Posts Tagged ‘plantations’

A recent article in the Times On Line, Tea workers still waiting to reap Fairtrade benefitsby Parminder Bahra reveals the contradictions the fair trade system has brought upon itself by embracing large scale plantations into a structure originally created to benefit small scale farmers in the developing world. In the Times article, tea workers in Kenya claim to have been denied the promised benefits of fair trade and “suspect that the scheme is being used to make estates appear socially responsible as demand increases in the West for Fairtrade-labelled goods.”

We are not surprised to hear of these shortcomings and abuses occurring on Fair Trade plantations. In fact, the findings presented in this article only serve to reaffirm our belief that plantations do not belong in the Fair Trade system in the first place. Equal Exchange doesn’t debate whether “good” plantations exist (for example, those where workers are treated “well”), nor whether estate workers deserve to enjoy better working conditions. They do.

Since its founding in 1986, Equal Exchange has held to the belief that the very nature of plantations is antithetical to the goals of Fair Trade, namely:

  • to strengthen the autonomy of small farmer organizations;
  • build a sense of ownership and control over one’s business;
  • encourage entrepreneurial attitudes and a risk-taking culture;
  • strengthen and build community; and
  • practice and strengthen debate and participatory decision-making.

We believe that “Fair Trade” needs to mean “Small Farmer,” and that the standards which apply to Fair Trade coffee can and should be the sole standard in tea as well as coffee.

Fair Trade has achieved dramatic results in building market access for small farmers who would otherwise not have the means to invest in their business and take the necessary risks to establish markets in their own countries – let alone in the global arena. This preferential market access has been very powerful in building a link between consumers in the North and marginalized small farmers in the Global South. The multiplier effect of this market access and network of Fair Traders has had huge impact on small farmer communities.

Plantations do not need this market access. In the U.S., 98% of the tea that is sold as Fair Trade comes from plantations. Plantation owners have networks within the banking, government and export sectors of their countries. One could argue that there is almost no additional economic or social benefit deriving from Fair Trade plantation products. 

Further, plantations or “estates” as they are often called, have been accused for decades of exploiting workers. Having changed little in a century, they tend to be run as small kingdoms.  For these and other reasons, the role of tea plantations in Fair Trade has always been controversial from the outset. Historically, the two Fair Trade certifying agencies Max Havelaar and Transfair were locked in fundamental battle about whether plantation tea could ever really be “Fair Trade.” This was the core reason that the two organizations could not join forces. When they finally did merge in 1997, Transfair’s vision of a Fair Trade system which included virtually all models of farm production, won out and tea plantations were allowed into the system.

Equal Exchange and others believe that no matter how “benevolent” a plantation owner is, a joint labor-management council and social premiums cannot in and of themselves correct the huge imbalance of power that exists on a plantation. We just don’t believe that deep, structural goals oriented to change the playing field for small farmers can be achieved in a plantation setting.  For these reasons, we are committed to building market access for small farmer tea organizations, just as we are doing in the coffee and cocoa industries.

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As the food we eat becomes more and more political, we begin to hear the story it tells. In too many cases, it is a story of environmental destruction and human despair.

The story of rooibos tea is no exception. It begins in the most infamous system of racial segregation in our planet’s history. The Apartheid era in South Africa was a direct extension of colonial policies designed to extract resources and profits from the land and local populations. The indigenous ethnic groups of South Africa were pushed off their ancestral homelands to make room for large-scale, colonial plantations. European magistrates and foreign businesses seized the now-famous gold and diamond deposits near Johannesburg, enslaving local populations to mine the shiny baubles that made De Beers a household name and South Africa the only “developed” nation on the continent. (more…)

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The following post is offered by Nicholas Reid, Sales Representative of the Natural Foods Department at Equal Exchange. His original comments were published in response to a post on GreenLAGirl’s blog about the Business Week article, “Is Fair Trade Becoming ‘Fair Trade Lite’?”.

