of the “free trade” agreement with Colombia.  Protests are being organized in D.C. in response to the FTA and this endorsement of a regime responsible for massive human rights violations and acts of corruption.

We will continue to monitor the situation in Peru and will do all we can to make sure that your voices for change are heard here in Washington.   

For the Quixote Center, Jenny

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I just learned of the following news from Fresh Cut Magazine:


Monsanto Co. has entered into a collaboration with Dole Fresh Vegetables Inc. to develop new products that will enhance consumer vegetable choices.

The five-year collaboration will focus on broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce and spinach. Plant breeding will be used to improve the nutrition, flavor, color, texture, taste and aroma of these vegetables. Any new products realized from this collaboration could be commercialized by Dole in North America.

“The consumer wins because Dole’s market knowledge combined with our research and development capabilities will help bring new, flavorful, and healthy products to consumers,” said David Stark, vice president of consumer traits at Monsanto. “We are very excited and pleased to bring this focus to our business via this collaboration with Dole and its strong brand.”

“Dole prides itself on innovation and bringing consumers high-quality, nutritious, and great-tasting products,” said Roger Billingsley, senior vice-president of research and development for Dole Fresh Vegetables. “We are looking forward to collaborating closely with Monsanto to do just that.”


What more can be said?

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I’m on vacation this week! So it might be quiet on the blog, but I wanted to leave you all with this question: do you think the goals of the Buy Local movement and the Fair Trade movement are more compatible than they are contradictory?

Underneath the slogans and the sound bytes, it seems to me that the goals are about supporting small farmers, sustainable agriculture, local economies, community control, human connections, direct relationships, and a healthy planet.

If that’s so, let’s see those commonalities and work together to build a more transparent, just and democratic food system!

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Miguel PazThe following letter (translated from its original Spanish) was sent to us earlier this week from Miguel Paz, Export Manager for CECOVASA, long-time friend and business partner of Equal Exchange. Click here to read more about a past visit to CECOVASA.


Dear Friends,

I’m sending you a few comments from Peru.

Politically, the situation is very interesting. Up until a week ago, the government was taking an offensive position, trying to privatize and sell everything and award the best conditions possible to large national capital interests (planting large areas for agro export and agro industry) because the small farmers and the indigenous that live in these areas “don’t know how to develop them”. As President Alan Garcia said, these “second-class citizens” are like the “farmer’s dog who doesn’t eat or let anyone else eat.”


Using their control over the media and money that they must have received from transnational companies, they have been running a disinformation campaign, telling people that this is good for Peru, that mining investment will result in development, that this is a requirement in order to sign a free trade agreement with the United States. And they have been making progress, to the point that the Awajun-Wampis indigenous population rose up in northeast Bagua.

The government’s initial strategy was to ignore the demands, try to wait them out, then let the tenant farmers in the jungle (including coffee growers) turn against the indigenous population because they wouldn’t allow them to enter with food supplies or leave with production. After two months, the police unblocked the highways. It has been confirmed that 24 police officers and 10 indigenous have been killed and almost 150 people have been disappeared. There have been so many police officers killed because they were sent to be killed and the indigenous have military training and a long tradition of struggle. The tenant farmers helped them when the forced evacuation occurred. The government took a risk and criminalized the protest and then united the country against the “savages that kill the poor police officers.” Subsequently, in other areas where protests occurred, more radical methods were used and the protests moved to other parts of the country, including Lima (for the first time in many years, students went to the streets to march against the government). Eventually the government had to retract some of the controversial laws, but others have been left intact and this means that there is room for the problems to continue.


The situation has now calmed down, but it could become very complicated if there is not an adequate response. The farmer is very scared of the dogs.


In Peru, incredible things happen. A week ago, the government joined with the right and with Fujimori supporters to approve the “Law of the jungle”. Now it is trying to get these same people to repeal the law. The minister that said that these laws were necessary in order to be a part of the free trade agreement, now says that there is no risk in losing the agreement.

