Posts Tagged ‘Fair Trade’

It’s mid-March which means Equal Exchange Banana Month is in full swing! This March also marks our 10th year in the banana trade. To celebrate, we are promoting a new web documentary called Beyond the Seal.

This is the second of a three-part series that digs deep into Beyond the Seal (missed Part 1? Click here).

A recap: Beyond the Seal is the story of a group of small farmers – and the activists and visionaries behind them – striving to change the banana industry as we know it. Through a model of business called Fair Trade, these producers are building a more just supply chain, one that prioritizes their health, their families and their community.

Beyond the Seal is a web documentary divided into 5 chapters.

THIS WEEK: Watch Chapter 2

In Chapter 2, meet Anibal Cabrera, a small-scale banana producer and member of the AsoGuabo Cooperative in Ecuador. Take a peek into Anibal’s life and learn how the Fair Trade model strengthens and empowers AsoGuabo.

GO further, get together with your staff and answer the following questions:

  1. How does the Fair Trade model support small producers?
  2. Under Fair Trade, producers receive a dollar per 40 lb. box of bananas as social premium. Do you see any difference between the premium and development aid or charity?
Watch now at beyondtheseal.com

Banana Month Buzz

Look who’s watching! A very special tweet from Marion Nestle, NYU Professor and renowned author of Food Politics:
Shout out to Honest Weight  for celebratingBanana Month with this incredible display! That’s 32 cases of bananas.
Check out this eye-catching display atLebanon Co-op in NH!

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The following article was written on May 5th, by Jerónimo Pruijn, Executive Director of the Foundation of Small Producers (FUNDEPPO)

SPP members voting at the Annual Meeting in Panama, May 2015

Rosa Guaman, President of the SPP, and other members voting at the Annual Meeting in Panama City, May 2015

There is no better day than today, May 5th, to share some words about the Small Producers’ Symbol (SPP, for its Spanish Acronym). I was born in Holland, and on May 5th  in Holland, we celebrate Liberation Day, the day the occupation ended during World War II.

The SPP is also a symbol of liberation: the liberation of small producers of the global South.

The SPP was given birth the 26th of March 2006. Of course, a period of pregnancy came first. To fully understand the origin of the SPP, it is important to go back to the beginnings of fair trade. The first fair trade label, Max Havelaar was a result of a search by the Mexican small producers’ coffee cooperative, UCIRI, for better access to preferential, solidarity markets, in close collaboration with the Solidaridad Foundation in Holland. Fair trade soon turned out to be an important tool and ‘motor’ for small producers’ organizations that were in the process of consolidating their organizational and entrepreneurial efforts in different countries of the South. We should not forget that some of these producers’ organizations have their origin in the eighties, others even in the seventies or the sixties of the last century.

As a result of the rapid progress and positive impact of fair trade, in the 1990s, producers’ organizations of Latin America involved in fair trade, but also from Africa and from Asia, started organizing or strengthening existing international networks of producers’ organizations involved in fair trade. In the beginning, these networks were mainly coffee producers, but soon also came small honey, fruit and other producer’ organizations. In the case of Latin America, these international networks were mainly promoted and maintained by the coops themselves, without any external support. This process ended up in the constitution of CLAC, the Latin American and Caribbean Network of Small Fair Trade Producers, in 2004.

By then, discussions around the content and parameters of the concept of fair trade were starting to become more and more common. At the start of fair trade, at the end of the eighties, both producers as well as consumers, viewed the idea of fair trade as equivalent to that of supporting small producers’ organizations. By the time the CLAC was created, this equivalence (that fair trade was synonomous with producer support) was no longer that clear. In some new products, such as bananas, the fair trade concept was extended to private plantations, meant to benefit their workers. On the other hand, fair trade´s success also had attracted the attention of multinational companies which before had not shown any interest in this model. The broadening of the concept went along with the growth of the market for small producers. Producers were happy with this growth of opportunities, but also worried about the role small producers’ organizations played in the concept and decision-making of fair trade.

The SPP was launched as an effort to identify small producers’ organizations in the wider movement of fair trade. At the same time it was a next step in the appropriation process of the supply chain. Producers’ organizations have always been looking for ways to increase their influence and control in the different stages of the supply chain, aiming to maximize the benefits for the small producers and their communities. Producers’ organizations had been increasing their capacities, partly with the stimulating power of fair trade, to sell their products more professionally, looking for the improvement of quality as well as the increase of added values. More and more producer organizations started to get involved in the production of end-products for local markets. The SPP was meant to help these organizations to promote their products, both in the local markets, as well in the international markets, as being exclusively from small producers’ organizations.

