310 days, 12 countries, 15,000 km, 30+ Fair Trade visits

310 days seems like a long time. It is. But it’s not forever and the end point is at hand. La senora gorda cantando.

But I look at it another way. It’s really the start of another adventure for me. Back in Vancouver, or wherever the future takes me, I’m looking forward to coming home. I’ve been able to appreciate the people and the things I have in life a lot more.

I’m sat in Lima airport, waiting for an evening flight to New York. I’m trying to reflect on the experience. Too much to summarise here: the ups, downs, falls, scares, good, bad, surprising, touching, the people…

My insights into Fair Trade just scratch the surface. Like most things, there’s a lot more to it than just the label on your coffee or chocolate. But it is a step in the right direction. I believe that, despite the downsides I’ve seen. We need to keep fighting for the marginalised producers. I laughed whole-heartedly at the recent petrol ‘crisis’ that gripped Britain recently – people running to panic-buy petrol when there was only the mere threat of a delivery strike. Imagine if banana and coffee and cacao growers went on strike….

It’s amazing what we take for granted and the people who provide these foods for us need a bigger say in the picture. Do try to buy Fair Trade when you can, and more importantly, get informed about the bigger picture and how we can help these millions of small producers and their children lift themselves, however marginally, out of poverty.

Edna shows her undercarriage, ready for packing up
I hit South America a couple of months ago, after swapping the bike for the bus

And don’t worry, Fair Trade Bike Ride isn’t going off-line. I’ve many more stories to tell from my trip and there’ll be more adventures to come, I’m sure of it. Thanks to everyone who’s read the blog and encouraged me along the way. I really appreciate it. Hasta luego!


Disaster and Hope: Fair Trade Bananas in northern Peru

“We can save some parcels,” says one of the BOS banana growers we met, “but we have to throw away most of the trees. We hope the rain won’t come back so that we can begin this work in April [we visited in late March]. But we need assistance and can’t do anything without government help.” Unfortunately, government assistance is a remote proposition. “We will have to throw away the trees because the flood water has been there so long that the tree roots are saturated and the trees will not grow any more.”

The BOS (Bananeros Organicos Solidarios) banana co-op was one of three banana co-ops we visited that day. All three have been seriously affected by improbable rains and flooding that the area received. We were in northern Peru, in the lowland desert a short distance north of Piura. The area typically receives only 50 mm of rain per year, but in February this year three times that amount fell in a couple of days. Combined with the huge amount of rainfall that the mountain areas received meant a double blow. The rivers burst their banks and flooded many of the lowland areas.

My travels coincided with a visit to the area by a few people I knew from Canada, and I was excited to be able to join them for a day as we toured three different Fair Trade banana co-ops. From Vancouver were Randy Hooper, owner of Discovery Organics (that imports organic, Fair Trade bananas from co-ops in this area); David Wilson from Choices Markets (buys these bananas from Discovery Organics); and Sean McHugh from Fair Trade Vancouver. Also accompanying us were Jim and Sophie from the Peru office of Fairtrasa, the company that has helped many producers in central and south America to convert to Fair Trade and buys their produce to sell in Europe and North America.

Once it became clear to Randy Hooper that producers were so severely affected (this included mango growers as well, located a little further south) he initiated an emergency fundraiser. The trip he made was to present some of the funds raised to these groups and show solidarity, support and to tell them that their customers are concerned about the farmers’ livelihoods. This would never happen with those in a conventional trade situation.

From all the donations received, $10,000 was given to BOS. That is crucial for the co-op to help those most in need, but it is a drop in the bucket compared to what they probably require. Randy estimates $500,000 would be necessary to get the co-op back on its feet properly. We toured some of the affected parcels and met a few of the growers who had lost their entire crop. They told us their situation with dignity and without an obvious sense of the calamity they face, but I could see the hurt in the eyes of many of them. For the older growers, they accept that nature throws them situations like this, that it is part of farming, however difficult it can be. They are experienced enough to know that nature can be pleasant or harsh. But to know that their buyers are concerned for them makes a huge difference. Randy is a rare example of a person who genuinely cares about the people he buys from. Very rare. Fair Trade tries to build relationships like this, and though it is difficult, it is a step towards giving those at the bottom of the ladder a step up, a helping hand, rather than constantly pushing them back down into the muddy earth.