In the month of March, the Ministry of Education took a poll in which .1% approved and now they say that in another poll, 75% was approved. Additionally the daughter of ex-President Fujimori is leading the electoral polls.

Another important topic is that the government, by way of SUNAT (the national revenue service), intervened with the Panamericana television station because it wanted to collect on a debt of more than 100 million Peruvian sols. After 48 hours it had been determined that the situation would be handled by another agency due to insolvency. Then the judicial system made a resolution turning the station over to a former administrator who had received US$10 million from the Fujimori government.


The coffee situation is, in part, complicated by prices that continue to drop and by the fact that some clients are waiting to buy, hoping that they will drop even further. There are few remaining buyers from Colombia in Northeastern Peru (Jaen, Bagua, Amazonas). The differentials for conventional coffee (22 defects) from Peru are between +2 and +15. A separate issue is a drop in production. Cecovasa could see a reduction of as much as 50%. Very little coffee is being brought to the collection centers.


A final note: On June 5th, Cecovasa won a national BioTrade competition in the category for businesses. This happened on the same day that police officers and indigenous people were killed in Bagua. We went to the Palace to receive the award and we circulated a press release a week later.


We will continue to be in touch.


Miguel Paz

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The TRADE Act, one of the few positive trade bills to come before Congress in a long time, could be voted on ANY DAY now. Our friends at the American Friends Service Committee have sent out this alert. Please take a moment to call your representatives and ask them to cosponsor the bill. It’s truly one of the few times you can call IN SUPPORT of something that will really improve the livelihoods of people on both sides of the border, protect labor rights and the environment. How often do you get that opportunity? Please call today! Below, the AFSC does a great job of summarizing the bill’s key points and reasons to advocate for its passage.


Click here to see a web version of this alert or access background materials


TAKE ACTION: Change the future of trade policy!


Last year, with your support, over 80 members of the U.S. House and Senate cosponsored landmark legislation setting forth a progressive vision for future trade agreements.  The Trade Reform, Accountability, Development and Employment (TRADE) Act is a positive bill that outlines a trade agenda that will support livelihoods and development in both rich and poor countries.


Your help is needed now to urge your congressional members to once again cosponsor the 2009 TRADE Act.  This groundbreaking initiative will likely be reintroduced next week and it needs as many original cosponsors as possible.  The bill has already won the support of hundreds of faith, farm, labor and environmental groups.  The more cosponsors the TRADE Act has when reintroduced, the more momentum we will gain for a fair trade agenda. 



Call your two U.S. representatives
and urge her/him to be an original cosponsor of the 2009 House TRADE Act.

 Call the Capitol Switchboard (212) 224-3121
 Click here to find your representative.   




The Trade Reform, Accountability, Development and Employment (TRADE) Act was first put forward in the 110th session by Sen. Sherrod Brown and Rep. Mike Michaud.  AFSC together with other faith-based organizations requested changes to that bill that reflect our values and Mr. Michaud’s office incorporated almost all of them!

With your help, the future of trade policy can be shaped today.

A Balanced Way to Expand Trade


  • The TRADE Act maps out a fair path forward, explaining what we care about in a good agreement. 
  • It lays out the blueprint for how we can fix the existing model, showing what a responsible pacts would look like, and the procedures needed to get us there.
  • The bill shifts the debate towards discussing a new and improved globalization model.
  • It moves beyond repeatedly fighting against expansions of failed policies, and sets a marker for where new discussion should start later this year.


Answering Failed Policies of the Past


  • Pacts such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and the Peru Free Trade Agreement have not met up to their basic promises. 
  • These agreements should be serving a majority of people on issues such as wages, public health, the environment, human rights, food and consumer safety and access to essential services. 
  • Instead, these “free trade” policies have come at great costs.  The price we’ve paid in offshoring of jobs, downward pressure on wages, and damage to our environment and loss of family farms is far too great. 