In the beginning, the SPP was not launched as a certification system, just as a distinction for small producers’ organizations within the fair trade movement. As traders and also producer’s organizations started to request the active use of the label, feasibility studies were done, with positive results. The main expectations of the producers’ organizations by that time was that it should identify themselves; be an accessible system, in terms of costs and of simplicity; it should be adaptable to the circumstances of each and every producer organization; it should not be prescriptive in terms of detailed compliance criteria; it should be applicable to both local and global markets and it should be credible. Finally the development of the SPP ended up in the launch of a full-fledged standards and certification system at the beginning of 2011.

Currently, around sixty thousand families of around 60 small producers’ coops are certified, from 13 Latin American countries and Indonesia. Volumes of purchases and sales on the markets have been increasing steadily, both in the Northern markets, as well as in the local markets of producers’ countries. We expect this year to have the first couple of African producers-organizations participating.

What makes the SPP different from other fair and sustainable trade labels?

This is a very relevant question in the context of an avalanche of labels around the world. In the very first place, it is a 100% producer-owned initiative. It was launched in 2006 as the ‘open home’ of small producers, a place in which they can build their own future, a place where they have control and where they can receive friends. The producers are the ones who have developed and still fully steer the SPP.

It is a place where they can build their ideal world, a different economy and society, with the help and solidarity of friends. As it is built by their own efforts, it is being built and expanded step by step, guaranteeing the foundation is strong enough to carry the weight of the building when it grows. Producers decide on standards and carry the full responsibility of what they decide. In the SPP, nobody tells producers what´s good for them; they know what they need and what´s reasonable and they fight for it. At the SPP, producers do not have a share in decision-making, they make the decisions, and, wisely involve their trade-partners in the decision making process. The SPP as the incarnation of the empowerment of small producers, the ultimate goal and result of fair trade.

Recently the new General Assembly of the SPP, run by the Foundation of Small Producers (FUNDEPPO) was established and a new board was appointed. The board is composed of six small producers’ representatives from 6 different countries and of three representatives of committed traders, also from different countries and continents. This way the SPP brings the producers and the traders together to make trade and consumer-involvement possible, without anybody standing in between. The newly appointed Chair is Mrs. Rosa Guamán, the indigenous leader or an herbs-producing co-operative from Ecuador. She is an example of the process of liberation of indigenous people in producer countries as a result of an historic struggle and somebody who has a lot to show and teach to the world about the importance of creating a more inclusive and equal economy and society.

The SPP is about building a different and better reality ‘down-top’, not ‘top-down’. Small producers increasingly feel the menace of the tendency of many labels to become some kind of wishing list of perfect practices and behavior, politically, socially and ethically. Expectancies towards producers have become lists of strict requirements and high thresholds. Criteria are imposed from the North on the South, on an increasing amount of topics. This without considering all the costs involved in fulfilling all these criteria. Democratic small producers are put to compete with huge private production companies with strong hierarchical structures and which logically have lower production costs.

Fair trade should always recognize the multiples values and contributions of the work of democratic small producers and their organizations. The SPP makes these values visible, such as building stronger local economies, more democratic societies and fighting climate change. Values which have strong direct and indirect impacts, even on the wellbeing of consumers far away. The producers of the SPP look for traders, consumers and professionals that believe in the importance and capacities of small producer’s organizations and fair trade as a model of sustainable and self-managed development and inclusionary processes.

At the SPP we want to invite people to build a better world together, as a joint responsibility, not only as the responsibility of producers.

The minimum prices and compensations for organic production are key for the SPP-producers. The SPP prices are probably the highest in the market, but this is the only way fair and sustainable trade can really offer the impact and changes it promises. The producers of the SPP want to show the world what their work and lives are worth and have decided not to bargain away their dignity ever again. They know it is not easy and that it will be a long and probably endless struggle. But that is what liberation is all about, to be able to take responsibility for your own life and future.


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On our way back from a meeting with one of the women's groups organized through FTAK, somewhere between the towns of Kudiyanmala and Vellad.

