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News :: Education : Environment : Globalization : International : Labor : Organizing
Fair Trade Farmers from Three Continents in Boston
29 Oct 2006
Cambridge, Mass. – Sponsored by Farm Aid, Oke USA, and the Student Labor Action Movement, four representatives of fair trade family-owned farming spoke last Thursday at Harvard University about their experiences as part of the People Before Profit: A Week of Action for Global Justice in Boston. Rich Bonanno from Methuen, Mass., Shirley Sherrod from Georgia, Tadesse Meskela, from Ethiopia, and Silvia Arevalo, from Ecuador, were invited to discuss the benefits reaped from and challenges still faced by small farmers all over the world.
“For the first time in our country, we have broken our ties to multinationals,” said Silvia Arevalo from the Association of Small Banana Producers “El Guabo” in Ecuador. “These bananas are different because they protect our families, our community, and our environment. These bananas create a new life for my country and a new culture in your country.”

According to Silvia Arevalo, fair trade provides for new community models where the relationship between the consumer and the farmer becomes a more intimate one. Her husband, now deceased, was pivotal ten years ago in the creation of “El Guabo” banana cooperatives that today includes a total of 300 small producers. The cooperative has made a huge difference in the quality of life of these families who invest back into the community through school and health programs.

The Arevalo family hasn’t made huge profits but enjoys a descent life in Southern Ecuador with two sons now going to college in Quito, the capital. Nevertheless, Arevalo works tirelessly for with farming families poorer than her own. “My husband used to say, ‘When the little guy is doing ok, you can be sure your family will be ok. But when the little guy starts struggling, you can be sure things will not go ok for your family.’ It’s always important to keep the little guy’s well-being in mind,’” said Arevalo.

Fair trade is no longer an unknown concept nor a whim adopted strictly by environmentalists and vegetarians. Fair trade is a new way of thought, a radical change in market consciousness and healthy living that is affecting households worldwide. But it is also a trade highly dependent on the rules of engagement of supply and demand, although fair trade proponents feel hesitant talking about it in those terms.

“We had to master the market, I mean, the practice,” said Shirley Sherrod from the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a coalition of black farmers in Georgia, “of growing seedless watermelons because that’s what you guys eat up here. And we were so proud of our large watermelons but the small watermelons is what people want.”

Sherrod explained that black farmers currently have to borrow money in the winter months to buy seeds and sow the land in the spring and will not see any profits from the harvest until the fall. They also have to deal constantly with discrimination as black farmers get paid less for their produce than white farmers do. “We know this because white farmers have sold our produce at the State Farmers Market for us and gotten a better price for it,” said Sherrod. “Basically, black farmers cannot survive unless they cooperate with each other.”

In Ethiopia, 95 percent of the coffee is grown by small farmers. The creation of a democratically elected Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union in 1999, representing 70,000 farmers, has made all the difference for them as they pulled their shares together and began selling directly to fair trade buyers instead of large exporters. By getting rid of the middlemen, coffee exports went up from 72 to 4000 tons in four years. Among the benefits, the Union has been able to build four schools to service more than 600 children who can go to school instead of working in the fields. The challenges continue, nonetheless.

According to Oxfam America, last year the Ethiopian government filed applications to trademark its most famous coffee names, Sidamo, Harar and Yirgacheffe, which would have enabled Ethiopia to capture more value from the trade by controlling their use in the market. Prompted by Starbucks, however, the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) denied Ethiopia’s applications for Sidamo and Harar, creating serious obstacles for its project. “Intellectual property ownership now makes up a huge proportion of the total value of world trade but rich countries and businesses capture most of this,” said Ron Layton, chief executive of Light Years IP, a property rights organization. Starbucks has long been known for its “greenwashing” tactics, by engaging in minimal efforts toward social or environmental responsibility in order to enhance their public image.

“Most people don’t know about the product they consume, where the product comes from. They don’t know about the life of the person behind the cup [of coffee],” said Tadesse Meskela who is also currently in the U.S. promoting the film “Black Gold” which explores the fair coffee trade movement in Ethiopia. “After you see this film, your coffee will never taste the same again,” he said referring to the quality of life of African farmers and the hidden injustice of a multimillion profit-based neoliberal economy.

In a nutshell, fair trade is much more about challenging the current market economy than just the fair sharing the profits. It is about mobilizing people to reject decisions from undemocratic organizations like the World Trade Organization that seek to help rich countries dominate all markets under the disguise of “development.” It is about unveiling false promises from free trade agreements that enslave poor people all over the world, undermining local labor and environmental laws.

“We made a profit until about three years ago but in the last few years things have changed due to NAFTA,” said Richard Bonanno, the owner of an organic farm called Pleasant Valley Gardens in Merrimack, Massachusetts. “Canada’s killing us with their lettuce.”

Bonanno explained that the greatest challenge is convincing markets to deal with local growers. He said Market Basket and Whole Foods are open to local farmers, even though they might have to deal with many small businesses at once. Shaw’s, on the other hand, will rather buy all produce from a central supplier, no matter where or how that produce was grown. Red Tomato, a nonprofit organization in Canton, Mass., is trying to help farmers like Bonanno by connecting farmers with markets and connecting consumers with fresh fruits and vegetables. “And consumers demanding those products helps our business,” said Bonanno.

In colleges, students have helped drive a movement of their own by pressuring campus cafeterias to purchase produce from local farmers. At Yale University, the Yale Sustainable Food Project made up of a student advocacy group and administrators of the University dining services brought fair trade to their tables by addressing the issue head-on. Since then, Yale is a proud owner of a farm, serves fair trade coffee at all dinning halls, hosted a sustainable food conference in 2003, incorporated sustainable, seasonal food in their menus in 2004, developed an institutional composting program, and begun offering a "The Practice of Farming Well” seminar starting in 2005.

Fair trade advocates know how students can make a difference and as such, are promoting a United Students for Fair Trade Convention in Boston next February 16-19.

“In the end, fair trade makes it possible for the small producers to continue to be producers and not disappear, so that workers are not children and children can go to school. And so that the land is preserved for future generations,” said Silvia Arevalo.

For more information:

Oke Fair Trade USA

Farm Aid

Red Tomato

Equal Exchange


Oxfam America

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