The Purpose of the Trade Act


  • This initiative sets forth what we are for – shutting down the bogus claim that we oppose trade or have no alternative vision because we oppose these old failed agreements of the past.
  • This bill sets forth concrete ways to push our shared conviction that trade and investment are not ends unto themselves, but must also serve as a means for achieving greater societal goals.
  • This bill also serves as a litmus test.  By seeing who cosponsors — and who does not — we know who our trade champions are in the future.



Call the Capitol Switchboard TODAY

(212) 224-3121


For more information, click here.

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Our coffee co-op partner, CECOVASA has just received an award for the impact their work has had on promoting and protecting bio-diversity in the region.  The award was presented to them by Alan Garcia Perez, President of Peru.  We have just received the following press release about this impressive accomplishment which we have translated below from its original Spanish. For more information about CECOVASA, click here.



On World Environment Day


On June 5 at the National Palace, Cecovasa was awarded first place in the category for businesses dedicated to biotrade. This competition was organized by the Ministry of Environment and participants included 152 different businesses and communities located in 19 regions around the country. Cecovasa won the prize in the category for businesses, the Junín Pablo de Ucayali community and the San Juan Bautista (Loreto) municipality won prizes in the categories for communities and local governments, respectively. The prize was awarded by the Peruvian President in the presence of the Minister of Environment, Ambassadors, Congress people, and hundreds of intellectuals and individuals that are well known for their defense of the environment and promotion of sustainable businesses.


The Minister of Environment, Antonio Brack, said that this is the first time that the competition is being held. He said that Peru has a rich biodiversity that allows for the country to generate wealth and move its people out of poverty.


The President (though we don’t believe it) said the following: “the environment is a fundamental issue for the future and, therefore, a fundamental issue for the government.”  The Chief of State, Alan Garcia Perez, highlighted the work that is being done by those who promote biodiversity using biotrade and added, “this is included among the government’s objective—the defense of Peru’s biodiversity.” He then said that our country is an “extraordinary bank that allows us for an almost infinite amount of goods, some domesticated throughout history, others built by the original population of Peru, and others in the process of investigation and recognition.”


In speaking with the press, Cecovasa president Agustin Mollinedo Trujillo expressed satisfaction for this recognition. “Cecovasa is made up of small producers. We are farmers that work the land; but we are winners. We have an average of 2 hectares ( less than 5 acres) of coffee and we have created the most successful biotrade business in Peru.  Small-scale agriculture is not only possible, it is sustainable when there exists an economy of scales and an effort to reach markets that pay more money and demand higher quality.”  Mr. Mollinedo asserted that, during 2008-2009, exports reached US$14,876,118. Of this amount, US$8,448,958 was generated from sales of organic coffee gathered by the 1,934 members that participate in the Organic and Sustainable Coffee Program.




Upon being asked about the needs of the producers, the Cecovasa President expressed that what is most needed is communication channels that are in good condition. “We spend as many as 18 hours traveling 350 kilometers to transfer coffee from Putina Punco to Juliaca. If the Sina-Yanahuaya highway were built, this trip could be made in 12 hours. Mollinedo congratulated the producers and leaders of the grassroots co-operative, the leaders of the Organic Program, and the Technical Department—especially Leonardo Mamani, head of Projects. The Cecovasa president said, “our members have children who have become professionals and this is providing us with results that are favorable for everyone.”


Mr. Leonardo Mamani said that the prize awarded to Cecovasa is in the amount of US$ 15,000, but this has not been given in cash, rather it will be used for trainings and for the purchase of equipment in accordance to the plan that we presented.” Mamani said that in order to achieve this award, we have undergone a rigorous evaluation. “The inspectors traveled to the production zone and saw the work in the fields, the work of the technicians, the work of the cooperatives. The verification process then moved to Lima, where they saw the dry processing that, though it does not belong to us, is in accordance with environmental standards and good treatment of workers. Leonardo concluded, “We are champions in biotrade, we are Cecovasa: Quechua and Aymara coffee from Peru.”