A brief stop on our way back from a meeting with one of the women’s groups organized through FTAK, somewhere between the towns of Kudiyanmala and Vellad.

Fair Trade Alliance of Kerala, (FTAK) a 4500-member co-operative of small farmers in southern India, has created an exciting initiative to articulate and put into practice what most fair trade farmer co-operatives understand empirically.  Fair Trade is important but it’s simply not enough.  It’s a starting point; a means to an end; certainly not the end itself.  Like kicking off the day with a well-balanced breakfast, selling cash crops on fair trade terms is a  foundation from which so much else becomes more possible.  But, like the role that a healthy breakfast plays in someone’s day, it is what comes afterwards that brings true community empowerment, development, and social change. (more…)

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… and having trouble navigating the waters?

Many thanks to Fair World Project for their easy-to-use, interactive, fun tool to help you distinguish between seven different certification schemes.

Meets FWP’s expectations and/or is a model program in this area.

Acceptable policy that at least meets current industry standards, but there is room for improvement.

Problem area/red flag that needs immediate improvement.

Click here to see how seven certification schemes measure up to a list of “fair” criteria and then see which brands use the different certification labels on their products.

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The following post was written by Beth Ann Caspersen, Quality Control Manager, Equal Exchange

I was in a hot room, sitting in a circle with colorfully dressed Ugandan women representing the 10 primary societies of Gumutindo Coffee Co-op. Right away I knew that I was taking part in something special.

Ugandan FamilyIt was 2010, and while I travel to coffee regions frequently, this was my first visit to Uganda. We’d created this open space to get to know each other better. I wanted to learn about the daily lives of these women, many of whom struggle to cultivate coffee to sell to buyers like Equal Exchange, and grow their beloved matoke (banana) for consumption in the home, on a small piece of land. They also wanted to hear about my life in the United States, and about my son, Magnus. For me, this was the beginning of a journey that would teach me about the lives of some of these women in intimate detail: their trials and tribulations, joys and celebrations.

Read more here.

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Fair Trade in Crisis

“Fair Trade is in crisis”, says Frans Van der Hoff, one of the co-founders of the Fair Trade system which was created in the late 1980’s, in a recent interview aired on CBC Radio in Canada. “We’re in a crisis but it’s a positive crisis. Because now you have to rethink and redo and make it [the system] a lot better.”

Van der Hoff, a Dutch professor, Catholic worker priest, and coffee farmer in Mexico, helped found Max Havelaar (a precursor to FLO International, the Fair Trade Labeling Organization) and UCIRI, a co-operative in Oaxaca, Mexico, which was the first producer co-operative to sell its coffee through the Fair Trade system. Last month, Dispatches interviewed Van der Hoff about his views on Fair Trade: why the movement got started, how it’s doing, and where it’s heading.

The interview couldn’t have come at a better time. Consumer confusion about the goals and impact of Fair Trade vs. other brands and certifications is at an all-time high. And that should come as no surprise. The certifying agencies (FLO International and Transfair USA) have watered down the purpose and integrity of the movement, aiming for dollars over mission, breadth over depth, as they lower standards to increase the number of products available on the shelves (see the latest interview proclaiming the “marriage” between Transfair and Starbucks on You Tube.)

Somewhere along the line, the certifiers began marketing Fair Trade as a poverty alleviation strategy, rather than an economic transformation model as it was originally intended. Alleviation means, “to lessen (pain, for example); to make more bearable.” Fair Trade was actually created to provide producers with a basic level of security, a social net to raise people out of abject conditions so that they would have the ability to approach their situations with more complex strategies, not to alleviate, but to change their economic conditions. The original founders of Fair Trade knew that economic conditions don’t change by extending charity. They understood the far more impactful goal of supporting farmer organizations so that together, the farmers can tackle the myriad issues which will enable them to create better conditions for themselves. Organized farmers build economic and political power, create social programs, lobby governments, enlist the collaboration of others by building solidarity networks. This is the true power (and potential) of Fair Trade.


