John Bowles (ed), 'The Fair Trade Revolution' and Orla Ryan, 'Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa'

IssueApril 2011
Review by Ian Sinclair

With contributions from fourteen campaigners and corporate practitioners, The Fair Trade Revolution is the Fairtrade Foundation’s official, if somewhat dry, history of the movement. It grew out of the grassroots activism of the 1960s, and editor John Bowles contends a “fundamental paradigm shift” has occurred in the last decade, with sales of Fairtrade goods in the UK topping £1 billion last year.

With fair trade guaranteeing producers in the developing world a minimum price for their product and an additional premium to be invested locally in social, environmental or developmental projects, John Bowles argues it delivers “the prospect of a brighter future for the downtrodden and the impoverished”. Sainsbury’s move to make all their bananas fair trade in 2008 along with Cadbury’s decision to make their Dairy Milk chocolate bar fair trade in 2009 are both highlighted as seminal moments in the growth of fair trade. However, a note of caution is raised by Pedro Haslam and Nicholas Hoskyns, who highlight how fair trade has “changed from a movement that effectively contributes to empowerment, social change and economic justice to one that is also effectively improving the image of some of the most mistrusted companies in the world.”

Complete with absorbing ground-level reportage and a fascinating history lesson, Orla Ryan’s account of the cocoa industry in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire makes uncomfortable reading for fair trade supporters. An Irish journalist who spent four years covering the region for Reuters, Ryan maintains the story told by Fairtrade airbrushes out more important factors that shape the cocoa industry. With 720,000 cocoa farmers in Ghana, along with unequal power relations in the industry and the world markets, she argues real change does not come from ethical decisions made by consumers at the supermarket “but from the thumbprints on ballot papers, the counting of votes, the inauguration of new presidents”. Diversification, land reform, rural banking and scientific research are all issues that could help cocoa farmers in the future, Ryan points out, although these “lie beyond the remit of Fairtrade”.

Though their analyses and proposals for action differ markedly, both books’ primary concern is the welfare of the producers in the developing world. But while Ryan’s book problematises the concept, since activists and concerned citizens in the West have severely limited influence on global trade laws and elections in West Africa, surely buying fair trade is one of the few positive acts they can participate in?

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