Archive for August, 2009

The following post was written by Dary Goodrich, Chocolate Products Manager


For years at Equal Exchange we’ve been trying to call attention to the problem of forced child labor in the chocolate industry (see “Modern Slavery on Cocoa Farms” Equal Exchange 2006 Annual Report, “Reverse Trick-or-Treating” Equal Exchange 2007 Annual Report, “V-Days Dark Side” Special 2008 Chocolate Issue of What’s Brewing). Even working in this industry and knowing quite a lot about this issue, it is difficult to conceive of the fact that child slave labor still exists in today’s world. For many of us, it is so far outside of the realm of possibility in our own lives that we can’t fathom its existence.

Sadly, an August 3rd press release from Interpol revealed just how alive and real forced child labor is on cacao farms in West Africa. On June 18th and 19th, Interpol ran the first operation of its kind to free children working illegally on cacao and palm farms in the Ivory Coast. 54 children were rescued and the press release describes the conditions in which the children were working:

“The children had been bought by plantation owners needing cheap labour to harvest the cocoa and palm plantations. They were discovered working under extreme conditions, forced to carry massive loads seriously jeopardizing their health.  Aged between 11 and 16, children told investigators they would regularly work 12 hours a day and receive no salary or education. Girls were usually purchased as house maids and would work a seven-day week all year round, often in addition to their duties in the plantations.”

How can this be acceptable? How can an industry that knows this exists continue to allow it to happen? Especially an industry that turns around and profits by selling cocoa and chocolate to children in Europe and North America.   The industry has been pressured since 2001 to tackle the issue and has repeatedly pledged to root out the problem.  First they promised to stomp out forced labor by 2005, and in 2005 they said it would take just two more years.  Yet here is proof that it has not only failed to curb child slavery, but, in fact, the press release states that there is an “increasing trend in child trafficking and exploitation in this south eastern part of Côte D’Ivoire.”

After years of foot dragging, many of the large chocolate companies have finally started working on “sustainable” sourcing practices that are meant to address the issue of the worst forms of child labor. However, this is planned to take years: the practices may not cover 100% of a companies’ products, nor in most cases will they address the root cause of the issue. The fact is that most of the proposed solutions do not discuss the need to increase prices to farmers and if farmers in this traditional system cannot make enough money to survive they are forced to find the cheapest labor possible, which in this case are innocent children.

We know that there are other ways of doing business; clearly the Fair Trade model which emphasizes higher prices, pre-harvest credit, environmental sustainability and direct relationships with small-scale farmer co-operatives, is a far more ethical and sustainable business model. People, not profits, are at the heart of our businesses and we know that makes a real difference.

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If you live in the Northeast you know that we’ve had about eight sunny days this summer. Friday was one of them, so I decided to take the day off to go hiking in the White Mountains. The day was beautiful, the views from the top of Mt. Osceola were stunningly clear, and the breeze was placid, with a foreshadowing of autumn in the air.

I hadn’t gone far on my drive back to Boston when I realized that a good cup of coffee was critical. Of course, if you’ve been in that part of New Hampshire on Route 93, you know that your options are limited. And of course, I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to coffee… I can be practically falling asleep at the wheel, but I still can’t buy just any old cup.

After my third try exiting the highway and looping around one small town after another, I finally came upon a small town with a cute central area… and there is was, a sign advertising lattes, cappuccinos, etc. Relieved, I pulled over and eagerly wandered in. The place was cute – part General Store, part café. Weavings from South America hung from the wooden ceiling, and signs revealed that many products were local to the region: maple syrup, produce, cheese, and some crafts.

Instinctively, I walked over to the shelves where the coffee was sold. Packaged in brown paper bags, there was a label on the front with a photo of an indigenous woman in her native garb. On the back, another label explained that this was “Do good” coffee – 10% of the proceeds would go to help “an impoverished school in Peru.” No other labeling helped describe the product.

I already found myself reacting skeptically. Don’t get me wrong… I’ve spent years (upon years) in the “solidarity movement” and later in human rights and development organizations trying to raise money for worthwhile projects in rural communities in Latin America. It’s just that we always tried to do this work within a context. First, to provide an analysis of why people in these communities are poor, second to portray a complete picture of the relationship (and responsibilities) those of us in the “developed world” have to those we deem “in need”, and third to be very careful not to portray people as objects of “charity” but people with dignity, working hard, with dreams for their children and hope for a better future, just as we have here. In short, to try not to reduce our work to simple charity, but to use every interaction as an educational and transformational opportunity.

So a one liner on the back of a coffee package that merely said “Feel good: we donate 10% of the sale of this coffee to help an impoverished school”, did little to make me understand who these Peruvians are, what challenges they are up against; while a worthwhile cause, it didn’t help me understand or learn anything that might ultimately help me feel transformed or that I had any power to participate in the transformation of this Peruvian community.

Okay, I still clearly wanted my coffee.

So I eagerly ordered a cappuccino from the woman behind the counter. While waiting, I noticed a large wooden sign behind the register that proudly proclaimed: “All our coffee is 100% Fair Trade.”

