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Fair Trade February 25, 2009

Posted by Andreas in "The Economy", activism, Cape Town, Politics, Society, South Africa, Sustainable Living.

Here’s another story I wrote for The Big Issue.

A Fair Share

Having been a certifiable chocoholic for decades I nearly choked on a bite of my favourite bar of nougat, sugar, chocolate, caramel and glucose wrapped in more chocolate while reading the following passage in an article by US investigative journalist Christian Parenti published in Fortune magazine this February: “Children still work in cocoa production, regularly miss school, perform dangerous tasks and suffer injury and sickness. […] From 2002 to 2004, Ivory Coast was gripped by civil war. As militias and renegade soldiers killed and raped their way across the lush interior, income from cocoa exports helped fuel the fighting. Like diamonds and timber, cocoa became a so-called conflict resource. “Blood chocolate” was providing fast cash for armed groups and creating misery for common people.”

And there I was munching my chocolate bar blissfully unaware that there was a lot more to it than just a glass and a half of milk. It turns out that 70 percent of the world’s cocoa beans, the raw material for chocolate, are cultivated by small farmers in West Africa, 40 percent of them in Ivory Coast alone. The UN’s International Labour Organisation has estimated that between 100 000 and 200 000 children, some of them under the age of ten, are working in the Ivory Coast’s cocoa industry. What’s more shocking are allegations that as many as six percent of these kids could be victims of slavery and human trafficking.

In response to a public outcry over these revelations, the international chocolate industry agreed in 2001 to abide by a voluntary protocol which committed it to help end the “worst forms of child labour” in cocoa production. Parenti, who visited Ivory Coast to investigate the situation first hand, discovered that very little visible progress has been made on the ground. He found poor living and working conditions in cocoa-growing villages most of which lack schools, clinics, electricity and running water. He observed continued widespread child labour in cocoa production “everywhere” and expressed disbelieve at the fact that the International Cocoa Initiative, the organisation established by the chocolate industry to facilitate certification of child-labour-free cocoa has only a single staff member in the country. An independent report by Tulane University commissioned by the US Department of Labor confirms that although West African governments have taken some initial steps to deal with child labour, conditions remain bad. According to Parenti, the underlying problem is pervasive poverty among small cocoa farmers, many of them deeply indebted to international cocoa buyers, which forces them to “employ” their own children to make ends meet.

And it’s not just cocoa – much of the trade between the industrialised world and developing countries operates this way. Just about all of the profits and benefits that are supposed to be trickling down from the buyer at the top to the producer at the bottom dry up somewhere along the lengthy chain of middlemen and intermediaries. What’s left are a few fantastically powerful multinational corporations which amass astronomical profits every year while millions of poor farmers barely manage to eke out a life worth living.

The global cocoa trade, for instance, is controlled by large companies like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, who buy cocoa from local merchants (who themselves buy it from small farmers) and sell it on to the big chocolate manufacturers including Cadbury, Mars, Nestlé, and Hershey. In an interview on the US radio show Democracy Now! Parenti charged that these companies are only interested in “making as much money as they possibly can off of the people of Cote d’Ivoire. And if that forces independent farmers to take their children out of school […] and exploit them and work them, so be it.” To a large extent international trade in the 21st Century represent the re-packaged modern-day equivalent of incredibly unequal power relationships that have been in existence since colonial times through which the so-called developed world extracts valuable resources and human labour from the global South.

There are alternatives to this mode of exchange between producer and consumer, however. One of them is represented by the global fair trade movement, which has made significant strides in providing more just and equitable trade relationships around the world and is gradually making an impact in South Africa as well.

As the name suggests, fair trade guarantees farmers and producers, particularly those in developing countries, a fair price for their products regardless of world market fluctuations. It also promotes sustainability and self-sufficiency among vulnerable small producers and encourages them to become stakeholders in their own cooperative organisations, advocates adherence to environmental and social standards and encourages community development.

A first attempt to bring fair trade goods to North America and Europe was made in the 1940s and 50s when various non-governmental organisations and religious groups started to sell mostly handcrafted items from Africa, Latin America and Asia at fundraisers, protest rallies and church fairs. In the 1960’s efforts became more formalised as fair trade goods were made available through a growing number of so-called “World Shops” or “Third World Shops” in Western Europe as well as Oxfam stores in the UK. In the 1980s there was a significant shift away from handicrafts, which were often seen as mere charity buys, to fair trade agricultural commodities, especially tea and coffee, but also cocoa, rice, dried fruits, sugar, nuts and spices. Once official fair trade certification initiatives were established sales started to take off.

Among the international organisations that promote, facilitate and coordinate fair trade are the International Fair Trade Association, the Fair Trade Federation and Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO). There are currently a number of different labelling systems in use for identifying certified fair trade items, but the most widespread is FLO’s international Fairtrade certification mark which already boasts a 50 percent consumer recognition level in the UK.

