Posts Tagged ‘co-operatives’

Victor Hugo Garcia Lopez relaxing with his children after offering me a tour of his organic coffee farm.

Victor Hugo Garcia Lopez relaxing with his children after offering me a tour of his organic coffee farm.

Co-operatives Supporting Co-operatives!

Co-op Food Stores in New Hampshire has a strong commitment to supporting family farmers, sustainable agriculture, and what we like to call the “cooperative supply chain” which basically means, co-operatives supporting other co-operatives.  In the case of Co-op Food Stores, we have created a very special relationship between CIRSA, one of my favorite coffee co-ops in Chiapas, Mexico, Equal Exchange, and Co-op Food Stores.  This “sister co-op relationship” is part of the Co-op brand coffee program that we have created, whereby for every pound of Co-op brand coffee sold, Co-op Food Stores and Equal Exchange each invest 20 cents into the Sister Co-op Partner Fund.  Money from this fund goes directly to CIRSA to support their efforts to build resiliency in the face of dramatically changing weather patterns.  In Simojovel, Chiapas, where these communities of indigenous small-scale farmers make their living exclusively from the production and sale of their coffee, unseasonably long rainy seasons and the “roya” (coffee rust disease) has reduced their overall yields by 70% in the past two years.  Co-op Food Stores and Equal Exchange have raised enough money to help CIRSA build solar dryers which keep the coffee dry even under relentless rains, in two of their thirteen member communities.  We are now trying to raise money for additional dryers in the remaining communities.

Below is an article written by Amanda Charland, Director of Outreach and Member Services for Co-op Food Stores.  For more information about this partnership please go here.  To learn more about how you can support Equal Exchange’s Climate Justice Fund, where 100% of the donations go directly to support our farmer partners in their efforts to build resiliency in the face of climate change, please call Phyllis Robinson, Education & Campaigns Manager, at 774-776-7390. To make a donation to our Fund, you can also send a tax deductible donation to our NGO partner, Hesperian Health Guides, 1919 Addison Street, Suite 304, Berkeley, CA 94704.  Be sure to write Equal Exchange Climate Justice Fund on the check.

Coffee, Coops, and Climate Change

When I left New Hampshire, bound for Mexico, it was three in the morning and snowing. In the rush, I barely stopped to think about the routine filling of my coffee mug, except for the momentary relief the hot beverage provided from the cold.

As I trudged through the snow, grasping my warm beverage, carrying all my belongings for the week on my back, I never realized that I was about to say goodbye to something. After this trip, my relationship with coffee would never be the same.

Mexico or Bust
The minute my feet hit solid ground after a very long day of flights, my appreciation for coffee had already grown tenfold. The sheer distance we had traveled was exhausting, and we still weren’t at the coffee farms! Our mission in Mexico seemed simple enough: meet with our sister cooperative—a partnership project set up by Equal Exchange—and learn about the process of coffee. I thought, “I know what to expect. I’ve seen videos and pictures of coffee being harvested.” In a very small way, I was right. The physical processing of the coffee is pretty straightforward—very labor intensive, but straightforward.

I was very wrong about the rest of the story. Coffee farming is complicated and surrounded by a web of influence that pictures and videos can’t describe.

Read more here.

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For the full article, featuring the newest innovations by co-ops (including Equal Exchange’s latest Principle Six Co-operative Trade Movement, click here.

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Njari, Tanzania, 2006.  A meeting held by the Kilimanjaro Native Cooperative Union

Njari, Tanzania, 2006. A meeting held by the Kilimanjaro Native Cooperative Union

As the year 2008 comes to a close, the world must cope with a recent assertion made by the Food and Agriculture Organization that “one billion people will go hungry around the globe next year for the first time in human history…”

This shameful scenario was presented in the December 28th issue of The Independent: “The shocking landmark will be passed – despite a second record worldwide harvest in a row – because people are becoming too destitute to buy the food that is produced….the growth in hunger is not occurring, as in the past, because of shortage of food – but because people cannot afford to buy it even when it is plentiful.”

