Time to log off

It’s time for me to say goodbye. This is my last day in El Guabo. I came to Ecuador on February 15th, and on September 10th I’ll be back in Finland. The two last weeks in Ecuador I’ll spend travelling to places like the volcano Chimborazo, the Amazon jungle and the Galapagos islands.

During the past six months I’ve learned more than in ten years in Finland. When I arrived, I didn’t know anything about bananas, too little about Fair Trade, and Spanish I could barely speak. As I’ve learned more and more, I’ve been sharing my experiences through this blog. I’ve interviewed many of the farmers I’ve met so that you’ll get to know them and their lives too. My goal has been to bring producers and consumers closer together, so the consumers will know how they affect the farmers’ lives by buying fairtrade bananas.

I hope you’ve learned as much as I have, and I hope you’ve gotten an idea of where your bananas come from. And I say the same thing all the farmers do: buy more fairtrade products! At least I’m going to do that.

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Why buy Fair Trade?

Many visitors coming to Ecuador are surprised and disappointed because they think fairtrade farmers are always better paid than others, and that’s not true. In the beginning it was, but today the price hardly covers the cost of production. So it’s not the price that makes Fair Trade fair. Why, then, should we buy fairly traded products?

The benefits that get most of the attention are the projects financed by the fairtrade premium, the extra sum that the farmers get for mutual development projects. They support schools, health clinics, food baskets and school supplies – stuff that is easy to grasp and looks nice on photos. And I agree that the projects help a lot of people in a concrete way. They’re also a good example for other companies.

But the reason I want to keep buying fairtrade products is not as concrete. It’s about helping the farmers to help themselves, so in the end they won’t need Fair Trade anymore. It’s about  Fair Trade’s demand that farmers organise and negotiate as directly as possible with the next link in the trading chain, and that everyone follows fair rules. What makes Fair Trade fair is the rules of the game which level the field so the small can compete with the big.

With the help of Fair Trade, the farmers have taken control of their lives. They’re no longer depending on middlemen to sell their bananas. They negotiate directly with the importer about the prices and the volumes, and get all the incomes themselves. They become actors in the world market in stead of passive pawns who have to accept whatever price they’re offered.

With the help of Fair Trade, the farmers have learned that cooperating pays off. An individual small farmer can be happy if she finds someone willing to buy her few boxes of bananas. But when hundreds of small farmers join they produce such considerable volumes that they can supply entire supermarket chains with fruits, book space in the transport vessels and hire personnel to improve the quality and the productivity.

In Fair Trade, all farmers are guaranteed to get their bananas sold at a certain price, even if that price isn’t very good. But it means that thay can concentrate on growing because they know they can afford to pay back their loans. As they produce more, they make more money, and the good circle has started.

And it’s thanks to the niche market of Fair Trade that the buyers are even there to negotiate with in the first place. Why would an importer or a supermarket buy bananas from a cooperative nobody’s ever heard of when they can get them cheaper from Chiquita or Dole? Well, because this cooperative has a certificate with a label more and more consumers want. The Fair Trade label.

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Fair Trade as development cooperation

As a volunteer, one of my tasks is to write a midterm report and an end report, where I’m encouraged to ponder what I’ve learned about development cooperation. Fair Trade is not exactly development cooperation between two countries, but in a way you could call it development cooperation between consumers in the first world and producers in the third world.

It’s more equal than traditional development cooperation, because both sides give something and get something back. The consumers make a conscious choice to buy products that have been produced and traded in a fairer way. In exchange, they get a clearer conscience and a product of high quality. The producers live up to all the demands concerning quality, farming techniques, labour conditions and social benefits. In exchange they get to sell their bananas to a stable market, directly without middlemen, at a stable price and with an extra premium.

The premium is the part of the system that most resembles traditional development cooperation. It’s not part of the price the farmers get in their pockets for the bananas they sell, even if it depends on the amount of bananas sold. It’s an extra sum of a dollar per banana box, that goes to a mutual fund. The money has to be used for the best of all the farmers through social, economic and environmental projects.