Goods that carry the Fairtrade label have been grown, harvested, manufactured, transported and traded in accordance with fair trade principle. This doesn’t just involve a fair price paid to the producer, but also ensures adherence to decent working conditions as defined by the conventions of the UN’s International Labour Organisation (no child or slave labour, a safe workplace, the right to unionise etc.), adherence to the UN’s charter of human rights, as well as a commitment to protecting the environment, social development and developing sustainable long-term trading relationships. In South Africa, fair trade is also linked to broad-based black economic empowerment initiatives.

According to FLO, worldwide fair trade certified sales amounted to approximately 2.3 billion Euros in 2007 – a 47 percent increase over the previous year and almost 70 times more than ten years ago. This included over 230 000 tons of bananas, 5740 litres of wine and 237 405 cut flowers. The biggest buyers of fair trade goods live in the USA (730.8 million Euros) and the UK (704.3 million Euros). In 2007 FLO recognised 632 Fairtrade certified producer organisations worldwide, up from 224 in 2001, representing about 1.5 million workers and farmers.

Although there are now more than 50 producer organisations certified by FLO in South Africa, fair trade has had a very low profile here until recently. Fair Trade South Africa (FTSA; www.fairtrade.org.za) aims to change this situation by raising awareness among local businesses and consumers and developing marketing opportunities for South African fair trade producers and traders. Having received funding from Europe and moved into their new offices in Observatory, they hope that South African consumers will soon have access to a substantial range of fair trade products from around the world.

FTSA has initiated Fairtrade Label South Africa as an associate member of FLO with the purpose of helping to establish and popularise the FLO’s Fairtrade label on our retail shelves. At the recent FTSA AGM and conference held at the Sustainability Institute near Stellenbosch, the first batch of locally labelled Fairtrade products was launched. These include products from African Terroir wines, Home of Origin Wine and the Bean There Coffee Company.

The Heiveld Cooperative which sells organic rooibos tea to overseas markets is one of the local fair trade success stories. “There is a huge difference from when we sold to the large farmers,” explains board member Lionel Louw. “In the past the link between buyer and seller was missing – the buyer just gave whatever price they wanted. It wasn’t related to our standard of living.” Guaranteed premium fair trade prices for their produce have meant that the small farmers that comprise the cooperative based in Niewoudtville in the Cederberg have become independent of wholesalers and neighbouring white farmers and have been able to buy their own equipment such as a tea chopping machine and a processing facility. The members of the cooperative are also working on sustainable harvesting and land use strategies and are busy establishing their own organic seedling nursery.

Tourism represents another fair trade growth area. Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa (FTTSA; http://www.fairtourismsa.org.za) is a non-profit organisation that awards a label to businesses in the hospitality industry that are committed to fair trade principles such as fair wages and working conditions, fair purchasing and respect for human rights and the environment. FTTSA accredited businesses include, among others, the Cape Grace, Daddy Long Legs and Spier hotels and Stormsriver Adventures on the Garden Route. The Vineyard Hotel & Spa in Newlands has recently decided to switch all of its coffees to the fair trade Puro brand imported by Belgian coffee roasters Miko Coffee. According to Pascale Hoare, Group Training and Marketing Manager for Miko Coffee South Africa, for every kilogram of Puro sold, R15.00 goes to Fairtrade and R3.00 is donated to the World Land Trust’s Rainforest Fund. The company is also busy establishing a tree planting initiative at South African schools.

Some local businesses are taking their commitment to more equitable trading relationships even further. “We believe deeply in the principles of fair trade,” says David Donde, founder of Origin Coffee Roasting in De Waterkant, “and we think we can do even better.” Origin prides itself in selling so-called relationship coffee bought from individual farmers with whom they have established a direct relationship. For the excellent quality coffee they expect from “their” producers, Origin are prepared to pay a premium price. “In recent times, for instance, the world market price has been about US$1.30 per pound”, explains Donde. “We have never paid as little as US$5.00 per pound ourselves.”

Jonathan Robinson of the Bean There Coffee Company who have just launched Ethiopian and Rwandan fair trade coffee brands on the local market says that they combine strict adherence to fair trade principles with a direct and personal relationship with the coffee growers. “Yes, we want to pay a fair price and ensure that our coffee is produced in an ethically and environmentally sound manner. But we also want to meet the small-scale farmers who grow it in person and find out what they need to improve their lives and what we can do to help them.”

The next time you sip at a cup of tea or coffee or nibble at a slab of chocolate, give some thought to what’s gone into it. It’s high time that we start to genuinely care not only about what we consume, but also about the people who produce it. Supporting fair trade wherever we can is a first step in the right direction.



1. Patrick Dodd - February 25, 2009

Well done Andreas! You’ve summed up well Fairtrade and why the movement is so important for the eradication of poverty and the creation of sustainable businesses in the South.

The current economic crisis has placed fair trade at a crossroads – while demand for fair trade products has not seen a demonstrable decrease, fair trade businesses are starting to struggle due to their inability to access to credit finance.

Simply buying Fairtrade may not be enough to sustain fair trade businesses. If anyone is interested to learn how they can invest directly in fair trade businesses, please visit the Shared Interest website..

2. Mandy - March 3, 2009

Hi, the world is a strange place – doing a little bit of research on FT and here I come across your article!

3. Andreas - March 3, 2009

Haha – that is funny.

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