How refreshing to hear one of the founders, and respected leaders of the movement, speak to these issues. In this ten minute interview, conducted by Dispatches, Van der Hoff offers his opinions on the division in the Fair Trade community and some of the misperceptions that the public has – or has been told – about the purpose and role of Fair Trade. We encourage you to listen to the full ten minute interview. The following are a few highlights we’d like to share:

  • The difference Fair Trade makes:
    “The difference is not so much economic… Because when we established Fair Trade in 1988, we put forward as such that the free market doesn’t work and we put a rule that the coffee has to be bought under conditions of the minimum price of survival… so there is a minimum price. When the market goes below it, you don’t go with them. That creates a kind of security for people…”

    “… [the price is] still not a big deal but the [farmers] got out of the misery situation so that they could plant and as an organization we could do a lot… transportation, health care, education programs, housing programs… It all came possible because of being organized and having the security that your coffee could be sold under decent conditions.”

    Being organized has had a great, large effect on “the infrastructure of the co-op but also the political lobbying that people were doing. As soon as you have a body of 3000 farmers and you get on the street, the government starts listening.” He goes on to say that in his mind, political empowerment is one of the most important aspects of Fair Trade.

  • The entry of big corporations into the system: The interviewer asks Van der Hoff how he feels about the entry of Nestle, Walmart, and Starbucks into the Fair Trade system. Van der Hoff responds, “Miserable.”
    “Fair Trade is established by small farmers. But they [the certifiers] forgot the basic goal of providing new channels and a new possibility and new markets for small farmers letting in the big shots … they were interested in having more and more and more margins. Starbucks got in. Nestle got in. Sarah Lee got in. We are yelling from the fields that they shouldn’t be in…”
  • The need to introduce democracy to the market economy so as not to favor corporations:
    “Production means have to be in the hands of the people who work for it, and work in it… To buy is to vote. To buy is to vote for what kind of world that you want.”

  • If Fair Trade is NOT a poverty alleviation strategy, what is its purpose? Getting a more democratic system into the market can build upon a world where everyone can live [well]. To alleviate poverty, I never said it, because I hate it, because it’s a world upside down. First you produce poverty and then the north all of a sudden says we will alleviate what we have produced. No, that doesn’t work. No, you have to go to the system which is producing poverty and create a quite different system… It’s an endeavor to correct the charity approach of Fair Trade which we hate. I buy so that the poor bugger can have a better deal. It’s ridiculous and that we don’t want…”

We encourage you to listen to the full (10 minute) interview here. We share Franz Van der Hoff’s optimism that with well-informed, engaged, and committed consumers and activists, “…we can correct the mistakes they’ve made letting corporations into the Fair Trade system” and by watering down the original model which aims to transform our trade models, our ways of doing business, our relationships, and ultimately our food system.

We’d love to hear your views on these provocative topics!

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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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Tomorrow is World Fair Trade Day and it seemed a great time to let you know about two exciting educational resources designed to foster real change in our global food system.

The first is an exciting tool focused on Fair Trade for parents, teachers and activists who would like to bring social justice to the classroom through a multi-media curriculum about small farmers across the globe that grow our cocoa, coffee, tea and other products. This multi-media curriculum introduces students to the issues facing small-scale farmers and shows the ways in which consumer choices can affect their lives and communities.

Equal Exchange’s curriculum, Win-Win Solutions: An Introduction to Fair Trade and Cooperative Economics is free and available for download!

This curriculum gives youngsters enough information to understand the kind of change that is needed and the tools to help them take appropriate actions:


Win Solutions: An Introduction to Fair Trade and Cooperative Economics

Unit 1: Our Choices Matter—why change to our food system is necessary and how we can make a difference

Unit 2: Understanding Fair Trade—role plays to help students begin to imagine life as a small scale cocoa farmer


Unit 3: Understanding Cooperatives—real-life trade-offs and stories from the lives of organized small scale farmers


Unit 4:  Make A Difference—A template for students to work together to solve real, local community problems. 


PLUS: the curriculum can now support Equal Exchange school fundraisers.  Raise money and make a difference!

Lisa Knutson, teacher at Montessori Visions Academy in Las Vegas, Nevada :  “The curriculum has sparked great interest and insight in my class and has lead to wonderful discussions about fairness and economics.”



The second exciting education-for-action curriculum was created by two long-time organizational friends and allies of Equal Exchange: Grassroots International and the National Family Farm Coalition:



Our global food system is terribly broken. Together we can fix it!

The food sovereignty movement is an exciting grassroots movement that has developed internationally in response to the havoc wrought by the current food system. It is composed of small farmers, farmworkers, fishers, consumers, environmentalists and indigenous peoples, all seeking to reclaim the right of nations and communities to define their own agricultural, labor, fishing, food and land policies. The food sovereignty movement calls for policies – local, national and international – that are ecologically, socially, economically and culturally sound.