Well that was interesting. I picked up one of the bags again (selling for $10.99 by the way). I turned it over a few times, but no sign of the Fair Trade seal anywhere.

“This coffee is Fair Trade?” I asked the woman.

“Yep,” she answered. “All our coffee comes from one plantation in Peru that’s owned by the owners of this store.”

I wanted my coffee and I really didn’t want to be obnoxious, but I was curious. “Really?” I pressed her, “but I don’t see the seal anywhere.”

I think she picked up on my expression, which I must admit, must have revealed my reaction to her “definition” of Fair Trade.*

“Yes,” she said, “that’s because our coffee is a different kind of fair trade. We don’t use the seal, that’s a different kind.”

“How is that?” I asked her incredulously.

She repeated, “all our coffee comes from one plantation. It’s owned by the guys that own this store and it’s roasted here locally.” She saw my reaction, leaned forward and whispered to me, “don’t worry, they pay the farmers wads of money. It’s Fair Trade, just a different kind.”


*Certified Fair Trade coffee may only be purchased from small farmer co-operatives, who own their land, and own their business. While there is pressure to change this criteria, to date, the Fair Trade movement has succeeded in not allowing Fair Trade coffee to include plantations, owned by one person or one family and employing workers. Regardless of how “good” the plantation owner is, how well s/he treats the workers, Fair Trade was started as an alternative model to support the efforts of small farmers seeking self-determination, market access, and more fair prices.  Equal Exchange is committed to deepening this model of trade.

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Did anyone see 60 Minutes last night? They re-aired their piece, The Price of Bananas, about how Chiquita Brands paid $12 million in “protection” money over a period of seven years to the paramilitary group, the AUC, in Colombia. The AUC were responsible for thousands of civilian deaths in the region where Chiquita was running its plantations and now family members of the victims are suing Chiquita. 


I wrote about this before, but last night 60 Minutes added new information from their original interview with Fernando Aguirre, current CEO of Chiquita Brands, that I think deserves to be mentioned.

Why am I so disturbed by this case and this interview?

Just read the following excerpt from the interview and see for yourself. (You can also see the 60 Minute segment here or read the text here.)


“This company has blood on its hands,” says attorney Terry Collingsworth, who has filed one of five lawsuits that have been brought against Chiquita, seeking money for the families of Colombians killed by the paramilitaries.

Collingsworth says the money Chiquita paid for seven years may have kept its employees safe, but it also helped buy weapons and ammunition that were killing other people.

“Are you saying that Chiquita was complicit in these massacres that took place down there?” [60 Minutes Steve] Kroft asks.

“Absolutely. If you provide knowing substantial assistance to someone who then goes out and kills someone, or terrorizes, or tortures someone, you’re also guilty.” Colllingsworth says.

Asked if he believes that Chiquita knew this money was being used to go into the villages and massacre people, Collingsworth says, “If they didn’t, they would be the only ones in the whole country of Colombia who didn’t think that.”

“You’re not saying that Chiquita wanted these people to be killed?” Kroft asks.

“No, they were indifferent to it,” Collingsworth says. “… they were willing to accept that those people would be dead, in order to keep their banana operation running profitably, and making all the money that they did in Colombia.”

Collingsworth says he thinks the company should have just picked up and left.

“It’s easy for a lawyer to give that type of advice, after the fact,” Aguirre argues. “When you have more than 3,500 workers, their lives depend on you. When you’ve been making payments to save their lives, you just can’t pick up and go.”

“What did the company think this money was gonna be used for?” Kroft asks.

“Well, clearly to save lives,” Aguirre says.

“The lives of your employees?” Kroft asks.

“Absolutely,”Aguirre says.

“It was also being used to kill other people,” Kroft says.

“Well, these groups were funded with hundreds of millions of dollars. They had the guns.” Aguirre says. “They had the bullets. So I don’t know who in their right mind would say, ‘Well, if Chiquita would have stopped, these killers would have stopped.’ I just don’t see that happening.”

“Do you feel that the company has any responsibility to compensate the victims of the paramilitaries in Colombia?” Kroft asks.

“The responsibility of any murders are the responsibility of the people that made the killings, of the people who pulled the trigger,” Aguirre says.


I find these last few exchanges particularly disturbing. Aguirre’s reasoning is that there was already so much money going to fund the paramilitaries, that even if Chiquita determined that paying paramilitary groups (“terrorists” according to the U.S. government) was unethical, immoral, or illegal and closed down shop, it wouldn’t have made any difference. Therefore, why not keep doing so? Why take a stand if it won’t change the “bigger picture”? Is this the kind of corporate philosophy that you feel good about? What about his next comment when asked if he felt that Chiquita has any responsibility to compensate the victims and Aguirre responds that, “the responsibility of any murders are the responsibility of the people that made the killings, of the people who pulled the trigger?” How’s that for corporate social responsibility?

I know that these situations are complex and as Aguirre points out, it’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback, but please tell me how this interview sits with you? How good can you feel about supporting this company? What kinds of statements would make you feel better? Better yet, what kind of actions would you want the companies you support – through your purchases – to be taking in the world?

