Friday, October 17, 2008

How Fair Is Fair Trade?

I've always been a huge believer in fair trade.

Partly for selfish reasons: I don't want to give up tea or chocolate.

Partly for humanitarian reasons: I believe that when done right, fair trade really can empower local communities. This isn't a theoretical assumption either. I've physically seen a few communities that have benefited from fair-trade production.

But it's becoming more and more clear to me, that within the feel-good sticker of "fair-trade certified!" there are some huge disparities among philosophies.

Yesterday, I went into my local coffee shop (big mugs of tea, and a discount for students!!) and saw a little sign proudly proclaiming their coffee to be fair-trade certified. It further noted that a share of the money from the coffee went to buying acres of land in the rain forest.

You see it all the time. On chocolate. On coffee. When you purchase carbon offsets. This money will go to buy land in the rain forest!

Now I admit, that until now, I'd never stopped to consider the implications. But suddenly, I was very, very uncomfortable.

That rain forest? It's part of a sovereign nation. You know? The one they call Brazil?

Yup. It's not ours. And Brazilians are understandably very defensive of people who try to say otherwise.

How is this helpful? How is it helpful if Americans and Western Europeans keep buying up land in the Amazon? How is this empowering local communities? How is this helping Brazilians build a better life? How is this fair or just?

Look, I'm worried about deforestation in the Amazon, too. But the ugly truth is, America and Western Europe completely deforested their land years ago. Why should we appropriate Brazil's land simply because they had the "misfortune" to be last in the major deforestation game?

What's the better solution here?


Joyce said...

I didn't realize buying land was part of the fair trade movement (I don't frequent coffee shops). That does seem unfair.
I read somewhere recently (can't find where) that we are actually having some success reforesting the U.S., as land is set aside by the government and the Nature Conservency. That's good news. It seems to me that we could focus on that more, while encouraging Brasil to think along the same lines. But I agree with you- they have their natural motivations to clear land for farming, as frustrating as it is to see the rain forest reduced. Who are we to tell them what to do?

ruchi said...

I don't think that everyone who practices fair trade also buys land in the developing world, but you do see it a lot written on chocolate bars and things. Proceeds of this fair trade chocolate goes to buying acres of the Amazon! So I think the ideas are linked somewhat.

Some fair trade genuinely does empower local people, but I'm not sure that there is a real distinction made between kinds of fair trade.

Kelly S. said...

I am interested in fair trade...I am. But the thing that stuck out most? You're in London, and there was coffee...

ruchi said...

There is TONS of coffee in London. They've turned into Americans here with almost as large a coffee obsession. :)

Anonymous said...

The thing is, if greenie northerners don't buy up land in the Amazon, it won't stop the non-greenie northerners from doing it.

Agribusiness, both cattle and soy farmers, from Canada and the United States have been moving to Brazil for the last few decades - the first time I saw it in the news was in the early '90s. There's something about the land and tax structure in Brazil that makes it very favorable compared to Mexico or smaller South American countries, and Brazil is *big* on biofuel.

And of course Brazil has its own cattle barons and agribusiness, and favors them in land and tax policy the way the US favored/favors our own deforesters.

So I don't think buying rainforest land is the *best* option, but I don't think it's a choice between yanqui imperialism and not. It's a choice between two flavors of economic imperialism (or three or four).

Green Bean said...

Ahh, echoes of Break Through. I don't know what the answer is. We need to find something where we work in concert with Brazil. As the BreakThrough authors suggested, helping to alleviate Brazilian debt would allow them to focus on preserving the rain forest instead of paying back debt. Of course, we're not really in a position for that these days.

But what about Fair Trade certification? The land buying isn't done by all fair trade companies and isn't necessarily connected to the certificaton. Do you have any other information about why fair trade may not be all it's cracked up to? Someone commented on my blog a while back and alluded to that but never gave any further information. I've wondered ever since. Without more information, I'm going to assume that fair trade is still fair game and, when I do buy those commodities that cannot be grown local, look for the little fair trade symbol. Even the Slow Food Nation folks (including Pollan), sang the virtues of fair trade.