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I just learned about a new documentary, “Bananas” that is supposed to be released this Saturday at the L.A. Film Festival. I say “supposed to be” because even before its official release, the film has hit a nerve for the Dole Food Company, the largest producer of fruits and vegetables in the world. And they are trying to prevent the Los Angeles Film Festival from showing the film. Read about the controversy in the article, “Dole Food Company dislikes “Bananas” in the June 16th edition of the Los Angeles Times.


El Dragón, our friend over at Fair Food Fight has written a great piece with a lot of interesting comments on the subject so I think I will just take the liberty to share his post with all of you here. Do check out Fair Food Fight for more information and commentary on today’s food industry because what’s going on in front of us and behind our backs is affecting every last one of us and in no uncertain terms.


Tue, 06/16/2009


A new foodumentary, Bananas! (trailer), has Dole Food Co.’s full attention. From the LA Times:

In the eyes of Dole Food Co., [Fredrik] Gertten’s film [Banana’s] is an egregiously flawed document based on what Dole lawyer Scott Edelman calls “a phony story” that has been discredited by the allegedly fraudulent conduct of the L.A. attorney, Juan J. Dominguez, at the film’s center. Dole, the world’s largest producer of fruits and vegetables, is vowing to sue both the filmmaker and the Los Angeles Film Festival for defamation if it screens the movie this week.

Them’s fightin’ words, and one can see Dole’s point of view. After all, Dominguez managed to score a number of court victories against Dole, only to have two of those rulings overturned when it came to light that Dominguez had concocted evidence and testimony.

In a 2007 jury trial before Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Victoria G. Chaney, Dole lost and was ordered to pay $1.58 million to four of the dozen Nicaraguans claiming injury in that case, several of whom are depicted in Gertten’s film. Dole is appealing that case.

Then this spring, in a dramatic reversal of events, Chaney threw out two other lawsuits against Dole after being presented by Dole investigators with evidence gathered from Nicaraguans who said that they had been recruited and coached by lawyers, outfitted with false work histories and falsified medical lab reports, and promised payouts to pose as pesticide victims.

In her April 23, 2009 ruling on the case, Chaney said that “the actions of the attorneys in Nicaragua and some of the attorneys in the United States, specifically the Law Offices of Juan Dominguez, have perverted the court’s ability to deliver justice to those parties that come before it.”

“What has occurred here is not just a fraud on this court, but it is blatant extortion of the defendants,” i.e. Dole, the judge said in her ruling. The “plaintiffs’ fraud,” the judge said, “permeates every aspect of this case.”

Goal scored for Goliath.

But while that disclosure taints one lawyer’s legal arguments (and the principle character of Bananas!), it doesn’t undo the reality of the sad situation that Dole and other fruit companies created — or the larger truth of this film. Namely, it doesn’t undo the fact that Dole acknowledges that it used a devastating pesticide (called DBCP and known by friends as “nemagon”) in banana planations in Nicaragua, the Philippines, Honduras, the Ivory Coast, Costa Rica, and other banana-growing countries, and that that pesticide in all likelihood caused sterility in thousands of male banana plantation workers, miscarriages in women, and other serious health effects back into the mid-seventies. Nemagon is an organophosphate and a hormone disruptor and was banned in the United States in 1979, though its use continued in banana-producing countries well into the nineties. It also does not undo the fact that Dow Chemical, the producer of DBCP, said it wouldn’t sell the pesticide to Dole anymore because the chemical was too dangerous, or the fact that Dole threatened Dow Chemical with a breach-of-contract lawsuit if it didn’t keep selling the chemical to the fruit company (from the book Banana by Dan Koeppel). It also ignores the fact that Dole has settled quite a few of these farm worker cases out of court.

