Fair-Trade Futures Conference 2010

In Opinion/Editorial // on December 3rd, 2010 // by // No comment

In a consumerism-driven culture where traceability and accountability are customarily neglected in conversation, the Fair Trade Future Conference came as a breath of fresh air.

The conference attracted an assembly of more than 750 advocates, business owners, producers, students, and consumers. In the flurry of soaps, olive oils, chocolate, textiles and crafts, coffee was the most disputed case during the three-day conference.

Several Heine Brothers’ cooperatives spoke at plenary sessions, Peace Coffee and Cooperative Coffees.   The two big words they emphasized were Transparency and Traceability — referring to the relationship between consumer and producer.

In a breakout session dedicated to “total transparency,” Bill Harris of Cooperative Coffees and Lee Wallace of Peace Coffees presented their innovative approaches to connecting the coffee farmer and the consumer. Harris’ solution, Fairtradeproof.org, is a tool for tracing coffee back to the farm.  On the Fair Trade Proof web site, Cooperative Coffees posts contracts detailing the prices and conditions of transactions, simply by selecting the lot number.

Peace Coffees have a similar approach with MapMyBeans.com, literally an interactive tool for “mapping beans” through GoogleMaps.  After tracing beans to the source, the web site gives profiles of the farm and the workers.

“This is a good way to hold ourselves accountable,” Wallace said.

It is no secret; there is great corruption in the world of coffee trade. As one coffee producer noted, many producers do not have access to education and are unaware of the dynamic of the coffee prices, so intermediaries often take advantage.

I spoke with coffee producers from Peru, Mexico and Nicaragua, and I listened to how Fair Trade impacted their lives. One producer, Rigoberto Contrero Diaz, represented a coffee farm in Chiapas, Mexico with 800 workers. He said before Fair Trade certification, he was unable to market the coffee.

“Our problem was, we didn’t know how,” Diaz said. “We just knew how to produce it.”

Because of this, as is the case with many coffee producers, middlemen or “coyotes” got involved and took advantage. In Diaz’s case, it was a Swiss agronomist who knew little about the culture or the dignity of the workers.

“He saw us as inexperienced in how we did our business, and instead of supporting our cooperatives, they wanted to shut us down,” Diaz said. “He did not know the life of the producer, he was just trying to make a profit.”

In 1999, Diaz’s farm became a Fair Trade cooperative and is still supplying coffee beans to coffee shops abroad, including Kentucky.

Although life is improving for coffee producers, Diaz said. “there is still a long way to go.”

In response, these online posting initiatives are the beginning of solutions for building integrity in every transaction.

“In five to ten years, you will be able to trace back to the farm, that is a reality,” Harris said. “Companies just have to opt for it.”

Rudi Dalvai of CTM Altromercato and former World Fair Trade Organization President spoke about Fair Trade’s impact on communities and the role of relationships. Dalvai compared Fair Trade to a carton of milk in a grocery with a string attached to a cow in the pasture.

“Fair Trade is more than a buying process, it’s also a story,” Dalvai said.  “For complete traceability in textiles, you need to consider the farm, the thread, the dyeing, the weaving and then the product.”

Additionally, Dalvai emphasized the importance of transparency.

“We need to be honest to the consumer,” Dalvai said. “In Fair Trade, not everything is perfect, we have to be open to discussion and criticism.”

Throughout the conference, brainstorm sessions and panel discussions deliberated ways to improve Fair Trade through the marketing and certification processes.  Although their voices may not have been present, the farmers were at the core of every discussion.

Blanca Rosa Molina, a producer from Nicaragua said Fair Trade gave her small-scale farm more visibility and power. Additionally, she said Fair Trade “fulfilled its promises in respecting dignity.” To this, Rosa Molina closed on one point.

“Don’t buy from us because we’re poor, buy from us because we have good, high-quality coffee,” Rosa Molina said.

Like any human creation, Fair Trade is imperfect, but the conference in Boston proved there is ingenuity and innovation underway to improve what has already left a tremendous impact on the lives of producers abroad.  That’s something to breathe easier about.

Cassie Herrington is currently a student at the University of Kentucky and opinions editor for The Kentucky Kernel. You can find her behind the bar serving your favorite drinks at Heine Brothers’ when home from school.

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