Anonymous said...

I think looking toward companies like Malagasy is something we can do when unsure about a specific company's fair trade values. I work at a dessert restaurant in Brooklyn and we're really excited about Malagasy/Red Island.

They are an equitrade company:

"Equitrade is about transfering knowledge, skills and capital to help developing nation companies turn their wonderful raw ingredients ( cocoa, coffee etc) into high quality finished products such as Chocolate to help their economy.

Equitrade is about encouraging international trade that has a multiple increase in revenue for Madagascar, so trading in £ per Kg, and not trading as cash crops only that only brings to the economy pence per Kg. The product has to be traded to meet a demand and hence must offer the consumer a value product.

The more trade is done through developing nation companies, then more taxes are collected for their own country, thereby creating a sustainable way to end poverty. "

ruchi said...

Rosa, I see your point, but I'm a little uncomfortable by it. If it's because we want to prevent the land from going into other Westerners hands, why wouldn't we just give the land back to the people of Brazil in a form of land reform, with the caveat that they couldn't sell the land to a major corporation?

GB, yeah, obviously we all have more learning about fair trade to do. Look, I'm not anti-fair trade. As I've said, I think fair trade, when done RIGHT can really act to empower local people. But I think there are shades of fair trade. Just like some NGOs give people fish, and some NGOs teach people to fish.

Neelofer, I am very, VERY intrigued and excited by what you're talking about. I just watched a movie where I saw a Kenyan farmer complain that coffee gets bought from Kenya, but the VALUE ADDED (ie the roasting) gets done elsewhere. I think you're right. It is not enough to just buy cash crops from the developing world. Because cash crops as it is aren't worth much. But the "value added" step is in the refining. The refining the sugar, turning cacao into chocolate, roasting the coffee. If the value adding step occurs in the native state, then we're really getting somewhere. Thanks for telling me about equitrade! This is why I love the internets. :)

rani said...

A brief google turned up several companies that list "reforestation" as a fair-trade priority. I wonder, is there an order to all of this? eg, local, fair trade, organic, GMO-free, environmentally-responsible.

Also, just want to say I found your blog through No Impact Man and am in love!

ruchi said...

Rani, well it's complicated and it depends on your priorities. The reforestation priority makes me a little queasy though. Not because I'm against reforestation. Of course I'm not. But because reforestation can often be done in ways that actually hurt the local people ... for instance if you want to reforest an area where they take their cows out to pasture. I mean, why aren't we reforesting the US and Europe? Because people have homes there. There are Walmarts and Tescos and Super Targets there. Well, okay. So just because some of the indigenous people don't have a split level home with a balcony and a picket fence, we have the right to take the ancestral land they've lived on for years and make decisions regarding forestation?

Petite Noonie said...

Arduous, I apologize because this comment has nothing to do with "how fair is fair trade", but I had to let you know how much I love your blog!

I discovered Crunchy Chicken about a year ago and while I love her blog, as with most of the eco-blogs, I can't always relate.

That's where you are perfect for me! We're both twenty-something city dwellers, living in apartments (dorms), trying to reduce our impact.

I love that all these moms are homeschooling their kids and growing all their own produce- when I'm there I will have some great resources, but it's great to have a fellow city girl trying to make a difference.

I've looked and you're pretty much the only blog out there for girls like me. So thanks so much for keeping me motivated and entertained! Cheers!

EcoBurban said...

The company I buy my fair trade coffee from (Higher Grounds for anyone in the Michigan area) actually travels to the communities in Ethiopia, Brazil and Mexico to work with the farmers. A portion of the money from the coffee goes to help these communities improve their situation. For example, one community has been able to build schools, improve water conditions and create independence for these farmers. That, I agree with. Look around, you might find a smaller, fair trade certified company for coffee that you feel more aligned with. I have to order my coffee through a food club, but it's worth it!

Going Crunchy said...

I don't know the answer, but we are losing acres a day due to deforestation - a major concern as the Amazon is the "lungs of the world." Rosa has a point in that not buying it leaves it open for deforestation after it is sold to others. Shan

ruchi said...