Dole is trying to control and create truth by threatening filmmaker Gertten with legal action (and frankly, given the years of bad press generated by these lawsuits, I don’t think it’s a mere threat). Dominguez was just one lawyer, representing some workers in one country. The fact is, there are thousands of farm workers in each of the countries mentioned above who’ve stepped forward to file allegations against Dole. If the company succeeds in shutting down this documentary and preventing it from circulating in film festivals and theaters, the experience of all those farm workers, a generation of them across the planet, and the indignities they suffered for the sake of a fruit company, will also be prevented from being witnessed in America.

(On a side note, the revelations about Dominguez also fail to answer other disturbing allegations against Dole. Please read up on Fair Food Fight’s Screw the Tallyman initiative, and call for an investigation into Dole for allegedly funding Colombian paramilitary groups and driving small banana farmers from their land.)

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The following press release from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers announces a letter recently sent to Chipotle CEO, Steve Ells asking him to do more to ensure improved working conditions and higher wages for farmworkers. Rob Everts, Equal Exchange Co-Director, joins more than 2 dozen leading sustainable food activists in signing the letter which follows.


PRESS RELEASE from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers

June 15, 2009


In a strongly worded letter, more than two dozen of the country’s leading sustainable food activists are demanding that Chipotle, the fastest growing company in fast-food, live up to its claims of “Food with Integrity” and “work with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers as a true partner in the protection of farmworkers’ rights.”


Frances Moore Lappe (“Diet for a Small Planet”), Raj Patel (“Stuffed and Starved”), Josh Viertel (President, Slow Food USA), and Robert Kenner and Eric Schlosser (director and co-producer the critically acclaimed new documentary on the food industry, “Food, Inc.”) are just a few of the voices for a more just food system that added their names to the open letter. Here’s an excerpt: (more…)

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Our friends at the Quixote Center have sent the following letter which I would like to share with all of you.  Please take a few moments to add your voice to those who are protesting the brutal massacre of those Peruvians who were protesting the passage of new laws that allow multi-national control over indigenous resources in Peru.  These laws are part of the Peruvian government’s attempt to implement the recently signed U.S. – Peru Free Trade Agreement.


Dear phyllis,

Thank you for your strong response!  Over 700 of you have sent letters telling our government that we reject the killing and environmental destruction in the Peruvian Amazon unleashed by U.S. Free Trade policies. Protests are being held at the Peruvian Embassy here in Washington D.C., L.A. and around the world. 


However, the situation remains extremely tense.


Alberto Pizango, AIDESEP (Inter-ethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Amazon) called last weekend’s massacre, “the worst slaughter of our people in 20 years.” Pizango has been charged with sedition and has taken refuge in the Nicaraguan Embassy in Lima. (more…)

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If you’ve been reading the blog last week, you know that I’ve been a bit obsessed with bananas lately.

I think it’s because there’s exciting news and some really troubling dealings – all going on simultaneously in today’s world of bananas. That these actions are occupying the same moment in time has caused me to think a lot about business, politics, marketing and ethics; ultimately, how and where we all draw our lines of what is acceptable and what is possible.

So… first the exciting news.

Equal Exchange is part owner of the first Fair Trade banana company in the United States, Oké USA.

This visionary company was launched in the U.S. by Agrofair (a Dutch company itself co-owned by small farmer co-ops), Equal Exchange, and long-time ally, Red Tomato in 2006. Until recently, it was run by Jonathan Rosenthal, one of Equal Exchange’s original founders. Starting this summer, Oké USA bananas will be sold in food co-ops and in other retail establishments displaying the Equal Exchange logo.

What’s so thrilling about Fair Trade bananas?

Some of you know the powerful history that coffee (tea and cocoa) have played in the world of international trade, colonial exploitation, political influence, and environmental degradation. Twenty three years ago, when Jonathan, Rink and Michael decided to launch Equal Exchange, conventional traders told them they were crazy: small scale growers could never compete in the same market as large plantations or multi-national corporations. Not on capital, not on quality, not on scale. Consumers wouldn’t care deeply enough where their food came from, how it was grown, or about the conditions of those who grow it. In short, it would be impossible for this upstart group of wide-eyed idealists to build a market for small scale coffee producers that would have any impact. Not here. Not there.

