Fair Trade

Mujeres de Achuapa

We are published!  Nick wrote an article for the Fair World Project, which I edited and selected photos for, and it’s out!  Online or available in the publication For a Better World available in Whole Foods stores.


The ground seems fertile for new sustainable agriculture markets, pun intended.  A recent estimate places a $4.5 billion value on the “green agricultural technologies” market over the next decade, including improvements in available biopesticides and organic non-petroleum based fertilizers.  Which is great, except that with harsher climate extremes and increasing intensity of pests and diseases, it is unclear whether this investment will result in increased production yields or simply be necessary to maintain the current level of production.  And of course, this doesn’t mean $4.5 billion for farmers – unless farmers come together to invest in the development and creation of amendments.  The infrastructure within the agricultural cooperative movement should give farmer cooperatives an advantage in centrally producing economical and ecological inputs for their member farmers, retaining some of the value of this growing industry in the hands of small farmers.

UNCTADThe recent United Nations Trade and Environment Review 2013 is entitled “Wake Up Before It Is Too Late” and stresses the need for transformations in our food systems that strengthen farmers’ ability to employ ecological practices that increase the stability and health of agriculture.  The report, compiled by over 60 experts in the field, lists as one of its key points the need to recognize farmers as more than just producers.  Farmers are managers of agro-ecosystems that impact public goods and services including water, soil, land use, energy, biodiversity and recreation.  When we recognize them as managers with influence in several areas of long-term impact, the resources that we make available to them and the role they play in trade relationships and business takes greater importance.  In one section entitled: Democratizing the Role of Agriculture to Meet the Needs of the 21st Century” the report outlines the effects of the consolidation of corporate interests in agriculture – from monopolization of the input markets including seeds, pesticides and fertilizers, to lobbying and influencing policies that are not in the best interest of farmers.  Although as stewards of the land farmers have the potential to greatly impact carbon sequestration, erosion, local food systems and energy production, the consolidation of corporate interests effectively prioritize profit margins on fertilizers, seeds, and retail over supporting good farm management and profitability.  As the graph below from the Canadian Department of Agriculture shows, the price of fertilizers is rising at a faster rate than the price of crops, cutting into farmers profitability.

The fuel, fertilizer and crop price trends for Canadian farmers.

The fuel, fertilizer and crop price trends for Canadian farmers.

The report suggests a variety of concrete actions that should be relevant especially within the movement of organized farmer advocacy groups and cooperatives.  There are examples of farmer groups who have made investments in the production of fertilizers and seeds.  I have previously written about SOPPEXCCA’s fertilizer plant as a model coffee cooperative’s initiative to take into their own hands the lack of effective organic certified fertilizers on the market.  Because the farmers themselves have a stake in the fertilizer production, the quality of the finished product, and the profitability of the coffee production, the investment includes annual tests and improvements in the composition of the fertilizer they make, effectively lowering the cost of the fertilizer for farmers rather than raising it.  Other examples of farmer groups taking a pro-active stance to protect available cost-effective quality inputs for farmers that are not controlled by  are seed savers groups and seed banks.  The difference between farmer-driven and corporate-driven amendments is simple – farmers have a vested interest in the effectiveness and quality of the product, as well as in their affordability and long-term ecological impact.  Corporations only have a vested interest in the first.

What other innovative farmer-initiated production models or policies do you know of that shift market control and profitability toward farmers?

