Fairtrade for democracy

IssueJune 2008
Feature by Andrea D'Cruz, Harriet Lamb

PN How has Fairtrade changed the producers themselves?

HL Guillermo Vargas Leiton, the representative of Coocafe, the coffee co-operative in Costa Rica, used to say: “When you purchase Fairtrade, you’re helping build democracy, because you are enabling farmers to get together at a local level, to discuss what’s happening to them, to understand where their products are going, and therefore actually to learn the skills of making judgements and decisions.”

So Fairtrade is bringing about a transformation. The heart of the change is organisation. As long as smallholders are disparately scattered individuals with tiny plots, they are never going to be able to change their position. Once they come together, and organise as a co-op or an association, they can indeed change their position.

And the other key thing is that, having become organised, they get the Fairtrade premium, the money to invest in really quite big infrastructure projects in their communities, which the governments themselves have not been able to do.

The farmers are building schools and roads, putting in street lighting and drinking water wells for the first time. The farmers can work with dignity and pride, because they are transforming the well-being of the whole community.

PN What about carbon footprints? How does your average consumer go about calculating how to balance food miles, fair trade and the organic factor?

HL I don’t think they should try to calculate the balance between things, I think they should relax a bit!
I think we can get ourselves in a complete mess about a tiny area where there is potentially some trade-off.
We are never really going to go back to a very medieval diet. Most products that are Fairtrade are grown in developing countries, and you don’t get bananas, coffee and rice grown in East Anglia. The campaign is at its best when you make that connection – buy local, buy Fairtrade. If you want to buy eggs or dairy or meat, you may want to buy it locally, from local farmers.

If you want to buy bananas, oranges, limes, buy Fairtrade; the two are completely mutually supportive.
In a way Fairtrade is like a global farmers’ market, because it goes direct to the farmer. As for the question of food miles, I refer back to John Kanjagaile, in my book. He was asked by somebody, about the carbon footprint of coffee, and he smiled and said: “I wish I could take you to my village, to meet my farmers: they don’t have a television, a DVD, a telephone, a mobile phone, they don’t have a car, they haven’t been to the capital let alone been on numerous holidays on planes. Don’t ask those people to clean up the mess that you’ve created.”

I think we have to look at the big moves that we need to take in our lifestyles before we deny people in developing countries the right to earn their way out of poverty.

PN Do increasing Fairtrade sales indicate a passive society in which people see themselves primarily as consumers, rather than being more actively engaged in the political system?

HL No, absolutely not. Everyone goes shopping. Fair trade is a very democratic movement because everyone can play their part in it.

Trade issues are very complex, and this is a way in for people to gradually get to know more about it, and then they may indeed also send the postcard.

Buying Fairtrade is a bit like a living breathing postcard to the government. The two go together and indeed reinforce each other.

PN Is Fairtrade a form of democratisation of the corporate economy; a way that the values of the majority can be imposed on the corporate economy?

HL I think that’s very well put – it’s absolutely about putting democracy back into trade, it’s about giving power back to the producers who haven’t got a lot of power, and it’s the consumer here, who does have a lot of power, flexing that power.

It’s a celebration of what individuals can achieve, when they come together and organise, whether it’s farmers or whether it’s Fairtrade towns.

PN Fairtrade involves engaging with big businesses, supermarket chains, even multi-nationals. Does engagement with these companies compromise your ability to criticise other aspects of their operations?

HL Not at all. We do not see it as our role to name and shame individual companies. There are many NGOs who do a great job, pointing out where companies do not do what the public would expect of them.
We believe our job is to provide an alternative. There are 45 million smallholders world-wide, and the market is dominated by four big companies. If we don’t get those four big companies changing, we’re never going to be able to change the opportunities for those 45 million smallholders.

PN When you work with companies that aren’t 100% Fairtrade, can the label become a fig leaf for their other less-than-ethical activities?

HLThat is a difficult issue, but you have to start somewhere. If we said we’re only going to work with perfect companies, we’d still be waiting!

We thought we’d start with the real world and we’ve been very clear we are not making any judgement at all on the company as a whole. I believe the public understands that.