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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