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The following article was written by Rink Dickinson, President of Equal Exchange
I want to start by sharing about my personal politics.
I am a democratic socialist, an electoral aficionado, and someone who thinks a lot about U.S. and world history. My voting history is varied; at times I have voted for the Democratic Party, as well as third parties. And not that long ago I voted for a Republican for Senate in my state of Rhode Island. I have voted with and without excitement.
Eugene Debs ran for president in 1912 and got six percent of the vote nationally as a Socialist. A few years after defeat, Debs spoke out loudly against the U.S. going into World War I. He was put in prison for exercising his rights and opposing that bloody conflict. I honor Debs’ actions as an example of the America that has been, and the America that many of us are still fighting for.
As shocked as I was by the election of Trump, I find my thoughts turning to democracy, both in the U.S. and abroad. How is democracy faring? What should we learn from this democratic election result?
THE EQUAL EXCHANGE DEMOCRACY
Since its origin in 1986, Equal Exchange has been organized as a democratic organization. We formally took on a worker co-op structure in 1990. With over 100 worker-owner members, we are one of the largest experiments in the country in the area of workplace democracy. Our worker-owners elect the board, control the voting stock of the organization, and sometimes make high-level decisions. We ourselves are a network between tens of thousands of democratically organized small farmers and hundreds of thousands of not-yet organized U.S. consumers.
At Equal Exchange, democracy is not under external threat. We support and believe in this model: our managers, our board, our outside shareholders, our members. That’s not to say we aren’t without challenges; it’s often difficult for us to build participation, engagement, energy and direction. We are separated by occupation, language, geography, culture, race, gender, age, education and power among other things. We’re learning as we grow, and we know more about what it means to live democracy than 99.9% of the businesses out there. Thirty years in, and we know we are still young in our development as a democratic workplace. The path is challenging.
Democracy work is humbling, often not knowable, and by definition requires experimentation, failure, and trust to work on a functional level. It is very easy for fear to undermine progress, and permanently poison the well of trust and experimentation. If this is true for us on a micro level of one medium-sized organization … what about on the national level?
Some look to Europe as a more advanced, developed model of democracy. And yet, my view is that Europe is likely in worse shape than the U.S. How is political democracy actually faring in the U.K., or Spain, or Germany? The U.K. is reeling with big political and economical issues: which countries make up the U.K.? What does the U.K. want from its relations with Europe? Similar to the election of Trump with 47 percent of the popular vote, the rejection of Brexit by 52 percent of the voters will have profound impacts for a divided nation. But is any outcome likely to lead to a stronger, healthier democracy?
In Spain, the national government selection process has been semi-frozen for almost a year. There are competing parties on the left who will not cooperate with each other or with the parties on the right. And likewise on the right side of the spectrum. Further complicating the situation is the desire of certain states to not even be part of Spain. The democratic system exists but has no trust and is barely functioning.
The German situation is different internally, but what jumps out to me is the external situation. Germany is a country with a resume unfortunately. We cannot forget that Hitler was voted into power before plunging the world into the depths of fascism, the bloodiest war in history, and the holocaust. Today’s Germany is the economic beneficiary of a less than democratic European economic-political union. Germany keeps her national government and does not share the economic or political pain of structural recession with the junior partner states of Spain, Greece, or Ireland, who live under German/European system domain. Hardly the conditions in which democracy can flourish.
So, what is the state of U.S. democracy? What does it mean for democracy that we have elected a president who led the campaign to challenge the citizenship of our first black president? What role did the media — right, center, and left — play in building the conditions for Trump to win the Republican nomination and then the presidency? My sense is that during the primaries the media created Trump at a huge and completely unfair disadvantage to the other Republican candidates. In the general election there was a fair amount of information on both candidates available (if you could wade through the lies, spin, and hype) for voters to choose their preference.
What do we make of the rigged system argument and what does it mean for the health of our democracy? Trump declared the system (economical and political) to be rigged and promoted the view that only he could “un-rig” the system. He openly questioned the election system itself, depending on the outcome. Clinton borrowed some Sanders language to indicate that, in some ways, the system was rigged and she had the right plan to make it less rigged. She obviously accepted the integrity of the election system.
Trump is a populist pirate. He allows citizens to vote to blow up the system of bad economics, ineffective politics, and failed pro-corporate trade deals in quest of “greatness” and jobs. Along with this recipe comes variable doses of skullduggery, xenophobia, misogyny, and acceptance of the head pirate as a great leader to be admired and idolized.
