Editorial: Fair Trade- It’s Working!

Written by Cafe Campesino on Sep 1, 2008 in Editorial, NEWSLETTER |
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By Bill Harris

Bill Harris recounts some of the stories of families he visited during a tour of small-scale coffee farmers in Ocamonte, Colombia. Diversification, organic practices, and sustainable livelihoods are just some of the direct impacts Fair Trade has had on the lives of these families.

As the concept of purchasing coffee and other goods in a fair, transparent manner directly from small-scale farmers has gained traction in the market, the “to-be-expected” critics have arrived. From the comfort of their academic perch or well-funded think tank, these pundits claim that Fair Trade defies accepted economic theory, is an unsustainable charitable subsidy, prevents workers from finding a more productive use of their time and the like. The list of theoretical reasons that Fair Trade doesn’t work goes on and on and will only get longer as those with a vested interest in challenging the Fair Trade model step up to support and even fund the naysayers.

High in the mountains of Santander, one of Colombia´s most peaceful and productive coffee growing regions, I recently met four families whose simple, integrated and sustainable lifestyle provide a living example of why this work is so important and offers a delightful counter to the Fair Trade naysayer’s arguments. Each family is a member of APCO – Asociación Pequeños Caficultores de Ocamonte, an association of 270 farming families located in the municipality of Ocamonte. Formed in 1994, the primary goal of the association is to assist members in improving their quality of life through the commercialization of coffee.

Cecilia and Mario live with their daughter and grandchild on 4 acres (2 hectares) of meticulously groomed coffee and pasture land. They married 26 years ago, have 5 children and lived with his parents for 6 years before building their own home. While coffee is their most important source of income, their enthusiasm for the alternative income projects, for which they credited Fair Trade premiums and training from APCO workshops, was apparent and dominated our farm tour. Cecilia began raising chickens several years ago and now has 200 layers and earns about US$30 per week selling eggs to neighbors and at the local market. Mario proudly showed us his cows (and new calf!) telling us that he uses them for milk, the manure for coffee fertilizer and sells calves on occasion. Cecilia credited their obvious success to their involvement in APCO and to their decision to shift to organic production only on their farm.

Vicente and effervescent Maria are obviously community patriarchs, having purchased their plot of land over 30 years ago and helped organize the association in 1994. They have been “chemical-free” for 18 years and attribute the association’s involvement in Fair Trade with better infrastructure for their community and funding for alternative income projects. They purchased their first cows with Fair Trade premiums and they tiled and painted the one room kindergarten that Maria runs from their home with these premiums. Don Vicente has been involved with APCO since inception and only remembered one other buyer visiting the community.

Finca Patio Bonito is the flower-laden home of Dona Matilde and several of her extended family members. Dona Matilde laughed often as we asked naive questions, such as “Why did you convert to organic farming 4 years ago?” She responded chuckling “You get a much better price for your coffee if it is organic certified!!” Matilde told us that no private buyers, or coyotes, work in the Ocamonte valley because farmers receive excellent prices selling to the farmer-owned Coop Santander and the private buyers cannot compete with the “overpriced” premiums paid by the cooperative – a minimum of US$.40 per pound over the local price this year. She produced about 3,000 pounds of coffee this year – so she received at least US$1,200 above the market price for her coffee. She also grows most of her food – yuca, plantains, bananas, oranges and many other fruits, as well as chickens that she began raising after receiving training from fellow members of APCO and chicks to start the project.

Our last visit was with the family of Maria Ines on her 2 acre Finca El Paraiso that she inherited from her father. Maria Ines is the single mother of Luis and Michael, and also supports her brother Alexis who is physically handicapped. She greeted us with a tray of “tintos” – the term in Colombia for a small cup of black coffee. Grown on her farm and roasted by Alexis, this coffee was brewed in her Fair Trade kitchen, built with premiums earned in previous years. Maria Ines could not stop talking about the benefits of Fair Trade, understandable since she was the first member of APCO to sign up for their Fair Trade program and to this day she still chairs the association’s Fair Trade committee. All families are assigned a control number to track their coffee deliveries for Fair Trade and organic reporting – and being the first to sign up her control number is F000 (“F” for Fair Trade)! Half of her farm is planted in coffee and her production is relatively low, about 1,600 pounds of pergamino (un-hulled coffee) per year. This enterprising family’s biggest source of income is coffee related, however. Behind their home is a coffee nursery sporting over 3,000 plants ready for sale to her neighbors or in the market in the town of Ocamonte. Her brother Alexis has difficulties walking, so he is in charge of selling these plants in the local market. Last year they sold over 5,000 plants for between .25 and .60 each, matching their income from coffee bean sales.

Next week, I return to Ocamonte as a guest at their general assembly to meet more farmers and learn more about this successful Fair Trade group. They are intrigued by our direct purchasing model and during my first meeting with the board of directors they had many questions concerning the market for organic and Fair Trade coffee and how our trading relationship could grow. These farmers know how to grow excellent coffee and manage their Fair Trade premiums well, but have very little experience with buyers or knowledge concerning where their coffee is consumed. Fair Trade is obviously working in this community – and hopefully our direct involvement with them as potential long-term partners will enhance their understanding of the market and bring them even more success.

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