The Common Good
September/October 2008

Growing Pains

by Patty Kupfer | September/October 2008

Keeping fair trade fair.

Ask the nearly 600 members of the CIRSA coffee cooperative in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico, how things are going and they’ll tell you, “Little by little, we’re moving forward.” Considering that a couple of decades ago the parents of these indigenous farmers worked in slavery-like conditions on large coffee plantations in the region, and that their region has been ignored and marginalized throughout its history, their progress is tremendous.

The Indigenous Communities of the Simojovel de Allende Region (CIRSA in Spanish) shipped 235 tons of fair trade coffee last year to the United States and Europe. Through the fair trade certification system, the small farmers of CIRSA and similar cooperatives throughout Latin Ameri­ca are guaranteed a minimum price for their coffee. This provides stability to small farmers, who live in some of the world’s poor­est regions—and who are especially vulnerable to the volatile market that dictates world coffee prices. This is why, on our weekly trip to the grocery store, many of us fork over some extra change for fair trade coffee.

Twenty years after its birth, the fair trade movement is suffering some growing pains. No longer a fringe movement, fair trade boasted $2.2 billion dollars in global sales during 2006, and debates rage from within about whether rapid expansion may be compromising the movement’s core principles.

One key debate focuses on the difference between small farmer cooperatives and large plantations. Right now, plantations can’t participate in the fair trade coffee market, but recent proposals would change that. In products such as tea and bananas, most fair trade items already come from large plantations, which win certification by ensuring higher wages, increased worker protections and greater social investments than they would otherwise provide. So what’s the problem with plantations?

It’s important to see how fair trade certification fits into the bigger picture of farmers’ struggle for a decent livelihood. Take the example of CIRSA: The coffee farmers of Simojovel de Allende struggled for years to win the land reform that enabled them to become independent smallholders. The plantations where their families had worked were a legacy of the colonial era, when a small elite controlled most political and economic structures, allowing them to sustain miserable working conditions with miniscule chances for upward mobility.

Owning their own land gave the CIRSA farmers the footing to organize as a cooperative in 1992; the higher wage they earn from fair trade certified coffee, in turn, helps them to win the constant struggle to stay organized.

CIRSA’s treasurer, Juan López, states it eloquently: “Alone, you can’t do anything. We’ve joined together to make a better life.” Phyllis Robinson, education and campaigns manager at fair trade vendor Equal Ex-change, agrees that getting organized is critical. “Small farmers in today’s agricultural markets are up against all odds. The higher, more stable price of fair trade helps keep farmers organized in co-ops, where they have an easier time accessing credit or technical capacity building.”

If the Fair Trade Labeling Organization (FLO) were to start certifying coffee plantations—an idea that has been defeated for now, but is sure to rise again—chains like Wal-Mart or Starbucks would likely make their fair trade purchases from the largest producers, to simplify their logistics. Small farmers worry this shift would take them down a slippery slope back to the dominance of the plantation model.

Another concern is whether fair trade is still providing a living wage. In 2007, FLO approved the first increase of its minimum coffee price in 18 years. The increase of five cents per pound of coffee brought the total price to $1.31 (the price for organic fair trade coffee went from $1.41 to $1.51 a pound). While higher market prices in recent years have forced fair trade buyers to pay above the minimum to guarantee their supplies, farmers pointed to increases in labor and transportation costs that still weren’t covered.

Despite the challenges, CIRSA is committed and hopeful about its future in fair trade. Last year the co-op met all its sales goals and had a surplus to sell to the Mexican market. They’ve purchased their own semitrailer for transport. Every year they pick up a dozen or so new members.

In 2004, CIRSA began receiving visits from groups of U.S. consumers. They welcomed the chance to deepen the commitment and awareness between coffee drinkers and producers, recognizing the importance of an international network of consumers who are paying attention. As Robinson points out, fair trade works best not as an end in itself, but as “a window to get you hooked in. It’s not the last thing you do.”

Patty Kupfer worked in Mexico from 2003 to 2005 as an international team member for Witness for Peace. She organized for immigration reform when this article appeared.

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