Equal Exchange proved those critics wrong.

Today, we have taken on a similar, some would say even crazier, more Sisyphus-like, challenge. Five banana companies own 96% of the bananas sold in the U.S. market. If you think coffee has played a nefarious role in many of the countries where it’s grown, try taking a college course on Latin American history without reading about United Fruit, CIA-sponsored coups, revolutions and counter-revolutions. “Banana Republics” weren’t called that without good reason.

I’ll say no more about the history of banana companies, their doings and wrongdoings for now. You can read some more on this blog, and in history books, novels and all over the web. For now, I’ll just say that I’m pleased to be working in a co-operative that cares about small producers, that wants to take on a monopolistic industry (despite all odds) by providing an alternative model, and that believes in U.S. consumers. Consumers vote with their dollars and we are confident that, given an actual choice and real information, most consumers will opt in favor of a system, a company, and a product that stands for: ethical and direct relationships up and down the supply chain, environmental sustainability, traceability, and community control. But if this is to happen, certain key factors are essential: information and available choices.

Now let me tell you the other, darker, side of why I’ve been so riled up these days.

It’s Chiquita and Dole.

I can’t stop thinking about these two companies and the fact that they are mired in lawsuits by family members of people assassinated by right-wing paramilitary groups in Colombia. The allegations (and in the case of Chiquita, admission of guilt) is that the companies paid the paramilitaries, known as the “AUC” for a number of years for “protection services”. In a 60 Minutes interview last year, Chiquita Brands CEO, Fernando Aguirre, responded that the money was paid because there was a belief that if they refused, the AUC would target their employees. When asked if he therefore felt any responsibility for the deaths of those whom the AUC did kill, Aguirre replied that the guilty are those that carried out the killings.

I can’t stop thinking about that. I understand that companies choosing to do business in countries with complex political situations, civil wars, and the like, face tough decisions. It’s also always easier to be an armchair critic (especially when it’s not your business, or your life, on the line). The question may be naïve; but why didn’t these large multi-national companies make a different decision? Perhaps if funding right-wing paramilitaries, responsible for throwing farmers off the land, committing all sorts of human rights violations, and assassinating labor activists, was the only way to keep business afloat (and their employees safe), why didn’t they say, “sorry, it’s time to stop doing business in Colombia for now.” Would we consumers really have to forego bananas? Would their profits really have suffered?

Over the past three decades, Dole has also been the subject of lawsuits filed by thousands of banana plantation workers in Latin America, Africa and the Philipines, who claim that they have suffered sterilization and other severe health problems from the pesticide Nemagon which was widely used on banana plantations.   In 2002, Dole, Dow, and Shell, were found liable under Nicaraguan law and ordered to pay almost $500 million in a class action lawsuit filed by 583 banana workers. In 2003, Dole filed a counter lawsuit in the U.S. claiming fraud. The U.S. courts sided with Dole. In the Nicaragua case, Dole refused to accept responsibility for any of the health impacts of a pesticide well known for its toxicity to humans. Its response was to counter- sue the banana farmers. An upcoming film, The Affected, by Catawampus Films, tells the full story. (See the riveting trailer here.)

So I’ve been both appalled by the actions of companies like Chiquita and Dole and also, perhaps because of these behaviors, excited about the opportunity we have to grow a Fair Trade banana company that offers a product consumers can feel good about: organic Fair Trade bananas from small farmer co-ops.

Feels pretty cut and dry to me. Honestly, which banana would you choose?

But now the nuances come into play.

When I first started writing about Dole and Chiquita, I didn’t mention Equal Exchange’s involvement in Oké USA. I wanted to be able to express my indignation about these companies simply because it’s there. I worried that if I wrote about how outrageous some of the behavior of Chiquita and Dole has been, and then offered a polished piece about Oké and our small farmer partners, the cynics would dismiss the scale of Dole and Chiquita’s wrongdoings and see this as just an opportunistic “marketing” strategy to sell our bananas.

