Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Growing Pains: Keeping Fair Trade Fair

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Growing Pains: Keeping Fair Trade Fair

Article excerpt

Ask the nearly 600 members of the CIRSA coffee cooperative in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico, how things are going and they'll tell you, "Little by little, we're moving forward." Considering that a couple of decades ago the parents of these indigenous farmers worked in slavery-like conditions on large coffee plantations in the region, and that their region has been ignored and marginalized throughout its history, their progress is tremendous.

The Indigenous Communities of the Simojovel de Allende Region (CIRSA in Spanish) shipped 235 tons of fair trade coffee last year to the United States and Europe. Through the fair trade certification system, the small farmers of CIRSA and similar cooperatives throughout Latin America are guaranteed a minimum price for their coffee. This provides stability to small farmers, who live in some of the world's poorest regions--and who are especially vulnerable to the volatile market that dictates world coffee prices. This is why, on our weekly trip to the grocery store, many of us fork over some extra change for fair trade coffee.


Twenty years after its birth, the fair trade movement is suffering some growing pains. No longer a fringe movement, fair trade boasted $2.2 billion dollars in global sales during 2006, and debates rage from within about whether rapid expansion may be compromising the movement's core principles.

One key debate focuses on the difference between small farmer cooperatives and large plantations. Right now, plantations can't participate in the fair trade coffee market, but recent proposals would change that. In products such as tea and bananas, most fair trade items already come from large plantations, which win certification by ensuring higher wages, increased worker protections and greater social investments than they would otherwise provide. So what's the problem with plantations?

It's important to see how fair trade certification fits into the bigger picture of farmers' struggle for a decent livelihood. Take the example of CIRSA: The coffee farmers of Simojovel de Allende struggled for years to win the land reform that enabled them to become independent smallholders. The plantations where their families had worked were a legacy of the colonial era, when a small elite controlled most political and economic structures, allowing them to sustain miserable working conditions with miniscule chances for upward mobility.

Owning their own land gave the CIRSA farmers the footing to organize as a cooperative in 1992; the higher wage they earn from fair trade certified coffee, in turn, helps them to win the constant struggle to stay organized. …

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