Meaghan, you're welcome! Glad that you enjoy the blog. :)

EBM, yeah I agree. I think the best case is to investigate into the fair trade companies you buy from. Good for you for doing the research.

Shan, I see your point. But the reason the Amazon is the "lungs of the world" is because we ALREADY deforested in the North. Otherwise, the forests in Canada, the US or Western Europe might well have been the "lungs of the world." Again, obviously I don't want deforestation to happen. But I think it's important to view this from a Brazilian perspective as well. If Brazilians were buying all the land around Chicago and then dictating how it could or could not be used, how would you feel?

Anonymous said...

Ruchi, messing with Brazil's land laws is way worse imperialism than legally buying land.

Also, a lot of the rainforest land changes hands because the people who *do* own it don't have the power to keep it.

If you could abolish the land speculation market there completely, and enact land reform, and give local people the resources to protect themselves and the land...half of that is Brazillian politics and the other half (giving people power) is somethign that a lot of the conservancy groups are trying to do.

I don't know about your chocolate bar land buying program, but a lot of the conservancy groups buy land, hire local people to manage/protect it (which replaces some of the lost income from cattle raising or cash crop farming) and use the group's power/standing to go to court if necessary, and fund raise for continued support.

There's no getting Western power out of Latin America. Brazil is actually relatively powerful, and has spent decades building up their economy outside the boom/bust cycle of cash crops. But they are still vulnerable (just like rural parts of the US and Mexico are vulnerable) to the worldwide commodities markets, and to central governments that are not at all interested in carefully managed natural resources.

ruchi said...

Rosa, well I wasn't actually suggesting that we mess with Brazil's land laws. I was suggesting that if the idea was to keep the land out of big corporations' hands, that we could buy the land and give it back to the local people.

But I think you're right, that in the real world where the choice is between imperialism and imperialism, this is probably the best option, and that with all things, the devil is in the details as to how the conservancy group manages the land, how they deal with the local people, how much their actions empower local people, etc. I am sure most of the conservancy groups are probably doing as good a job as they possibly can.

I don't know what the answer is. What I do know is that the Brazilians I've met are generally indignant that the Amazon is falling increasingly into Western hands. And I understand why.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure they are. But while they get their politics sorted out, what are we supposed to do?

The funny thing is that in a lot of ways rural American places, like the ones I came up in, have the exact same problems (though less extreme poverty) - the whole worldwide economic system is designed to suck wealth and power out of the areas that produce primary goods, to the detriment of the local land and people. And a lot of times the local power structure enthusiastically supports the exploitation.

It's not that much different than the question of buying clothes - the ideal would be if the materials were sustainably produced and the people doing the labor had equal power to the consumers. But that's not what we have, so what's the least bad choice?

Your Equitrade post gets more at the root of the problem (though, if the certifiers & the company are the same people, is there independent certification?)

ruchi said...

Yeah, it is a little weird that the people who founded Equitrade also founded Malagasy. In my little research, I wasn't able to tell exactly whether or not there is third-party verification, though it looks like now, Equitrade and Malagasy are separate entities. Though I think the nature of what equitrade is means that it is more obviously transparent, ie anyone can easily find out where the cacao beans are processed into chocolate.

Anonymous said...

Interesting--I didn't realize that we were actually buying land in these areas either--but I suppose it's one way to ensure that area of land does not get destroyed. However, if I were a coffee drinker, I wouldn't mind spening a little extra to help the conditions of workers in these areas.

In a larger context, we also need to start thinking of how we as communities AND consumers can affect positive change in these situations. It's sometimes difficult not feeling guilty when buying products you know probably caused some type of oppression tos omeone out there.

If enough of us speak out against these practices, I think we can change the markets where it actualy becomes profitable to sell ethically. It wil atke many voices, but I think it can be done :)

ruchi said...

Fatima, to be fair, I think fair trade does result in positive change. I guess the question is how much, and I think the answer is not enough.