At Equal Exchange we feel strongly that small-scale sustainable farming is the most effective way to feed the planet, care for the environment, and sustain healthy and vibrant communities and businesses. We believe that small farmer co-operatives provide a model for participatory decision-making, local control, and economic development that is desperately needed to fix a broken food system and an ailing planet.

In this blog, we have tried to make our case by highlighting inspiring stories from our farmer co-op partners and referencing articles written about the importance of agroecology, organic farming, and consumer and farmer movements that are trying to make changes to agricultural and trade policies that serve no one but large scale agribusiness. We have deliberately tried not to focus too much on the debate around plantations, or the competition between different coffee roasters. Nevertheless, I wanted to share Nick’s observations as I thought he did a great job of highlighting some of the history of plantations and the reasons why we choose to focus our work, and continue to build strong relationships, with small farmer organizations in the Fair Trade system.

Fair Trade as a Tool For Transformation: Can plantations play that role?

by Nicholas Reid

For years now, folks have been questioning whether the Fair Trade certifiers should have allowed plantations into a system which was founded by and for small farmer co-operatives. One of the arguments put forth to justify the entry of plantations into the system is that there are many products (such as bananas and tea) which are primarily produced by plantations and therefore are not possible to source from small farmer co-operatives. This is a false premise. The majority of bananas and tea ARE produced by small farmers. More importantly, by allowing plantations into the Fair Trade system, the certifiers are ensuring that products produced by small farmer co-operatives will never thrive in the Fair Trade system.

I would buy the argument that the majority of the world’s tea, bananas and cocoa for export are grown by plantations and large-scale agriculture. But seriously, Fair Trade exists to support small farmers because plantations dominate banana and tea production for export. It aims to create the systems that would allow small farmers to benefit from exporting those products. (more…)

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In her blog, GreenLaGirl, Siel wrote about the issues presented in the Business Week article, “Is Fair Trade Becoming ‘Fair Trade Lite’?” and asked those of us at Equal Exchange why we were so opposed to the idea that plantations and multi-nationals should be operating within the Fair Trade system. Siel wondered if EE is simply nostalgic for the good ole days of co-ops, or if being a co-op means we only want to work with co-ops. Similarly, Jaqui de Carlo asks in her blog, Fair Trade Beginners, can’t fair traders be more inclusive – why can’t Chiquita sell fair trade bananas as well as Oke USA?

Both Rodney and Nicholas have written responses to Siel’s blog, so I won’t go through and repeat their arguments about why it is not just ideology, nostalgia or a desire to be exclusive, that keep us following our own path regardless of the direction being pushed by the Fair Trade certifiers. Please read their comments for some great reasons that should help clarify our position.

Personally, I think it comes down to the question of what the goal of one’s work is and how to best achieve it. Paul Rice, Executive Director of Transfair, was quoted in Business Week as stating that the goal of Fair Trade is to help poor people. While there’s nothing wrong with helping poor people – I prefer to work along side others who want to change the conditions that actually create poverty and injustice. Not just to help – but to change the system. To me, Fair Trade is more than a higher price, as important as that higher price is to the farmer who receives it. It’s more than a supply-side strategy in which the more people buying and selling Fair Trade, the better. It cannot be reduced to a seal; rather it is a holistic approach to economic development and political empowerment and self-determination.

How ironic. During the same week that Business Week came out with their article entitled, “Is Fair Trade Becoming ‘Fair Trade Lite’?” by Pallavi Gogoi, Alternet printed, “Why Fair Trade May be Our Only Hope,” by George Monbiot (originally published in the Guardian). If you want to understand why we should be supporting small scale agriculture, please read this latter article. Monbiot clearly explains why small-scale sustainable farming is the only solution to our multiple problems of environmental protection, feeding the poor, and providing for dignified livelihoods for farmers.

Here are some excerpts:

“…Though the rich world’s governments won’t hear it, the issue of whether or not the world will be fed is partly a function of ownership. This reflects an unexpected discovery. It was first made in 1962 by the Nobel economist Amartya Sen, and has since been confirmed by dozens of further studies. There is an inverse relationship between the size of farms and the amount of crops they produce per hectare. The smaller they are, the greater the yield.” (more…)

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