It’s really not. The fact is you can’t really win if you’re a mission-driven company. So I guess you just have to say what you think should be said.

But then, I had a very interesting and provocative conversation with the General Manager of a food co-op with whom Equal Exchange has had a long and close relationship. He told me about a political quandary that he is facing.

“We buy Oké USA bananas whenever we can,” he told me. “But there is much greater demand for these bananas than there is supply. Our distributor sends us Oké bananas whenever they are available, Dole whenever they’re not.” He went on, “So, a number of our consumers are aware that there is a lawsuit filed against Dole. They think that a food co-op with our values should not be carrying them. Even some members of my board are upset and want to see the Dole bananas pulled.” He shares the same concerns; on the other hand, however, he runs a store and bananas are the most highly demanded fruit. (According to the USDA, the average American eats 26 pounds of bananas a year; bananas are the most purchased fruit item in the U.S.) If there are no bananas available, consumers wishing to purchase them will be upset and perhaps shop somewhere other than their co-op.

So what are the options?

I empathized with his situation and was glad I didn’t have to make the call. But then he asked me what I would do? My first reaction, of course, was to feel enormous pride in the co-op movement: his members were informed and asking good questions, he and his board were struggling over these ethical and practical questions. Still, that didn’t give him his answer. It wasn’t such an obvious one (to me anyway). Of course, I wanted to take the high moral ground – no bananas from Dole! The solution I really wanted to offer is not yet a possibility: that one day consumers will demand enough small farmer Fair Trade bananas, that Oké will grow its supply chain, and these really in-your-face ethical dilemmas will fade into history books.

But that’s not possible at the moment. Three years after its launch, Oké USA is still just getting started. It’s hard work building a supply chain for small farmers where none exists.

So, in the absence of an organized consumer campaign to boycott Dole, it seemed like the best decision would be to carry the bananas but to inform consumers – where they come from, what the issues are and let them decide. I felt somewhat uncomfortable – is that a cop out? Where do you draw the line?

Where do YOU draw the line? I’d like to tell you that after all I’ve read and thought about Chiquita and Dole, the 1950s coup in Guatemala spurred by United Fruit that led to 100,000 dead in a 30-year civil war that still affects every facet of life in Guatemala today… I’d like to tell you that I’ve never bought a yellow banana marked Chiquita. But I’m afraid that would be a lie. I won’t even tell you how recently I bought my last one.

All I can tell you is that this ever-so-brief conversation underscored my commitment to help grow the market for Oké USA. Critics can dismiss it as “self-interest”, but it’s an interest rooted in deep beliefs of what’s right and wrong. Consumers need to know what Oké stands for on both sides of the supply chain. I want them to learn about our farmer partners. I’m excited to grow this market and sell to consumers who want to make the right choice and to food co-ops who think consciously about the food system they are building. In the near future, when someone challenges me about whether I buy Dole or Chiquita bananas, I want to be able to say “absolutely not.” I want a choice.

Unfortunately, I’m not quite finished here.

Let’s take the conversation away from the consumer for a moment. What is the role of the Fair Trade certifier in this global drama that affects millions?

Several weeks ago, Transfair USA gave Fair Trade certification to Dole bananas. That means that soon you will be able to buy a Fair Trade (non-organic) banana from Dole. How can this be? At the same exact time that a lawsuit with egregious claims has been filed in a Florida court against the company, Transfair USA decides that consumers need more Fair Trade bananas and Dole should be the source.

You may remember the hoopla several years ago when Transfair tried – very hard – to certify Chiquita bananas. There was such an outcry from Fair Trade activists, as well as some labor unions, over pieces of the negotiation, that the deal eventually fell through. You could almost hear the sigh of relief from those Fair Traders who felt that sharing a Fair Trade seal with Chiquita was morally wrong – the last straw in a series of complaints about the direction of Fair Trade certification.

