To talk about something as complex as fair trade we wanted to have different points of view in different countries. Our survey brought us to Mexico in February, Colombia in June and Peru last August.

We already had a more or less precise idea of ​​the principles of fair trade – an alternative to the dominant world trade – based on criteria as:

  • Economic: payment of a fair price, long-term business relations, etc.
  • Social: respect of the conventions of the International Labor Organization (working time, minimum age, minimum income etc.)
  • Democracy: participation in decision-making, equality of workers
  • Environmental: respect for biodiversity, sustainability, ecological management of waste …
  • Awareness-raising: raising people’s awareness of the issues of a fairer trade

By meeting different organizations and forms of fair trade, we wanted to discover the constraints of this trade and know if it is a viable and truly fair system for farmers.

We will discover that under the general name “fair trade”, there are actually many labels with very different specifications. The 3 main ones we find in France are:

We will first meet two very different Fairtrade/Max Havelaar labeled cooperatives, one in Mexico producing coffee and the other in Peru producing cocoa.

It all starts in southern Mexico, where we meet the coffee producers of the Michiza cooperative in the Oaxaca area. We drive 4 hours from Oaxaca to a small village in the Zapotec community.

Gil, the technical manager of the cooperative, accompanies us. We discover small coffee plantations managed in a bio-friendly and eco-friendly, chemical-free way, with a beautiful cover of native trees of the region (see our previous article on agroforestry) to shade the coffee trees. All the work is done by hand and we are amazed to see Marcelina, a farmer over 80, climb the mountains in front of us to get to his plantation and picking by hand.

We will follow with it all the process of coffee, from picking to a good hot coffee, through pulping, fermentation, drying, roasting and milling.

Gil then tells the story of the cooperative and Fairtrade certification. Following the coffee price crisis in the late 1980s, the Max Havelaar label was created in the Netherlands in 1988 to protect coffee producers, many of whom went into extreme poverty.

The economic criteria of the Fairtrade/Max Havelaar label are twofold:

  1. Raw materials are purchased at a guaranteed minimum price, which covers production costs and acts as a safety net against fluctuations in world prices. Farmers no longer suffer from falling prices: the price paid remains stable if the price drops, but increases with it if it goes up
  2. They also pay a development bonus for local projects, in addition to the payment of raw materials, to producer organizations or workers’ committees. It is used collectively and autonomously to finance economic, social and environmental projects (construction of infrastructures, improvement of production, access to water, health, education …).

Gil explains that this solution has allowed many farmers in his region to survive and emerge from poverty in the 90s – 2000. Today, farmers in the region are facing a new threat: “Coffee rust“, a disease that forces coffee trees to be extract and drastically decreases production and consequently increases production costs. The government has tried to help farmers by giving them new coffee varieties that are more resistant to rust.

Unfortunately donations of new plants have been made outside the planting season and most plants are dying while waiting to be planted.

On the other hand, according to Gil, today the guaranteed minimum price does not take into account these hazards and is no longer enough to really cover production costs. He tells us of his frustration with this situation which puts region farmers in a delicate position. His words are tough on the intermediates of the coffee he calls – him and the other producers we met – the “coyotes”. He even admits that a conventional non-fair trade producer wins, according to him, as much as a producer labeled Fairtrade/Max Havelaar with fewer constraints to respect. Of course, many producers would like their products to be better valued in the markets, but here we feel real distress.

The welcome we received from Gil and Marcelina during these few days was very important. Thanks to them, we learned a lot about coffee growing and the situation of these small farmers in Mexico. There is behind our cup of coffee, passionate farmers who work hard every day, who make fierce competition from the big plantations of Brazil and Colombia, and they deserve our attention and to be paid with dignity.

Even if we leave a little disillusioned with Gil speech, we decide to go to another Fairtrade/Max Havelaar cooperative, this time in Peru and cocoa to see if this situation is widespread.

We go to the San Martin area, on the edge of the Amazon, in the ACOPAGRO cooperative. Twenty-five years ago, the farmers here produced coca for the production of cocaine. This illegal production has caused a great deal of violence in the region. Today, most producers have turned to the cocoa market. This production was a real alternative for farmers to get out of the coca culture. They organized themselves into a cooperative and turned towards fair trade. ACOPAGRO is now the second largest cocoa cooperative in Latin America.

We meet 5 farmers and the manager of the cooperative. Very quickly, we feel that here the situation is very different from Mexico. Farmers seem to be satisfied with the economic conditions brought by the Fairtrade/Max Havelaar label and in particular the development bonus for this label.

In addition to the bonus that farmers receive to produce organically, the cooperative receives a Fairtrade/Max Havelaar bonus to develop community projects. We have seen the benefits of this bonus in place: cocoa storage and processing buildings, tools (balance, thermometer, measuring tools, etc.), improved cooking, medical campaign, training and technical support, particularly for the transition to organic and to deal with the diseases that harm the plantations.

Each year, the cooperative organizes with the farmers a General Meeeting to decide by the majority how the bonus will be spent. At the end of the year, a second meeting is set up to record and justify expenses.

This bonus system has allowed many farmers to switch from conventional to organic farming while improving their quality of life.

The Fairtrade/Max Havelaar Fair Trade Label now has more than 1.6 million farmers worldwide in very different and complex political, economic and environmental contexts, making it difficult to take into account “case by case” cooperatives. We met farmers in Mexico who were disappointed with this label and others in Peru who seemed much more fulfilled in this partnership.

During our research, we had the chance to meet Nelson Melo Maya, the president of SPP, “Symboles de Petits Producteurs”, in Colombia, a label that seems to us to meet the challenges encountered in Mexico.

The big difference of SPP comes from the fact that it is the first label created and managed by the farmers themselves. Another important difference of this label, it is an initiative of the countries of South Mexico for the countries of the South.

Recently, with the creation in 2015 of the association SPP France, and the entry into force in 2014 of the ESS law that extends the definition of fair trade to relations with all producers, including those in France, fair trade concerns farmers in northern countries who also suffer from the conditions imposed by supermarkets.

Some criteria of the SPP label are similar to those of Fairtrade/Max Havelaar like the existence of a guaranteed minimum price, respect of working conditions and environment etc … but there are differences:

  • Ownership of the specifications to the farmers themselves (even if the control is done by external organizations as for all the labels) in which they define the guaranteed minimum price including the bonus (organic and fair)
  • A higher guaranteed minimum price (because the guaranteed minimum price of fair trade is too low and seldom reaches international prices): eg for SPP $ 220 / bag of coffee (guaranteed price 160 $ ​​/ bag + bonus organic and fair $ 60 / bag) while for the Fairtrade / Max Havelaar label it is $ 190 / bag of coffee (guaranteed price $ 140 / bag + bonus organic and fair $ 50 / bag).
  • Label centered on small producers and peasant agriculture (for example 85% of coffee farmers have less than 15 ha)
  • Decrease of intermediaries by choosing only cooperatives that export themselves

The SPP label now benefits 93,000 farmers, which number is far from the Fairtrade/Max Havelaar label. We look forward to meeting SPP labeled producers on site to see if this label keeps its promises.

The following in our documentary movie…

Categories: The episodes

Leave a Reply