October 2013 is Fair Trade Month, when consumer advocacy groups, companies, and certifications raise awareness of the reasons why fair trade is important, and promote buying and using socially and commercially sustainable, fair trade products in place of commodities which may harm the environment, the economy, communities and disadvantaged individuals.  Despite it’s good intentions, the campaign hasn’t been visible at all on the ground in this Fair Trade producer country.  I can’t help noticing the one-way flow of information and energy within this movement that has legitimately transformed the way that trade impacts hundreds of thousands of small producers’ lives.  Since beginning my work with agricultural cooperatives almost a year ago, I have had the privilege of seeing and experiencing the incredible results of implementing a trading structure that supports small producers.  And I also am able to see its shortcomings in the field, where the newest innovations in ethical trade need to be focused.  Like a missed opportunity this “Fair Trade” month for companies and advocacy groups to support producer cooperatives in recruiting new members and launching local awareness campaigns in their own countries, not only in consumer countries.  When Fair Trade USA decided to break away from the Fair Trade Licensing Organization’s international standards to certify plantations and reduce the amount of certified ingredients necessary for labelling, they sent a clear message to agricultural cooperatives that have toiled for years to create successful democratic businesses – we care more about profit margins and consumer demand than your participation in the market.  Ouch.  So while consumer advocacy groups shuffle around to take sides and pour resources in re-educating the public on new standards and symbols, agricultural cooperatives have to huddle, suck it in to prepare for an even more competitive market on top of coffee rust and whatever climatic disaster is waiting around the corner.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, tomorrow Oct. 16th is World Food Day.  This year’s theme is Healthy People Depend on Healthy Food Systems.  Access for consumers to quality food is just one piece of a food system, and it’s an important one – besides the social and other health costs associated with lack of access to good food, the costs of malnutrition alone could account for as much as an estimated 5% of the global gross domestic product (GDP).  Both upstream and downstream from agricultural food production are important links in the food system that impact the lives and diets of many people.  Availability of soil amendments, financing, regional land policy, and road quality all have an impact on both local and global food systems.  Ethical trading structures like Fair Trade can have a direct impact on a subsequent food system – like the example of this Coop in Achuapa, Nicaragua.  Innovations to ethical trading structures should improve information and resource feedback, continue to empower small producers and provide ways for them to increase ownership over links in the supply chain, and support them in building parallel local markets so the overall effect of good fair trade is healthier food systems – and healthier people – around the world.

A colorful array of locally produced products in Achuapa, Nicaragua from sesame oil to carao syrup to nancite wine!

A colorful array of locally produced products in Achuapa, Nicaragua from sesame oil to carao syrup to nancite wine!

Once upon a time I believed that creating and supporting healthy local food systems meant eliminating imported products – for example, sticking to a 100 mile-diet.  I believed that preaching a local food only diet could solve societal issues such as a disconnect from agricultural businesses and the source of our food, struggling local economies, and poor health and nutrition.  But I began to question that belief as my work in Nicaragua evolved from development centered NGO work to trade oriented development work.  As I have gotten to know several fair trade cooperatives, their histories and their work today, I have had to reassess to a certain extent my intense focus on the benefits of consuming only local food.  Maybe there is a space for positive global trade, one that can, despite the enormous capital and fuel resources, create net positive social impact and work pretty hard on the environmental ones too.  After all, while many local farms in the US have sprung up, grown and profited off of the local food movement, local independent coffee roasters have too!  In general I am a supporter of positive campaigning (put your energy behind what you DO want – if not instead than at least as well as what you DON”T want).  I would not recommend to any local food advocate to go an a campaign to convince the masses to stop drinking their coffee.  Not worth your energy.

It is worth your energy to drink the right coffee though!  Over the years I have found that the agricultural cooperatives I work with here that export coffee and sesame share many of the same values as movements I connect with in the states, such as the local food movement.  The funds they generate – through exporting a commodity to people in countries whose climates or economies that do not support the production of that crop – are often invested in funding environmental youth movements, organic fertilizer production, educational scholarships, and strengthening local food networks.  Every coffee coop we work with has or is currently developing a national brand of export quality coffee to market nationally.  This focus on raising the quality of the Nicaraguan coffee culture through national distribution is a strategy that I find both empowering and an example of good business.  Investing in a product for local markets will help the coops grow, reach new markets, and give them a way to leverage the difference between national and international prices to make the best business decisions each year – as well as strengthening the local food system by providing Nicaraguans the opportunity to drink high quality Nicaraguan coffee.

Another coop we work with, the Juan Francisco Paz Silva Cooperative in Achuapa, exports sesame oil to Europe, mostly for use in cosmetics.  The exports work like the engine that fuels the Cooperative.  It means the Cooperative provides jobs for locals (many of them youth) to run the oil press, the business administration, and the services the coop offers, it generates fair trade premiums – funds that are ear marked for social or environmental projects.  The profits are invested into the business and distributed amongst its members, similar to dividends in a public company.

Doña Socorro displays her handmade pottery at a coop sponsored fair.

Doña Socorro displays her handmade pottery at a coop sponsored fair.