Again, it was a complex situation. Some labor unions had been pushing hard in support of Fair Trade plantation bananas. There was a moment where it seemed that Transfair might negotiate a deal where the plantations would have to be unionized. This would be a victory for the unions who have been fighting for improved working conditions and worker rights on plantations historically known for their disregard for workers.

Fair Trade activists looked at Chiquita’s record and scoffed. Small farmer advocates worried that it would be the end of small farmer bananas. Who could compete with a multi-national the size of Chiquita? Many doubted whether Transfair had the capacity to effectively monitor and implement the standards.

In the end, Chiquita itself seemed to get cold feet about giving increased control to unions and union plantation members and amidst much strife, the deal fell apart. The irony here is that there are some who work with the labor union movement in Latin America who believe that Chiquita’s plantations are much more unionized and have far better working conditions than those of Dole. Did the movement succeed in stopping Chiquita only to allow Dole to slip through while no one was looking?

So now, we will have non-unionized Fair Trade plantation bananas (from Dole) competing with bananas sourced from small farmers in the same Fair Trade system. Why would Transfair do such a thing? To be “fair”, I believe that they will say that there are not enough small banana farmers to create a meaningful supply of Fair Trade bananas in the U.S. and that therefore bananas from plantations are necessary to “grow” the Fair Trade market. Clearly, they will claim that Dole plantations are well managed, working conditions are good, and that workers will be empowered through participation in the Fair Trade system. What do they say about the lawsuit against Dole or the fact that the plantations need not be unionized? Will small banana farmers EVER be able to access a market dominated by 5 companies if those companies also have the Fair Trade seal?

[Aug. 20th edit:  Please note that Transfair USA has pointed out to us that the information provided in the paragraph above concerning the certification of Dole bananas is incorrect, for which I would like to apologize.  According to Transfair, the agreement is that Dole will source their bananas from a “balanced mix of small farmer associations or co-operatives and independently owned plantations that are unionized.”]

A group of us met last week to talk about this dilemma. We’re upset, but what’s the “right” response? Should Equal Exchange lead a movement to protest (boycott?) Dole? Well, we are definitely outraged, but none of us could honestly say that our attention should be focused on building a campaign against Dole. We are, however, among the leaders in the Fair Trade movement. Should we lead a campaign to protest Transfair USA’s decision giving Fair Trade certification to Dole bananas? Perhaps. If we did this, would we be accused of being opportunistic since we have our own brand of Fair Trade bananas we feel far better about? Maybe. Will some say drawing attention to these controversies will confuse consumers, divide “the movement?” Absolutely.

Does it matter if we really believe that certifying plantations will harm small farmers, do little to create positive impact on farm workers; ultimately expanding the quantity of Fair Trade bananas in the marketplace but not creating deep structural change?

It wasn’t an easy discussion and as always many differing opinions were expressed. Finally, however, we reached a decision and I believe it was the right one. We took stock and decided to stay the course and remain true to our mission. Perhaps we won’t be leading a campaign against Dole or spending our energy trying to transform Transfair. But that won’t stop us from sharing our perspectives, even if that makes some uncomfortable. And In the process, we’re willing to open ourselves up for critique as well. Sometimes it can be better for a movement to ask hard questions rather than have all the answers.

So we will do our best to put forth our views, ask tough questions, and encourage debate. We will take actions when they seem appropriate and effective. But ultimately, we will focus our energy doing what it is we deeply believe in, and remain, 23 years later, still committed to more than ever: changing the terms of international trade, providing an alternative model of business, and building ethical, transparent, and meaningful supply chains that empower small farmers and consumers. In other words, together with our small farmer partners, our Interfaith and food co-op partners, and all the engaged consumers and activists that share our vision: we will continue to walk the walk as tenaciously as possible opening markets for small farmers.   I guess that’s where we’ll draw our line.

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