Theories abound as to why the world is in this predicament and what should be done to regain control of the global food economy. Meantime, consumers in developed countries are learning more about the sometimes vast and unsustainable supply chains that bring them their food, and are questioning the enormous resources consumed to maintain this system.    One movement, which gained national attention in the US with the publication of Michael Pollan’s bestseller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, focuses on changing our eating patterns to be less global.  “Locavores” recommend turning to urban gardens, supporting farmers’ markets, and even keeping a few chickens in the back yard.  In short:  Buy Local.

But growing one’s own food, buying local and adhering to 100-mile food diets only offer partial solutions to the growing food crisis. As valid and important as these strategies are, we must also pursue other paths if we are going to restore balance to the food system and exonerate ourselves from such an unforgiveable crime as having allowed one billion people to go hungry.

If the primary problem is not a food shortage, but rather the gap between what food costs and what hungry people can afford to pay, then we must analyze the economic and political institutional failures which have created this situation. We need to redraft our trade agreements to keep workers in sustainable jobs in the U.S. and farmers productive on their fields in the Global South. For small farmers in this country, as well as consumers, one way forward is to organize now to radically change the next Farm Bill.  It’s great to see these movements gathering momentum to make dramatic changes in our agriculture and trade policies.

Where does Fair Trade Fit In?

But through all the news and the commentary about the food crisis, the problems and solutions, where is the mention of Fair Trade?  Why is the voice of Fair Trade so absent within the food sovereignty movement?

It’s as if Fair Trade has fallen off the social justice map. Is Fair Trade just a fad – a naive notion that “all a consumer has to do” is “look for the seal” and the world will be a better place? Can it really be that the achievements gained and lessons learned through Fair Trade have nothing to offer the current discourse about local farmers, sustainable agriculture, and the food crisis?

The Fair Trade movement has helped millions of farmers worldwide, assisted farmer organizations, and educated consumers in the North about the injustices of our trade system. After all, it was developed in response to the huge systemic injustices facing producers in the Global South. Small farmers simply can’t compete with large landowners, plantations, and family estates. The landowners have all the connections to the same oligarchies that acquired wealth and power by enslaving generations of farmers after appropriating their land. Many of these same landowners now run the countries, make the laws, own the banks, run the exporting companies, and pocket the profits.

Fair Trade was very successful in raising awareness of this situation. Alternative traders and other activists found innovative and creative ways to “introduce” producers and consumers to each other, to build bridges between cultures. The movement educated consumers, inspired many to learn, engage and take action. Fair Trade offers market access, credit and fairer prices to millions of farmers, enabling peasant farmers to become co-operative business owners with increasing political and economic power.

Of course, if Fair Trade is barely mentioned amongst those concerned with food security and food sovereignty, try searching through the conversations about Fair Trade within the movement itself. Inspired? I don’t mean to offend, but the dialogue can get tiring. “Fair Trade,” “Whole Trade,” “Direct Trade”,  “Beyond Fair Trade” — does the Fair Trade movement have nothing more to offer consumers and activists than rivalries between roasters; who makes more trips to source; who knows their farmer partners better?

Fair Trade must join in discussions about our industrial food system, the plight facing small farmers in the US, and the governmental policies that created the industrialized food economy in which we all are forced to participate.  We need a rich debate within the movement about these larger issues that affect small farmers and consumers.

Bringing it All Together

Some of us are thirsting for a deeper level of conversation. Personally, I want to see Fair Trade raised alongside the “buy local” and agriculture and trade policy reform strategies. Gains have been achieved and lessons learned. Why isn’t the Fair Trade movement influencing – and being influenced by – the food sovereignty movement?

Fair Traders need to get back into the ring or we will lose the advances the movement has made. It’s time to tone down the marketing rhetoric and return to the educational goals of our mission; find new ways to talk with consumers – and each other – about our work and why we’re doing it. Most importantly, we need to continue creating innovative new strategies, and joining others, to fix the huge injustices in our food system and large scale destruction of the planet.