The classic dilemma of development cooperation is that a group of foreigners come to a developing country and dictate how the money should be used. The project doesn’t spring from local needs and is not led by local people. Fair Trade manages to avoid that problem because the farmers themselves decide together and democratically about the use of the premium. They are also the ones who manage the projects, in Asoguabo for example the health clinics, the medical insurance and the support to the school for handicapped children. One fifth of the premium goes to the 15 farmer groups, who often use the money for enhancing quality, efficiency and productivity on their farms. It’s the farmers, who know what they need and what works, who manage the premium.

But everything happens within certain limits. According to fairtrade rules, the premium can’t be used for any project. Here is the document that sets the limits. And the farmers have to report about the use of the premium. So they’re not completely independent.

But the thought is good. Thanks to the limits, the fairtrade cooperatives take on a social responsibility for their members, but also for the rest of the society, as in Asoguabo’s case. The farmers for example give bananas to the school children in the area and pay several teachers’ salaries, so it’s not just the farmers that benefit from the projects. The cooperatives set the example for other companies. That’s good in a country where the governments so far haven’t taken their social responsibility seriously. But the companies and first world consumers shouldn’t have to take the responsibility that belongs to the state. That’s what the present president thinks, too. With his government a lot is changing in Ecuador.

No development cooperation in the world can substitute the country’s goverment. No matter how good or bad for example Fair Trade works, the benefits will only reach part of the population. Someone is always left out. The government’s policies, on the other hand, have a deeper impact. A fresh example: in June, the government decided to raise the minimum price for bananas to 5,40 dollars per box. Just like that the farmers’ income rose, for fairtrade and non-fairtrade farmers alike. The farmers in Asoguabo have so far been paid 5,05 dollars for conventional bananas. The Ecuadorian government guarantees a fairer price than Fair Trade.

The fairtrade floor price for bananas in Ecuador is 6,75 dollars per box. The sum goes to the cooperative, which deduces the export expenses and gives the rest to the farmers. The minimum price is a minimum, and the farmers are encouraged to negotiate better prices with the buyers. But in practice, it’s hard to get a much higher price.

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Farmers don’t know what Fair Trade is – so what?

When I came to Ecuador, I eagerly started asking the banana farmers what Fair Trade has meant for  them. More often than not, the only answer I got was a confused look. I started to rephrase my questions and eventually found the magic formula. When I asked the question ”Did your life change in any way after you joined the cooperative?”, all I had to do was lean back and take notes.

Many of the co-op’s almost 500 farmers don’t know what Fair Trade is, even though they put the sticker with the waving hand on their bananas every time it’s harvest day. For them, its just one of many labels they put on their fruits, a certificate among others, a list of demands the consumers make in exchange of buying the fruits. What the farmers really identify with is quality and organic farming, not Fair Trade. And many of the farmers who know something about Fair Trade can’t explain how the system works.

So when I ask about Fair Trade, I don’t get an answer, although the system changed all the farmers’ lives. In order to get an answer, I have to ask about the cooperative. For most of the farmers, that’s where all the benefits come from. And they’re right. You have to know what you’re talking about in order to distinguish between the effects of Fair Trade and the effects of belonging to the co-op.

But the fact is that Fair Trade is more than just a certificate. Without Fair Trade, Asoguabo wouldn’t exist at all, because no one would have bought their bananas. The first 14 farmers would never have found a buyer to be able to export their small volumes without middlemen. Today, Asoguabo would probably manage without Fair Trade, but that would be tough too, without the relatively safe niche that Fair Trade still is.

There are plenty of certificates that demand a safe working environment, fewer agrochemicals and environmentally friendly farming, but Fair Trade is the only certificate that demands social responsibility too. One of my colleagues said: ”the other companies think about quality, quality, quality, but we always have to think about quality and the social side too”. Many big companies have their own social programs, like the Dole Foundation. But they do it voluntarily, they can stop anytime and nobody checks if they keep their promises. A Fair Trade cooperative, on the other hand, has to develop its social programs all the time in order not to lose its certificate. And that’s something the farmers can’t afford. If they lose the right to sell within the fairtrade market, they lose most of their buyers. And Fair Trade’s auditors visit every year to make sure the farmers follow the criteria, one of which is following national laws – something far from all banana companies do.

Many veteran farmers in the co-op remember how Fair Trade helped them get up on their feet, and are still grateful. They never forget to mention that Fair Trade makes it possible for the small farmers to compete with the big companies. Many of the farmers who are elected to represent their farmer groups within the co-op and are just as idealistic. They see the big picture that an individual farmer might miss.

