Academic journal article Social Justice

Justice, Sustainability, and the Fair Trade Movement: A Case Study of Coffee Production in Chiapas

Academic journal article Social Justice

Justice, Sustainability, and the Fair Trade Movement: A Case Study of Coffee Production in Chiapas

Article excerpt

Introduction

ONE OF THE MOST SIGNIFICANT ELEMENTS OF GLOBALIZATION IS THE SPREAD OF capitalist production and commodity exchange. It affects economic security, social structures, systems of governance, and perhaps most important, human relations with nature. This is not very much in dispute. Rather, the dispute between the triumphant heralds of globalization and its critics lies primarily in the quality of the transformation: is it for better, or for worse? (1) This dispute takes place on paper and in active political struggle. One of its products is a long catalogue of cases documenting the rough incursion or intensification of capitalist relations into new spaces. As Marx, and a host of other historians have shown, capitalism never arrives on a gentle breeze (Hobsbawm, 1987; Polanyi, 1957). It involves the removal of people from the land, the introduction of new conceptions of nature as divisible and alienable property, the (often coerced) subjection of the displaced population to the system of commodity production, wage labor, and factory discipline, and the rupture of previously established systems of obligation and privilege. Unsurprisingly, there is a parallel and continuing history of resistance to these incursions.

One effort to support alternative, sustainable, and just relations of exchange and production in the face of globalization is the fair trade movement. Although often understood as a consumers' movement, similar to the "anti-sweatshop" movement, this article uses a case study of coffee production in Chiapas, Mexico, to argue that the potential of the fair trade movement lies in the fact that it addresses relations of exchange and relations of production. In particular, we suggest that the system of fair trade manages to address issues of social justice and environmental sustainability in an integrated way. It does so by supporting a more equitable relationship of exchange between Northern consumers and Southern producers, and by supporting certain kinds of productive relations among Southern coffee farmers. By encouraging and helping to sustain noncapitalist forms of production, fair trade goes beyond the issue of "a fair price" for internationally traded goods. It enables a certain degree of autonomy for Southern producers in their decisions about the labor process, the governance of their communities and organizations, their strategies for meeting their subsistence needs, and their productive engagement with nature.

Various organizations and networks have been working to develop alternative forms of international trade since at least the 1940s, when the Mennonite Central Committee in the United States began trading with Southern producers. Alternative trade can be distinguished from conventional trading relationships because it is based on more than the gains that can be made from impersonal and self-interested voluntary exchange. Rather, alternative trade organizations exist primarily to improve the welfare of those with whom they trade. Fair trade remains a speck in the wave of international commodity trade, representing an estimated .01% of the total. However, fair trade sales increased impressively in the 1990s and into 2000. North American fair trade organizations grossed about $100 million in sales in 2000, largely because of increased sales of coffee. Our article focuses on the coffee branch of the fair trade system because it is strongly identified as a sort of "flagship" commodity for the fair trade movement, and because it is such a vital piece of the livelihoods of so many small farmers in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Fully half of the coffee traded globally is produced by small farmers with fewer than five hectares in production (International Federation for Alternative Trade, 1995). Other fairly traded products include tea, cocoa, sugar, honey, and craft products (woven goods, wood products, iron products, ceramics, etc.).

Fair trade activists have endeavored to increase sales by increasing consumer awareness of fair trade and of the negative consequences of conventional coffee production and exchange, and with some success. …

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