I also think that “locavores”, who talk about the need to support small farmers, community development and sustainable agriculture, should consider expanding their lens to include mention of small farmers in the Global South. As long as consumers continue to drink coffee and tea, and eat chocolate and other foods not grown in our country, let’s remember that the struggles of these small farmers are as challenging and as critical as those in the U.S. And while small farmers participating in Fair Trade are not in our own backyards, they are trying to maintain, and strengthen their own local communities. Their food security depends on their ability to remain organized in co-operatives; to receive the higher, “fairer” prices they deserve; and ultimately, on the agriculture and trade policies we enact here in Washington.

By the same token, when we talk about the role agri-business has played in dictating agriculture, economic, and trade policies, it would be powerful to highlight alternatives. If the large-scale mechanized farming favored by agribusiness – with its reliance on fossil fuel, pesticides, genetically modified organisms, government subsidies, and factory farms – is the problem, which businesses within the food system are offering solutions?

Certainly small farmers are central to our vision of a greener and more just food system.  But it is important also to recognize the significance of the food co-operatives, locally-owned natural food markets, independent restaurants and cafes, which shine as visible examples of those who are building an alternative day after day. 

Why is there so little mention of these independent and co-operative businesses in food security circles?   Many alternative trade organizations, and worker-owned co-operatives are demonstrating that businesses can have a social mission; reasonable profits can be made and shared more equitably amongst workers and farmers; business can be conducted through strong relationships based on mutuality, transparency and integrity; and of course that healthy food can be produced sustainably.

These organizations – producing, manufacturing, distributing and selling us our food – are walking the walk. They are demonstrating through action that alternatives do exist. Positive models are out there. And the more we can highlight, replicate and create additional independent, local and co-operative businesses, the more success we will have building the type of food system that the food sovereignty movement and all the locavores, fair trade and agriculture policy activists are promoting: a food system based on the principles of solidarity, sustainability and co-operation.

Our movements for a greener and more just food system could benefit by engaging more with each other. Ultimately, the more we challenge, learn from, influence and highlight the contributions each movement is making, the stronger and more successful we will be in our ultimate goal of fixing a broken food system. Let’s unite, deepen and strengthen our movements. With the threat of one billion people facing hunger and food security in 2009, it’s a change we can’t afford not to make.

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Once again, I’d like to thank all of you for your thought-provoking comments to Nick’s post, “Co-operatives: The Democracies of our Economy?” Many interesting issues were raised relating to the current financial meltdown and the roles and responsibilities of corporations and governments. Another common theme that many of you discussed was the question of the size of these institutions and the degree to which power has been corrupted as more and more of it gets retained in the hands of a few.

So I’d like to ask you all a question which might seem a bit naïve…

It seems like we all agree that small is better. Andrew quotes Schumacher:  “for a large organization to work, it must behave like a related group of small organizations.” Nick writes, “Bigger is not better, and the further removed corporations become from their clients, the less democratic, and quite frankly, human they become.”

So here’s the question. (more…)

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Most of us can agree that political democracies, based on equality and individual freedoms, are the best systems of government in the world today. We know that democratic countries are the least likely to go to war with each other; they suffer from the fewest internal conflicts, the lowest counts of terrorism, and the lowest number of human rights violations. It’s also very clear that democratic political systems are the most fertile grounds for economic prosperity; the countries that rank highest on the United Nations Democracy Index also head the Human Development Index. Freedom, equality and prosperity appear to go hand-in-hand.  Why then, do we only apply the principles of the democracy to politics, and not the economy?

The global economy is one of the most undemocratic and inequitable systems imaginable. In 2000, the UN estimates that 10% of the world’s richest adults control 85% of the world’s wealth. According to Forbes, the three richest people in the world control as much wealth as the poorest 47 countries combined. Almost 3 billion people live on $2 a day or less, while the average American lives on $119. The Royal Bank of Scotland controls more assets than the entire GDP of Brazil. Wal-Mart is richer than Thailand. (more…)

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