I don’t think this is naïve. I think each one of us, individually, can draw our own lines and decide which companies, which retailers, perhaps even which farmers we would like to support through our purchases. Collectively, we can also demand that all parties in the supply chain be held accountable to produce our food in the most environmentally and socially sustainable manner possible, upholding values we believe in with integrity and transparency. It just means we need the information and we need to care enough to educate ourselves and each other. We then need to use our collective power to demand changes in corporate behavior, and in governmental policies which allow for and reward it. Finally, we need alternatives and we need to support those companies, stores, co-operatives, and local farmers who are walking the walk – actively working to create an alternative food system and an alternative economy.

I can’t say I’m surprised by Chiquita and Dole but I guess I am more disappointed that these actions haven’t received a bigger public outcry.

Thank you to 60 Minutes for continuing to make this story public.

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In January 2008, I took a group of Equal Exchange staff to Chiapas, Mexico to learn about some of the current realities that indigenous rural communities there are facing and to visit with one of our small farmer coffee co-operative partners, CIRSA.  Mike Mowry, Quality Control Technician, was one of the participants on that trip.  The following is a reflection from Mike along with a song that he wrote about his experience, recorded by his band, The Stress.

Mark 053There are many things I could write about from the Equal Exchange staff trip to Chiapas, Mexico back in January of ’08, so finding a place to start can be a little intimidating.  As someone who has a deep-seated passion for coffee, my initial excitement about this trip was geared mostly around what I wanted to learn from our farmer-partners in terms of the intense work that goes into the coffee harvest, processing, and export.  As I hope consumers know, the work is back-breaking, labor intensive, and to top it all off, highly dependent on swift and exact timing.  But besides what I learned about coffee harvesting, I walked away from that trip with far more.

I left Chiapas with a deeper understanding of the real consequences of NAFTA, and the negative effects of free trade on small farmers and their communities.  While massive factory farms in the United States enjoy the benefits of government subsidies, small, rural farmers all over Mexico and Central America find the gap between their food supply and their means of controlling it growing further and further apart.  While genetically modified and state subsidized American corn hits Mexican markets at prices lower than it costs for Mexicans to sell their own, you have to ask yourself “what’s wrong with this picture?”  “How did we get here?”

Mark 135As a musician, I felt it important to write something about the experiences of those in Mexico for whom the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement was the last straw.  That’s the focus of the song “1994”, which I wrote with my band about a year after I returned from the trip to Chiapas to visit with one of our small farmer co-operative trading partners: Las Comunidades Indígenas de La Región de Simojovel de Allende; or CIRSA, for short.  The song focuses on the struggles of small farmers in Mexico, and the indigenous rebellion which exploded on January 1st, 1994 following the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

We hope that you enjoy the song.

Please feel free to share it with friends or family.

About The Stress:

The Stress is a four piece traditional ska, rocksteady and reggae band from Providence, RI and Boston, MA.  We take influence from a range of musicians; from traditional Jamaican music to 1960’s British Invasion rock.  If you’d like to hear more of The Stress, please feel free to check out our website.

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Many thanks to all of you who took the time to write or call your Congressional representatives last week to express concern about the adverse impact that the Food Safety Enhancement Bill of 2009 H.R. 2749 would have on small scale farmers. While the bill moves us in the right direction, it does place a disproportionate burden on small farmers for safety concerns that are overwhelmingly caused by large scale agriculture interests.


While the bill overwhelmingly passed on a floor vote last week, with many of our concerns not included, we are encouraged by the amount of attention the issue is receiving. Our next step is the Senate (in September after the summer recess is concluded) and then conference (where House and Senate bills are reconciled).


It is important to note that our concerns were heard by many in the House, and were raised in discussion. We will keep you posted on when and how to keep the pressure on.  We all want safe food, but not at the expense of compromising small farmers.


In the meantime, those of you who are interested in learning more about the bill’s provisions, steps it takes to rein in corporate interests that are putting millions of consumers at risk, and the disproportionate burden placed on the backs of small scale farmers, can read Tom Philpott’s article, published in Grist on July 29th: With House Food Safety Bill a Done Deal, Questions Remain.

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Latina Worker

Latina Worker

by Doren Robbins

Then I notice through a triple-Americano-awakening moment,

in the mall food court, a young Latina cleaning around by the chrome rail

at Sbarro Pizza. Maybe a Guatemalan, possibly Salvadoran or



could’ve been Argentinean or Colombian, Chilean, Bolivian,

Panamanian—good chance a Peruvian, Venezuelan, Nicaraguan,


Toltec, Sephardic, Huichol coffee plantation or U.S. Fruit Company


or tobacco company or auto industry slave labor robot or CIA-


death squad Guardia Nacional butchery massacre survivor.


Several tables down from mine–roughly stacking chairs on tops

of tables—cussing in Spanish, in the mall food court, she hates

her job,

I hate her job.


“Latina Worker” by Doren Robbins, from My Piece of the Puzzle. © Eastern Washington University Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission.

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