The Trump phenomenon is a symptom of our weakened democratic muscles. But the Trump and Obama “movements” share some characteristics. Each was successful in turning their story into a brand and a cult of personality. Each benefitted from massive media exposure. Each appealed to marginal voters on an emotional level and secured the nomination and the presidency on that appeal. Each of their victories demonstrated the hollowness of the Democratic and Republican parties.
Real democracy work is needed more than ever. This work will be challenging. It requires looking at things that we don’t want to. It requires seeing things more as they are than as we wish them to be. It requires long-term engagement, inclusion, and building a culture of listening and respect. This work must happen in both political parties, but more importantly, in society at large.
Keep the faith.
The following article was written by Rob Everts, Co-President, Equal Exchange
Devastating. Disorienting. Frightening.
There’s no escaping it. Viscerally and pragmatically, the future looks really bleak as we absorb what transpired in this country last Tuesday.
For me, it was a flashback to when Ronald Reagan was elected. It felt unreal, like this could not possibly have happened. But it did happen. Boy did it. He convinced millions of Americans that government could only make their lives worse, not better, and followed through by starving it of funding in every way possible. When he destroyed the air traffic controllers union and declared war on organized labor, it precipitated a decline from which unions have never recovered. And that fact, along with tax policies that hastened the extreme income inequality we live amidst today, have left millions with little hope of ever improving their standard of living. Overseas, he sponsored unspeakable campaigns of torture and assassination of innocents in Central America and elsewhere.
So with this election comes the prospect of things worse than we can imagine. We have to start by acknowledging the pain and fear Trump’s election has triggered. Race-baiting, immigrant bashing and fear-mongering have a long and unfortunate history in our country. But I don’t recall ever seeing the total demonization of so many distinct groups of people who make up the fabric of American society. It seems every demographic absent white males was fair game for threat, humiliation and ridicule.
To cite just two of the constituencies who were targets of Trump’s venom, immigrants and communities of color have very real reasons to fear. Groups and individuals inclined to carry out hate crimes may feel new license to act. We may very well see a dramatic rise in immigration raids in communities and workplaces across the country.
I encountered an extreme example of this fear while canvassing an immigrant neighborhood in Nashua, NH the Saturday before the election. A Brazilian man told me matter-of-factly that if Trump won he would absolutely be returning to Brazil in anticipation of a climate of increased hostility. This man was a U.S. citizen.
Beyond this, we all feel the personal and policy threats that loom. We have a sick feeling about what is in store merely by invoking the words Supreme Court, climate change, health care.
But there is also a lot that we don’t know. Amid the lies, insults, misogyny, narcissism and its corresponding anticipated damage and destruction, are there any reasons for hope on the generally detail and fact-free policy ideas he put out?
Closer to home, we at Equal Exchange are taking stock in what this election means for us. For small scale farmers around the world. For those who are seeking to democratize a corporate controlled food system. For the hundreds of thousands of people who through their purchases and myriad other actions, have contributed to our success.
We are inspired by the millions of people who responded to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ straight talk about re-building our democracy and making it work for the many and not just the few. Many who voted for Sanders—and yes, many who voted for Trump—were rejecting the ruling elite that has long ignored the majority in favor of their corporate patrons.
In moments like this, we take great solace in finding ourselves in alliance with so many remarkable people and organizations. And we want to deepen these ties more than ever. We need to call out injustice where we see it, open ourselves to new alliances, and lend a hand to movements not necessarily central to our mission.
But we need to keep being true to who we are and share our vision for a better world. In fact, we need to rededicate ourselves to our mission of strengthening the position of small farmers and their cooperatives, work every day to be the best example of worker democracy that we can be, and engage “citizen consumers” more deeply than ever before. We know that as individuals, be it as consumers or as citizens, we don’t have a fraction of the power we have as when we organize.
Anticipating his death, that brave IWW organizer and songwriter, Joe Hill said, “Don’t mourn. Organize.” I am more in the mood to do both: Mourn. Then organize.
Si se puede.
Do you regularly purchase avocados at your local grocery store? If so, have you noticed that it was not possible to purchase avocados from Mexico during the first two weeks of October? Are you curious what’s behind this disruption in supply?
In the following article, Nicole Vitello, CEO of Oke USA/Equal Exchange Bananas gives us a behind-the-scenes look at what’s been happening in Mexico and the impact it has on those of us here who purchase Mexican avocados. She also explains why the model of trade that Oke USA/Equal Exchange believes in and adheres to provides an alternative, more equitable model that benefits both growers in the Global South and consumers here in the U.S.