Because the cooperative has been successful both in producing a quality product that has demand on the market and in investing their profits in the community, other organizations are attracted to working with them, and they have been able to collaborate with local and international development organizations on projects improving farm diversity, establishing technical schools, improving access to potable water, and strengthening local food networks.  Over the last three years, the coop has invested in developing a local line of products using what is available and abundant – including sesame, a very nutritious grain which is not a staple of Nicaraguan cuisine.  Through the creativity of some coop members and employees, and now through a new initiative to Recognize the Unpaid Work of Women in the cost of the sesame and use those funds to help women fully participate in local communities and economies, the coop is lending their facilities and marketing support to the development of new products.  The first Nicaraguan-produced Tahini, which has at least made a splash amongst some local expats, was revolutionized when Doña Ernestina, who works at the coop, mixed it with honey produced by the coop and created a sweet sticky spread that appeals more to a Nicaraguan palate.  Individuals and groups of women in Achuapa have the full support of the cooperative in developing and marketing foods made from local ingredients to local communities – funded through the export of sesame oil and sesame seeds to communities as far away as Europe, the US, and Japan.

Suddenly, export vs. local isn’t so black and white anymore.  When a democratic organization with a strong social and environmental vision successfully enters an international market, the impact can be felt very locally.

As organic farmers know, it’s much more important over the long term to feed the soil than to feed a plant.  Using nutrients that a plant needs only in the moment (essentially what chemical fertilizers provide) would be like eating nothing but a bag of potato chips every time you felt faint, but never sitting down to hearty meal.  Organic farmers, and certifiers, know that the best way to nourish a plant is to feed the soil, with fertilizers that not only contain the nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium that the chemical fertilizers contain, but also organic matter and micro-nutrients that a plant needs in much smaller amounts and that ultimately improve the texture, drainage, and composition of the soil.

Small farmers remove the coffee cherry pulp with a hand-cranked mill.

On one hand organic coffee farmers have excellent materials to make organic fertilizers but on the other hand they can be limited by the restrictions placed on them by certification bodies.  The first and most widely used ingredient for organic fertilizer on a coffee farm is the fruit from the coffee cherries.  On small farms, the cherries are often de-pulped on the farm and then seeds, or coffee beans, are dried and transported to a processing plant owned by the cooperative or a private company.  The fruit of the cherries contains phosphorus and adds organic matter to the soil, but farmers add manure, either chicken or cattle, to the compost to create a nitrogen rich fertilizer that both boosts the plants growth short-term and gradually improves the quality of the soil over seasons.

A farmer who dedicates time and labor to producing fertilizer for high quality coffee feels as proud of his compost as he is of the end product!

While recycling the cherry fruits and any manure you have around the farm into your soil is something that every farmer should do (and many coffee farmers do), in Nicaragua conventional coffee farmers are at an advantage over organic farmers in that they have the possibility of augmenting their fruit with purchased fertilizers.  Because there are no commercially available certified organic fertilizers here, the smallest farmers who are certified organic struggle to feed their soils.  Unless they have enough land to dedicate several acres to cattle and harvest their own manure, they are prohibited by the certification bodies of adding the manure from any neighboring farms, unless the neighboring farm’s cattle production is certified organic (virtually unheard of here).

Central small-farmer Cooperatives are now dedicating time and resources to improving the fertilizers available to small farmers, often hand in hand with small roasters from abroad who purchase the coffee and are very supportive of the cooperative in maintaining the highest quality coffee and yields possible.  Bocashi is a japanese method of making compost which actively supports the growth of micro-organisms which help to break down nutrients in the soil and make them available to the plants.  Farmers can make bocashi using rice husks, dried coffee cherries, a starch, and unrefined sugar; all ingredients that are readily available to the rural areas.  Another powerful fertilizer is bio-ferment, an excellent way for small farmers to stretch the small amount of cow manure they produce over several acres of coffee plant.  Bio-ferment is a foliar fertilizer, which mixes cow manure, milk, sugar and mineral salts into a nutrient-rich spray that is absorbed directly into the leaves of the plant.

Having a commercially available certified organic fertilizer will help some small farmers maintain their certifications.

Some cooperatives are able to invest in more direct support for their farmers.  The SOPPEXCCA cooperative in Jinotega has built a fertilizer plant, and they are currently producing certified organic fertilizer for their own cooperative members.  This is just one great example of how a well run cooperative can provide much more to its members than a guaranteed market.