The ideal would be a close contact between producer and consumer, more cooperation and solidarity within the impersonal world trade. But what difference does it really make if some farmers don’t know what Fair Trade is? What’s important is that Fair Trade works (even if the system could be improved) and improves the life of the small farmers. And that it does, at least judging from all the faces I’ve seen light up at the question if life changed when they joined Asoguabo.

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Likes to work together

Abel Saenz likes cooperating with the other farmers in the cooperative and often goes to the office in El Guabo.

Abel Saenz likes cooperating with the other farmers in the cooperative and often goes to the office in El Guabo.

Abel Saenz lives and grows bananas in the village Campo Real. He used to only grow bananas for feeding his animals, but five years ago he joined Asoguabo. Now he travels frequently between the village and the co-op’s offices in El Guabo.

-My routines changed when I and the other farmers in the village joined. It meant organizing, paperwork, going to the office to take care of business… I like working with my ”compañeros” in the village.

Together, they’ve bought chainsaws and other tools they share, with money from the fairtrade premium which is a dollar per banana box sold.

-I’ve gotten to know new people, I’ve participated in courses about leadership and other subjects, and learned a lot.

But of the 12 farmers who originally joined, only 8 are left.

-It’s demanding to grow bananas for export. It’s not like farming for your own comsumption. But if you make it, it’s worthwhile. My income is a lot better now when I farm two crops: banana and cacao. I used to farm only cacao. But the future looks tough  because of the lack of roads to the farms. Many farmers have to transport the bananas on mules, and the bananas are damaged on the way.

What do you want to say to the consumers?

-Fair Trade improves the life of small farmers that live and work on their farms. That’s why we constantly try to improve the quality of the bananas to be able to stay in Fair Trade. Who else would buy our bananas? We would be marginalised among the transnationals.

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”Thanks to Fair Trade I can sleep at night”

Roberto Rodriguez sleeps better after joining Asoguabo.

Roberto Rodriguez sleeps better after joining Asoguabo.

-Before I joined Asoguabo, I couldn’t sleep at night. Fair Trade gave me a tremendous peace. Maybe my father would live today if he had been able to join. He died of a heart attack because of stress, says Roberto Rodriguez in Arenillas.

Before they joined Asoguabo, the farmers in the area had troubles with the buyer companies. Often the companies didn’t buy the whole harvest, and the prices were very unstable.

-I was stressed too before I joined Asoguabo, because I just didn’t have enough time and energy. Now I have time to rest. Now we have stability. We can sell all we produce, all year, at a stable price. The income is regular, so I can afford to pay my employees. I can even pay them a little bit more, says Rodriguez.

Through the cooperative, the producers get to sell all the bananas they produce, and the price is the same all year. The market prices vary from a dollar to 14 per box, but in Fair Trade the buyer has to pay a minimum price and a premium of a dollar per box, which is used for social projects. Thanks to the premium the farmers in Arenillas can support the rest of the society, too.

-We give bananas to eight schools and kindergartens in the area. In the future we want to reach all the schools, kindergartens and nurseries.

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”Fair Trade creates jobs”

Today Rodrigo Aguilar's banana farm of 13 hectares is where 15 people from the village Chakra go to work. Before he joined Fair Trade the price of bananas was so low he couldn't afford to keep his employees.

Today Rodrigo Aguilar's banana farm of 13 hectares is where 15 people from the village Chakra go to work. Before he joined Fair Trade the price of bananas was so low he couldn't afford to keep his employees.

-Fair Trade is good for the whole village, because when the banana farmers can afford to hire, it means work for the people.

Rodrigo Aguilar grows bananas right on the border between Ecuador and Peru. From his packing plant you can see the narrow river that separates the countries.

-Thanks to Fair Trade, I’m still on this farm. Fair Trade gave me stability and peace of mind.

The years 2002-2003 were bad for the banana farmers, because the prices were very low.

-I couldn’t afford to keep my employees and take care of the farm. But then I got to join Asoguabo. There I recuperated because Fair Trade paid the same price all year, a price that was enough to keep the plantation running. Today I’m doing well and I have 15 permanent employees.

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