Why did the supply of Mexican avocados to the U.S. suddenly stop?
The Mexican avocado growing season ends in May. Shortly after the harvest was completed, avocado growers occupied the offices of APEAM (Association of Producers and Exporter of Avocados from Mexico) in a massive protest. APEAM offices are located in Michoacan, the primary avocado export province of Mexico. What was the issue?
According to APEAM spokesperson, Ramon Paz Vega, the “primary issue revolved around internal differences on sales negotiations between growers and packers. The other issues pertain to payment in U.S. dollars vs. Mexican pesos, and who should be responsible for phytosanitary sampling fruit costs required by the USDA. Negotiations on these two topics continue,” he told The Produce News via email on Oct. 17th.
Twenty thousand growers produce avocados in Mexico. In the conventional agricultural system, growers do not generally harvest or pack their own product. The farmers sell their avocados in the field each week to a consolidator who owns a packing house and exports the fruit to the US, Canada, Europe, China, and Japan. The total number of packing houses in Mexico is only 325.
Field prices are set each week in pesos and exporters do business in dollars. Growers were mainly protesting low field prices vs. export prices, as well as the the peso to dollar equivalencies which were not working in their favor. They were asking for field prices to be paid in dollars and for more transparency around the market vs field prices. Growers occupying APEAM offices back in May meant that no field prices could be set, no harvest crews could be organized and all negotiations between growers and packers were frozen. Eventually, an agreement was finally reached.
To be clear, APEAM represents growers and packers but is an association, not a governmental organization, so they have limited power. As Vega states, “It is important to note that none of these topics fall within APEAM’s purview as APEAM has no role in the private negotiations between growers and packers. However, APEAM has been using its influence to promote dialogue and agreement between the parties.”
Despite the agreement, at the end of September, growers decided to strike again in the belief that their agreement with packers was not being respected. This strike resulted in a total shut down of Mexican avocado supply to the US market during the first two weeks of October, a time when few other sources for avocados were available. This shut-down got the attention of more powerful forces than APEAM; mainly SAGARPA (Mexico’s USDA) and the Mexican Government. The strike was resolved by October 14 and harvesting and packing resumed on October 17.
While this strike was a loss for the reliability of an avocado supply chain from Mexico, it is a win for growers who were able to shine a light on the actual power dynamics and inequalities of the internal Mexican avocado market.
How is Equal Exchange an alternative?
As an Alternative Trade Organization, our business model is based on the approach that growers and importers should be able to connect directly with each other under mutually understood and agreed upon guidelines. This has many advantages:
According to Vega: “Some of the more radical protesters wanted a set price for the entire season and for all types of fruit. Of course, this is not allowed and the governmental mediators and APEAM made this clear to the protesters.”
This vision is only radical because it is an alternative to free market capitalism which promotes wild variances in pricing allowing certain agents in the supply chain to profit. Set pricing would allow prices to be based on actual costs and natural supply and demand (for example, Mexico is expecting 40% less supply this year based on weather and growing conditions, so price would be set higher than last year). Price instability is hard on all actors in the supply chain as you are never sure what you will be paid in a certain week and whether that price will give you the margin that you need to survive.
Oke USA/Equal Exchange sets weekly pricing with our Mexican avocado co-op partner, Pragor; however it is dependent on the conventional field price set by packers since that is the de facto market price. Who sets this “conventional field price” and on what is it actually based? That is the transparency that growers are demanding.
Our partner, Pragor’s costs are higher because they are bearing all the costs of growing, production, harvest, transport, and packing. There are few economies of scale but growers are part of a co-operative in which they can negotiate pricing directly with us. We pick up the product in Mexico in order to save them the export costs. We are transparent in our pricing to distributors and promote the sharing of information between all parties. We try to smooth out major changes in pricing from week to week by adjusting our margin and negotiating directly with Pragor.
The current situation sheds light on how important direct relationships are to transparency, mutual understanding and an ability for farmers and importers to negotiate as equals, not as part of a power structure where the cards are often stacked against farmers due to lack of access to information. Equal Exchange’s mission has always been to give farmers and consumers a seat at the table together with all the other actors in the agricultural supply chain.
To learn more about Pragor and our relationship with them, click here.