To be successful, an organic farmer needs to be able to produce the necessary ingredients and labor to make fertilizers on-farm or has to have a commercially available product that is affordable.  Etico has been focusing recently on helping cooperatives with both of these strategies, that will ultimately lead to better coffee and a healthier environment.

Everyone is familiar with the current trend of tracing processed or imported food down to its origins.  From imported coffee and wine to the carrots in your nearest grocery store, now everyone wants to know who grew it, who distributed it, and who profited.  As first an organic farmer in small-farmer-rich New England and now a local farm advocate in a developing country, I’ve spent my fair share of energy tracing back to the roots of my food and either knowing – or being – the person who grew it.

At the end of October I had the chance to do the opposite – trace forward to where the coffee from several Nicaraguan coffee cooperatives I’ve gotten to know here is exported to, roasted, and sold.  Nick and I spent a long weekend in California, visiting Paul Katzeff, founder and president of Thanksgiving coffee, a long time Nicaraguan coffee buyer and fair trade advocate.  After getting to know the fair trade story in-depth here in Nicaragua, and meeting many of the farmers and cooperative leaders, it was truly a treat to go see one of the places where their hard work ends up.

Thanksgiving coffee is in Mendicino country, California.  Our trip began in San Francisco, where we left early in the drizzly morning to begin the three-plus hours drive up to Mendecino.

We passed through acres and acres of vineyards, and stopped for a wine tasting at one.  The land used to be apple orchards, but once it was discovered that grapes grew well nearly all of the apple orchards are gone.  There are some lingering orchards, and we also stopped to sample some varieties.  At this time of year, Nicaragua imports two kinds of apples – green granny smith and red delicious – from Chile.  My heart skipped a beat when I saw familiar wooden apple crates piled high with jonagolds and macouns.

My heart skipped more than a beat as we stopped to walk into a redwood forest off the highway.  The smell was amazing, and the trees unbelievable. I could have spent days absorbing the soft fern covered soil and towering green canopy.  I wish that every coffee farmer could have this experience, of breathing in the air of such a unique endangered forest and knowing that their small farm of shade grown coffee has a connection, albeit far, to these forests in the north.

Paul Katzeff lives in a redwood forest, but he generously found us a cabin on a point by a lighthouse to stay for the weekend.  We went from the pacific with palms to the pacific with razor-sharp rocks and seals.

With Paul Katzeff in the Thanksgiving coffee café in Mendicino.  The black and white photo on the top shelf behind us is him with his first coffee roaster.  Since the large roasting factory burnt down in May, Paul has gone back to hand roasting all the coffee for the cafe in the little roaster behind us.  The plant on the right is one of his many coffee plants that he has managed to grow in pots; miraculously they all survived the fire.

We went over to the roastery, which is right next to a community garden plot where Paul has a huge bin of worms.  I have never seen a bin of happier worms, gorging on coffee grounds and garden waste.  This time of year Paul gives them all the rotting apples from the small orchard, and he’s sure they wiggle  little differently from all the hard cider consumption!

The community garden paths are lined with coffee sacks from Thanksgiving coffee’s purchases.  The hand planted organic local produce mixed in with coffee sacks painted with designs from all over the world became a metaphor for how I envision this “forward tracing” coffee trade route – quality coffees landing in the fertile soil of Mendecino foodie culture.

Every tree in the little orchard next to the community garden is a different kind of heirloom apple.  Tasting apples is not unlike cupping coffee – we took slow bites, taking the time to pick out subtle flavors of rose, citrus, and banana in different varieties.  My favorite was this roxbury russet, a crisp tangy sweet apple with an incredible glowing skin.

We harvested chard, beets, and brussels sprouts from Paul’s little garden patch, to enjoy a Halloween dinner of local vegetables.

And of course we drank coffee; the best cappuccino I’ve ever had.  Normally I’m a cream and sugar coffee drinker, but Paul’s hand roasted blends shows off the best of coffee’s farmers harvests from all over the world, and the cup is so rich and creamy that I didn’t add a granule of sugar.  The weekend was clearly a lot of fun, but in addition Paul shared with us a deep “be here eat here live here now” way of life.  I am, above all, a local economy supporter, and my work in Nicaragua focuses not on exporting products to far corners of the globe, but on strengthening local markets.  However, the fact that the coffee from the small farmers I know in Nicaragua, who take such careful measures to protect natural forests and work democratically, ends up in this contemplative and appreciative community feels very right.

