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What I Learned from Real Fair Trade Farmers

What I Learned from Real Fair Trade Farmers

No matter where you go on the good ole’ interwebs, you’re bound to find opposing views on fair trade practices. Fair trade was implemented with the intention of protecting the little guy—the small farmer, the artisan, who didn’t have lots of money behind their craft. The point was to put a fair amount of money in the producer’s pockets. Whether or not it works is, and always has been, up for debate. Some cry corruption, while others criticize the movement’s fairness to anyone who isn’t certified—or able to get certified.

When you think “fair trade,” coffee inevitably comes to mind. During my stay in Haiti, I was able to talk to fair-trade and non-fair-trade coffee farmers. The fair-trade-certified organizations were very proud of their certifications. The small farmers who were not certified, it seemed, couldn’t care less.

One co-op I visited was called CoopCab, located in Thiotte, Haiti. This town is high in the mountains, near the Dominican border. I was taken on a tour of their facility. The quality control supervisor boasted about their fair trade practices. He repeatedly mentioned their quality standards. He was very proud of their system, which was supported by many partner organizations. This co-op employed many women in this small town. They sorted and checked coffee beans by hand before they were packaged. The co-op is made up of 10 smaller regional co-ops, and is about 6,000 farmers strong.

Then I met a gentleman who owns his own farm, Jean Pierre. His coffee farm has been in his family for at least 2 generations. He isn’t part of a co-op and doesn’t care to be. He couldn’t care less about being fair-trade certified. His farm has been successful in the past, but he’s struggling now. There is a drought in Thiotte and there are no rivers running through. Water is collected in cisterns when it rains, and that’s their irrigation plan. There is no large source of fresh water in this region other than rainwater. Add the fact that there’s a coffee leaf disease ruining crops, and Jean Pierre will have to move on to an easier crop if things continue to get worse.

CoopCab has resources, connections, and an army of farmers supplying coffee. They have banks and NGOs to provide them with funding, and help them navigate legal overseas trade. Jean Pierre has only his farming experience and the money he’s saved. He has his people skills. So how does a small-time farmer compete locally with an organization that is 6,000 strong and fair trade certified? How does he grow? He could get certified himself, but that involves lots of money and regulations. Do fair trade practices help or hurt the small-time farmer in this case?

It can easily be argued that it doesn’t help him. But just because there’s competition doesn’t mean that it hurts him either. He still does well selling locally in years with good crop yield. He is well-known around the region. He can sell any lesser quality coffee beans to the neighboring Dominican Republic for a decent price instead of getting rid of it, like he would have to if his farm were highly regulated.

If Jean Pierre were to become fair trade certified, he would be able to sell to more markets for higher prices. This sounds like an all-around win for him. But he may give up some control. His overhead would go up drastically. And does he even want his farm to become a bigger operation? Some of the farmers in the region were perfectly content making a living wage and leading a simple life. Who are we to say they should have to do differently?

On a large scale, fair trade practices reach into the heart of impoverished areas and help artisans earn fair wages. But they can’t help everyone, so it creates a sort of elite club. And people, especially in America, will pay top dollar for fair-trade-certified goods. This does nothing for people like Jean Pierre who make an honest living, since he has to compete with this certification. No organization is going to ensure that he gets a fair price for his coffee. But after meeting with him, I think he’s got that part of the business down.

Fair trade is a very complex issue. I believe it is an excellent starting point to create a more fair global economy. Still, we have a long way to go, and like any system, it has its cracks. And people like Jean Pierre can fall through. Globally, fair trade practices have helped thousands of individual artists and farmers. But in the case of this sole coffee farmer, I think he is perfectly happy advocating for himself.

This post reflects the views of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Or, if you’d like to hear some overall thoughts on fair trade from Christians at THRED, you can find those over here.

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Mika Cohen is a world traveler based in St. Louis, MO. Her passions for coffee and culture allow her to connect people across the globe. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she looks for any excuse to find adventure - and write about it. Share a virtual cuppa Joe via Instagram @thegoodgrind.

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