The curriculum is divided into four modules: one each for consumers, faith and anti-hunger groups, environmentalists and farmers, all designed to help:

  • Understand the ways in which current U.S. agricultural, trade and energy policies undermine the right of communities and nations around the world to determine their own food policies
  • See how food sovereignty and locally based food systems rooted in social justice and environmental sustainability can be practical alternatives to unsustainable industrial agriculture
  • Envision how people can act together across borders to build local food systems and pass fair agriculture, trade and energy policies

“Food for Thought and Action: A Food Sovereignty Curriculum is a remarkably useful popular education tool. It offers a practical way to strengthen a growing food sovereignty movement that includes consumers, farmers, environmentalists and faith communities. Building from the experiences of literally millions of grassroots activists worldwide, Food for Thought and Action challenges us to fix our broken food system.” Micahel Pollan, Author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Botany of Desire

The curriculum is free and available electronically.

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The following article by Stephen Coats, Director of the U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Project (US Leap), was published in the April 2009 Peacework Magazine, a publication of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). We wish to thank the AFSC, one of our Interfaith partners, for their interest in exploring some of the complexities of the Fair Trade movement.  We also wish to thank Coats for providing us with a labor movement perspective on Fair Trade and workers’ rights, and for highlighting concerns of the labor movement about the Fair Trade certification of large-scale plantations, particularly in the banana industry. Coats suggests that if we truly want to see positive change for workers in the Global South, whether in farms or factories, we need to change the rules of trade. International trade agreements, such as NAFTA and CAFTA “have an enormous impact on the lives and working conditions of the world’s producers.” He concludes by arguing that it is critical that we “hold our governments accountable for strong labor and environmental standards in the agreements that increasingly regulate all global trade, fair and otherwise.”

 (In the same issue of Peaceworks, you can read another article about the Fair Trade movement:  “Eat Locally,  Think Globally:   Fair Trade, Food Sovereignty and the Food Crisis.”)


Tegucigalpa, Honduras, June 2003. Outside a negotiation meeting for the Central American Free Trade Agreement, demonstrators protest. Photo ©2009 Paul Jeffrey, http://www.kairosphotos.com

Consumers in the US have grown more concerned about and aware of the conditions under which the goods we purchase are produced. This increased consciousness has led to new models of production and consumption, and a variety of alternative product labels with respect to environmental issues (shade-grown coffee), health (organic produce), animal treatment (free-range chickens), and other concerns. Labels are intended to provide an easy way for consumers to know which products reflect our values.

These trends are now being extended to working conditions and the treatment of workers. In large part as a result of campaigns and news stories about sweatshops in the clothing industry, child labor in the coffee and banana sectors, and slave labor on cocoa plantations, companies have become increasingly concerned about their “brand image.” Consequently, a number of programs have emerged that certify that a product is produced under acceptable conditions of work.

Using consumer demand to push for better working conditions has proved to be a powerful approach; the “sweat-free” movement, fueled by college activists and workers’ rights advocates working together, has permanently raised the bar on what it means to be a “socially responsible” company. Through its Designated Suppliers Program, the anti-sweatshop movement created a set of standards, adopted by a growing number of universities and some municipalities, requiring that the goods purchased by these large institutions be bought from unionized or cooperative producers.

Fair Food

The most prominent consumer-oriented social certification in the US is Fair Trade, with a black and white label showing a figure holding evenly balanced scales. In the US, this label is managed by TransFair USA, a member of a consortium called the Fair Labeling Organizations which controls the label globally.

Non-profit groups interested in improving the conditions of small coffee farmers originated the Fair Trade movement in Western Europe. It has now expanded to other products and begun to evolve out of its origins as an “alternative” market into the mainstream. Fair Trade is a rapidly growing business, expanding its certification beyond coffee and cocoa to bananas, pineapples, and flowers, with plans to certify apparel.

Fair Trade activists sought out small, independent farms and cooperatives, and provided them with a way to reach consumers more directly, thus increasing their profits. Producers in the Fair Trade network are guaranteed a minimum price for their products, and also receive a cash “premium” to use as they wish — often this allows for improvements to production methods and to community services. In return for paying the higher price all this entails, consumers are guaranteed that the producers of their coffee were paid fairly and not deprived of their right to organize.