On September 10th a fatal fire at the Tampaco Foil Packaging Factory in Bangladesh left 41 dead, 10 missing, and 35 critically injured. Over one month later, the families of the victims have received not one penny of compensation from the loss of their loved ones, nor one additional paycheck from the deceased workers’ salaries. The factory made the packaging for the products of various multi-national companies including Nestle. To date, not only have the affected workers’ families remained uncompensated, but Nestle has made no commitment to ensure that the factories involved in their supply chains improve their working conditions and safety practices.
HOW CAN THIS CONTINUE TO HAPPEN? WHO WILL HOLD THESE COMPANIES ACCOUNTABLE?
Please read more about this tragic incident from our friends at Fair World Project and then please consider signing the petition to hold Nestle accountable. Next time you buy some chocolate for yourself or your friends and loved ones, please consider the source, their supply chain practices, and their ethics. People’s lives depend upon your actions.
With many thanks,
By Ravdeep Jaidka, Oke USA
This year marks Equal Exchange’s tenth year in the banana trade and fourth year in the avocado trade. We’ve been commemorating these milestones by hosting celebrations across the country: Boston, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis. As we take our message across state lines, it’s great to have some press doing the same. These two articles in Lucky Peach and The Guardian underscore the role small farmers play in building a sustainable, robust, and adaptive global food system. Read on to learn more about the small farmers that bring you Equal Exchange bananas and avocados!
Lucky Peach: The Case For a Better Banana
Equal Exchange needs you.
As Equal Exchange turns 30 this year, and we reflect on the journey we have traveled, we are both immensely proud and infinitely concerned. We have accomplished more than we ever dreamed possible back in 1986. We have sparked enormous reform in the U.S. specialty coffee industry. And we have built a supply chain from scratch that, against all odds, gives small farmer co-ops a fighting chance and a seat at the table.
We are one of the largest and most successful worker co-ops in the country. We are one of the largest Alternative Trade Organizations (ATOs) in the world. But despite this success we know the path forward is more perilous than it has ever been.
The Fair Trade idea may have won success in the last 10 years, but that success has been very limited. And in the process of gaining recognition and support, control has been wrested from small farmers and turned into a marketing attribute at the service of northern companies; it has been commodified and stripped of all real meaning. While some northern ATOs are still here and hundreds of farmer groups in the Global South hang on, “Fair Trade” as envisioned 30 years ago is no longer recognizable.
We now know that we cannot possibly succeed in our goal to transform the food system without the active, deep, and committed participation of citizen-consumers like you. An authentic Fair Trade system requires democratic organizing of producers in the South, worker democracy for businesses in the North, and active citizen involvement in the North.
In the wider food system, corporations control everything from seeds to supply and prices, while relentlessly chipping away at the regulations that inform and protect consumers. They fight feverishly to prevent us from knowing if GMOs are present in our food. They continue to promote production methods that hasten the warming of the planet—a present day threat to millions of small farmers and others around the world. And, corporations count on consumers remaining unorganized to maintain the status quo.
For these reasons, we are taking a powerful, new step in building a democratic brand that connects small farmers in the South to citizen-consumers in the North. We believe that in order to be successful in realizing the original Fair Trade vision, we need to deepen involvement and participation in our model. In doing this we go back to the best that Alternative Trade has always been about: innovation, global solidarity, social imagining and learning, and economic justice. This will be a long, slow process and a great challenge. We need your buying support, your investing support, and your political support.
Please join us in building this dream. We invite you to help us shape a new initiative that we are launching this year: the Equal Exchange Action Forum.
Our vision is of a vibrant community of citizen-consumers, working together to deepen our collective understanding of these issues and taking actions where strategic. We imagine a focus on learning and sharing in the first year as together we give this initiative more form. Within the context of Equal Exchange’s mission, we will share the challenges and successes we experience in building supply chains for small farmers. Over time, we will take actions that challenge the corporate control of food, increase the market viability of small farmers and their co-operatives, and reshape our food system in ways that benefit all of us.
What are some issues we will engage in?
What are the different forums for involvement? Early thoughts include:
How do I join?
Great question! We are looking for committed individuals who may be engaged with Equal Exchange around these issues at any number of levels. We have created a simple application with three different paths to join the Equal Exchange Action Forum. It only takes one, but you may qualify via one, two or even all three:
Interested? Apply here.
We are very excited to hear from you and to launch this new initiative with your support. Together, with our collective ideas, commitment and passion, let’s build a more just food system that works for small farmers, for consumers and for generations to come.
Rink Dickinson & Rob Everts