Fair Trade certified products have exploded into markets from import craft shops to chain coffee shops and supermarkets, but how many consumers educate themselves about what the certification means and how it works?  Fair Trade began as a radical group of individuals using trade to help impoverished and disadvantaged groups of farmers and artisans.  As the movement grew and unified, a certification system was developed with standards that any large importer could choose to follow in order to also sell certified fair trade.

Good theory.  But in practice, certification bodies based in the States and Europe deciding what is “fair” for farmers around the world in many different economies not only sounds like a nightmare, but is also a very top-down structure for a product labelled “fair”.  The  Fair Trade certifying body establishes an internationally recognized minimum price based on the cost of production that is applied to the sale of that crop wherever it is sold in the world.  The full minimum price needs to reach the farmer.  So if there are any middlemen or middleagencies involved, they add their cut on top of the fair trade minimum.

The farmers involvement (the part the makes it not so entirely top down) comes with the social premium.  The social premium, set at an additional amount per pound, is intended to be invested by the farming community in long-term social or development projects that benefit the whole community.  Some examples are building schools or roads, giving scholarships, and creating community revolving loans funds.  Because the money is intended for the community, the farmers need to form a social structure – a cooperative or marketing group – to manage the funds.  Often those organizations are run by representatives of the communities involved, so that the ultimate decision for how to spend the social premium is made by a select group and not every single farmer individually.

Hence, one offhand comment by a Fair Trade certifier in the sesame farming community in Achuapa, Nicaragua and a group of angry Fair Trade farmers come knocking on the cooperative doors.

“The social premium is yours to spend!  You decide how you want it to be spent.” was the comment made to the organic, fair trade certified sesame farmers while visiting their farms.

Empower those farmers!  Ensure $0.10 extra per pound for social projects (the social premium for sesame) and then make sure they know they have the autonomy to choose how to spend it!

Problem is, when you tell individual farmers who may be struggling to send their kids to school, whose roofs may be collapsing over their heads, who may have to choose between buying clothes, farm equipment, or medicine for their ailing mother that they choose how to spend money they say, “ok, put it in my pocket.  I’ll spend it.”

The inadequacy of verbal communication.  You (the cooperative of farmers) was said, and you (the individual farmer) was heard.  The fine print on the certification requirements wasn’t enough to quiet them down, clearly that doesn’t stand against what the certifier said in person at their farm!  Once anyone decides that money is rightfully theirs, it’s an upstream battle convincing them otherwise.

Now a letter will be written to the certifiers, requesting a representative to come to a meeting with the farmers.  Meetings will be held, time and money will be spent, and eventually the issue will be resolved and a new fund will be created from this years social premium.  The farmers may or may not leave feeling cheated by a system that was created in part by their colleagues to empower them, and may or may not end up pulling out of a successful cooperative that has become a leader in the small farmer movement in Nicaragua.

The weakness of an international certification system is revealed.  A system originally developed horizontally between buyers and producers who had a shared vision is now a top-down imposed set of standards regulated by outsiders.  If the social premium funds are distributed individually the whole cooperative system of thousands of Nicaraguan sesame farmers – not just the group of 20 complaining sesame farmers – risk losing Fair Trade certification, and the certainty of a higher price.  This is the cooperative who piloted fair trade sesame and set the standards by which sesame around the world is certified Fair Trade, and yet now the farmers are divided over the Fairness of those standards.

What is Fair here? Some of these farmers already owe money to the cooperative and wouldn’t be eligible for a loan from a revolving fund.  Some don’t have school-age children to benefit from scholarships.  Ask them what community project they would support and they won’t come up with one single one that will benefit every single farmer directly.  So the easiest thing is to divide all the money up ten cents here ten cents there.  But is that Fair either?  Would the social impact of that money be the same divided up amongst everyone?  Or would it just disappear in the daily purchase of food or weekend beer at the bar?

This is real.  This is the ebb and flow of an international community created around trade and social ideals that are hard to pin down.   There are tough decisions and struggles behind the angelic face of the indigenous child on the package of your fair trade food.

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