However, responding in part to growing consumer demand, Fair Trade has in recent years begun to certify food grown by different kinds of producers. For instance, almost all bananas imported to the US — a recent expansion area for Fair Trade — are grown on Latin American plantations, not on small farms or cooperatives. Some of the plantations which have earned the Fair Trade certification employ hundreds of workers.

While Fair Trade has added new criteria for certification that includes how the workers are treated and respect for their basic rights, the expansion of the Fair Trade model to large-scale producers has raised concerns in the labor movement, particularly with banana unions in Latin America (banana production is the most thoroughly unionized sector in Central America, with many active unions working in effective coalitions across national and ideological boundaries). Long-time Fair Trade supporters have raised additional concerns, including opposition to certification of products marketed by transnational corporations (e.g. Dole bananas or Starbucks coffee) and whether Fair Trade has erred in moving beyond small-scale producers to large employers like the banana plantations. These questions are being debated by trade unionists, representatives of the Fair Trade networks, and global labor activists, in an attempt to find a course that promotes environmental sustainability, human rights, and growth for the promising “Fair Trade” sector.

The Global Picture

While Fair Trade certification is an important instrument for making positive change, the most fundamental issue for workers in the Global South is the rules of global trade. The terms of international trade agreements have an enormous impact on the lives and working conditions of the world’s producers. We need strong trade rules protecting workers’ right to organize in order for workers in every sector to achieve the kind of conditions that Fair Trade certifies.

In this area, we have lost a lot of important ground with the passage of NAFTA and CAFTA, international agreements that represent steps backwards in the US’s ability to push for the enforcement of international labor standards. For instance, in 1999 when seven Guatemalan union leaders were threatened with murder and fled to the US, the US acted in accordance with existing trade law and withheld Guatemala’s trade benefits until the Guatemalan government had apprehended and tried the unionists’ attackers. Since the passage of CAFTA, however, there has been a resurgence in anti-labor violence in Guatemala (four trade unionists were assassinated in 2007 and another five in 2008, with no charges brought in any of the cases) and the US has not been able to apply any meaningful trade pressure to hold the Guatemalan government accountable.

For those of us in the US, this is a key moment to focus on the terms of global trade. While this issue is not yet foremost on the new Administration’s agenda, the debate is being framed for the consideration of several “bilateral” agreements between the US and other countries. Four agreements were negotiated by the Bush Administration. Only one, the Peru Agreement, has been passed. The good news is that these agreements are stronger than NAFTA and CAFTA on the protection of workers’ rights. The bad news is that they still aren’t strong enough. The Peru Agreement went into effect on February 1 of 2009, so this is an area for close observation.

Sustainability On the Line

Workers are extremely vulnerable to exploitation right now. In 2005, the international Agreement on Textiles and Clothing (also known as the “Multifibre Agreement”) came to an end. For 20 years this pact had provided quotas for the amount of clothing that each developing nation could export to wealthier European and North American markets. The World Trade Organization’s decision to phase it out has ushered in a period of intense competition among exporter nations, which translates as a “race to the bottom” to reduce labor costs. To this, of course, has been added the impact of the global recession, causing downward pressure on wages and working conditions for workers.

As Fair Trade activists have recognized from the beginning, workers’ rights and environmental sustainability are inseparable. In Latin America, banana workers’ unions understand this as well, and have been organizing to make the cultivation of bananas more biologically stable (bananas are grown in a monoculture which makes them particularly vulnerable to disease) and less destructive of ecosystems in the communities where the workers make their homes. To wield our greatest power as consumers, we must not only pay a surcharge on some items to cover their real cost — we must also drop a dime and call our Congress members. We need to hold our governments accountable for strong labor and environmental standards in the agreements that increasingly regulate all global trade, fair and otherwise.

To Get Involved

US LEAP supports those workers who are employed directly or indirectly by US companies producing for the US market.

Citizens Trade Campaign is a national coalition of environmental, labor, consumer, family farm, religious, and other civil society groups founded in 1992 to improve the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Global Trade Watch, a program of the consumer group Public Citizen, promotes a public interest perspective on globalization issues, including implications for our food, health and safety, environmental protection, economic justice, and democratic, accountable governance.

Maquila Solidarity Network, based in Canada, is a labor and women’s rights organization that supports the efforts of workers in global supply chains to win improved wages and working conditions and a better quality of life.

Equal Exchange is a leader in the Fair Trade coffee market and runs a lively blog on Fair Trade issues:  http://www.SmallFarmersBigChange.coop.


Stephen Coats is the director of the US Labor Education in the Americas Project, an organization that supports Latin American workers who are fighting to overcome poverty and make a better life for their families. USLEAP especially supports those workers who are employed directly or indirectly by US companies producing for the US market.


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By Nicholas Reid, Natural Foods Sales Representative

“For me, it’s all about co-ops. I just want to go back and teach co-op.”

-Margaret Mills, Grocery Manager, People’s Food Co-op, Lacrosse, Wisconsin

This March, I had the honor of visiting a community of our farmer partners in Chiapas, Mexico. No one could summarize my feelings about the trip better than Margaret, who came with us from People’s Food Co-op in Lacrosse. The community of Las Pilas, and the 17 members of the co-operative, CESMACH, offered us a fundamental lesson on the value of co-ops in the fair trade system. Campesinos Ecologicos de la Sierra Madre de Chiapas S. C. gives its farmers infinitely more than a fair price, or processing and marketing expertise for their coffee. Through education, community development, health projects, and environmental initiatives, CESMACH adds value we cannot measure – and can barely comprehend – to the work and lives of our farmer-partners. I, too, walked away from my time in Las Pilas wanting to go home and “teach co-op.”


In addition to producing some of the highest-quality coffee in the world, the farmers of CESMACH are a mind-boggling example of our partners’ commitment to environmental sustainability- growing high-quality, organic coffee in a way that not only preserves the U.N.-designated biosphere in which they live, but also rehabilitates the land, soil and water, and is reintroducing native, endangered species. The co-op has converted over 400 farmers to organic production, and has embarked on several income diversification and food sovereignty projects that incorporate ecological preservation. They do it all with ingenuity and respect, on depressingly-limited resources.

A Fair Price?

Walking through the multitude of steps in the process of harvesting the coffee crop with the farmers themselves, the first thing you realize is that there is nothing “fair” about the Fair Trade price. I would last about a minute as a coffee farmer in southern Mexico – it’s back-breaking, pain-staking hard labor. Given the amount of work it takes, five dollars a pound might be fair. Five dollars might send their children to school, and pay for food, medicine, and someday, indoor plumbing. Five dollars would be inspiring. Many alternative trade organizations pay more than the internationally-established minimum price, $1.56 per pound, and Equal Exchange has paid more than $2/lb. But it’s still such an incredibly mind-numbing amount of work that $2/lb, or even $5/lb seems not entirely fair. Until consumers in the U.S. are willing to pay $20/lb (and I’m working on it), the farmers will have to continue to make hard choices about investing in their co-op business, their communities and their families… But they have each other; they have their co-op. And compared to coffee farmers who don’t, there’s no comparison at all. Those farmers will have to look elsewhere for a future less bleak.


Just before we left, after explaining the cost of international shipping, the importance and expense of multi-ply coffee bags with one-way valves, and the dynamics of supply and demand to the group of indignant families, “we get $2 and you sell it for $6!!!”, just for a moment, I felt despair replace the travel-induced nausea in my stomach. Is this what I work for? To get these farmers a $2/pound?! I lose that much in a week through the hole in my favorite Levi’s. But I remembered, no one who truly understands Equal Exchange thinks that “paying a higher price to farmers” is where our workday starts and ends. I looked back on my time in Las Pilas, at the moments of awe and inspiration, to remember that together with our partners, farmers and consumers, Equal Exchange is building a movement, epitomized by progress and momentum that has only just begun – while also building a new economy, founded on co-operatives. CESMACH brings to their farmers what the Fair Trade price alone cannot, and what no price could: education, community, support, invention, investment, conscience … value.

Women’s Initiatives

The women of Las Pilas are engaged in a chicken project, organized by their co-op, funded by Equal Exchange (among others) and our consumers. The women provided wood and a metal roof, and the co-op provided them with 35 native chickens, wire mesh to enclose the coop, and a training program on caring for chickens and using native, natural medicines to care for their poultry.

100_0478The women take turns, two each day, caring for the chickens, providing corn and collecting eggs. The eggs are for consumption, adding protein and nutrients to the community’s diet, and saving the families two pesos per egg. When the first round of fertilized eggs hatch the farmers will “repay” the co-op by sending 35 chickens to another group of women in a neighboring community. After that, the women will sell the higher-valued, live creole chickens at market for a going rate of 120 pesos per chicken, compared to 80 for the less resilient, commercial ranchero chickens that dominate poultry sales in Southern Mexico. The women are growing their own food, cutting down on the cost of food they eat, and supporting local species in and environmentally-responsible way, a perfectly sustainable income-diversification and food sovereignty project.

Ecological Projects

The co-op members of Las Pilas, far from idle when not working on their coffee farms, are engaged in a “species rescue” and reforestation project, likewise organized by CESMACH, and paid for with Fair Trade dollars. We were lucky enough to visit the community-owned vivero, or nursery, located a short hike above the community (“short hike” being a relative term), in a small valley in the mountains and cloud forest. There, the farmers have been provided with shade mesh, and seeds or cuttings for three different tree species: the endangered Camador Palm (genus, chamaedorea, maybe) the near-extinct Tomato Tree, and the also-endangered Pacaya Palm tree.


As always, the efficiency and genius of CESMACH is astounding. Never ones to waste an opportunity, the Camador Palms will be replanted on the community-members’ coffee plots that dot the surrounding hillsides, beautifully distinguishable in that they are often green oases in otherwise barren, deforested, mudslides-waiting-to-happen. Not only will they provide shade for the coffee production and root systems to prevent erosion and soil-degradation, the co-op has begun harvesting and exporting the fronds for Palm Sunday. My pilgrimage to Chiapas in 2008 included a tutorial on palm harvesting by CESMACH-contracted agronomists training the farmers of Rio Negro for a palm pilot project, now being replicated by 10 other communities in the co-op.

The wild tomato tree and pacaya are fruit trees on the roster of endangered, under-studied and largely unknown species that thrive in the jungles and cloud forests of the developing world. The tomatoes are similar to our own, although harder and fleshier, like a tomatillo.

The Endangered Tree Tomato

The Endangered Tree Tomato

The pacaya is a berry, similar to a lychee in appearance, and is harvested in husks that look like young ears of corn. Once the plantings have graduated from the Las Pilas nursery in about a year, they too will be replanted in the coffee matas to provide shade and soil stability. But they will also provide fruit and nourishment to the families of Las Pilas, produce to be sold (once the farmers have had their fill of tree tomatoes, to go with the wild avocados that grow in the matas) at market alongside the trees themselves, the value of which increases as their numbers decline, to supplement their income from coffee. As soon as the rainy season begins, the co-op will also plant organic gardens and orchards to provide additional food security to its members. Genius.


Social & Health Projects

As difficult as it is to assign a value to the social projects at CESMACH, it is even harder to understand the sense of belonging and the value the co-op provides as an advocate for its members, or the structural support provided where nothing else is available. When Hurricane Stan hit southern Mexico and Guatemala in 2005, houses, roads and bridges were destroyed – leaving hundreds of CESMACH farmers with next to nothing, isolated in the rubble of their former communities. The co-op was a lifeline to the outside world, as self-help groups were organized to bring medicine, food and supplies to the communities. Emergency aid funds were raised by Equal Exchange and our partners (food co-ops, Interfaith organizations and consumers) to help rebuild. It was the co-op that came looking for them.

When three medical workers from Grounds for Health arrive in Chiapas to spread awareness on cervical cancer and women’s health, the co-operative provides the space and the format to disseminate education, testing and care. We walked in on a room full of “health promoters,” each representing their own community, at a workshop in the co-op warehouse on cervical cancer, which has an incidence in southern Mexico that is 30 percent higher than in the United States. CESMACH is a network for human development, not just economic gain.


Transformative Economic Change

At the end of the day, the Fair Trade price is still too little, and the traditional signs of “progress” are only just appearing, but below the surface there is an energy, a sense of collective action and progress, investment and change. The co-operative has brought 440 families in Southern Mexico together with purpose, and is focusing their synergy on human development, social change and on community. They are refusing to make the same mistakes the U.S. did in our sprint to “development,” by protecting their environment, and promoting equality, health, women’s rights and collective empowerment. The CESMACH co-operative makes the difference between “paying higher prices” and transformative economic change. And that’s what Fair Trade is about. That’s value added.


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