Earlier in the day we visited two other co-ops. Our first visit was to Santa Clara. It is a wind-blown little village that sits just above the floodplain. Down below from the village, a sea of green. The village itself was a collection of brown and yellow desert dust. We packed into a little community hall and the presentations began. One thing I’ve noticed is how in these kind of situations everyone likes to speak up and have their say, and usually they take a long time to say it! We were pressed for time, so no chance to visit the affected areas. However, the presentations were well received – and so was the donation to the co-op of $5,000. $1,000 is for the village school and $4,000 towards a new warehouse.

After a hurried group photo we were off again, to visit AP BOSMAM. We were treated to a ‘shortened’ slideshow presentation, though even that had us wilting in the heat of the afternoon as we sat sweating and struggling to pay attention. Again, Randy and David did their presentations. As well as giving everyone a large printed photo of the Choices Markets management team, he presented each group with a soccer ball (Fair Trade of course). The previous day that had resulted in an impromptu 20-minute game of football. A donation was given to this co-op of $5,000.

One of the projects that AP BOSMAM has been heavily involved in is to help a local school. We took a visit there, where children of all ages, dressed in bright yellow, acted as though a giant sugar fairy had sprinkled them all with excitement. It was bedlam as the strange white people wandered around the school grounds. BOSMAM had recently been able to use Fair Trade social premiums to improve facilities at the school, whether through a new volleyball court or new desks and chairs for the classrooms. We were ushered into one classroom where the children were expecting us. Ahead of our visit they had made various flags that they now began waving as we entered. In a boisterous but well-behaved manner, they showed off their flags of Canada, USA, Peru,,,and Cuba. They quickly quietened down when the presentation started and did not make attempts to hide their boredom. Outside the classroom, many other children squeezed themselves in the doorway or at windows to get a glimpse of the gringos in their midst.

One day, three Fair Trade banana co-ops. All of them have suffered lately because of disastrous, extreme weather and yet they will struggle on, much as they have always done. However, in some cases, if a situation becomes too severe, farmers will abandon their plots and migrate to the cities to try to find work, typically with little success.

Even for farmers who managed to salvage some of their crop, their bananas have suffered. Quality has been affected and prices subsequently fell. I saw many sorry-looking bananas for sale in local markets in Piura, the largest city in the area. For one “nuevo sole”, approximately 40 cents, I was able to buy 10 bananas.

At BOS, Randy told the gathered farmers that we will return to Vancouver and do what we can to help them by publicising their situation, but stressed that there were no guarantees. The farmer spoke again. “We are thankful to Randy for coming here and showing his support and trying to help us. We will grow more bananas, we will come back.”

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(You can also see a couple of videos from the BOS visit, at http://www.youtube.com/fairtradebikeride)

Fair Trade Costa Rica: CoopeAgri

“I’d be happy to sell 50% of our coffee as Fair Trade”, says Enrique. “I’m trying really hard to increase our sales, but it’s really frustrating. I’m knocking on doors, but nobody is answering”. Enrique is a big fan of Fair Trade, but he can’t understand why CoopeAgri sells so little of its coffee at Fair Trade prices. Currently it is around 35% of their total production.

CoopeAgri is located about three hours’ south of San Jose, the capital. The co-operative is 100% certified as Fair Trade, but the problem is having a sufficient number of buyers willing to pay Fair Trade prices. It’s a huge challenge and Enrique, young, enthusiastic and passionate, was practically screaming at me to show his frustration. He recently transferred from another department, and he has that newcomer’s awareness of “why are things the way they are?”.

We spoke at length in English, and there was much to be positive about. CoopeAgri is a very successful co-op. The town of Perez Zeledon (also known as San Isidro de El General) is dominated by the presence of CoopeAgri. Over its near 50-year existence it has ingrained itself into the town in many ways I had never seen in other places. This included supermarkets, a financial co-op, hardware store and recently they opened a cafe in the town. They even run a petrol station.

At the CoopeAgri beneficio. This is outside the coffee lab. There is a huge coffee processing facility and offices here too
The new CoopeAgri coffee shop in San Isidro centre

Having such an influence within the local community requires a large number of employees and producers. The co-op has more than 500 employees (e.g. in supermarkets, offices etc) and 12,000 producers. Approximately 2,500 are sugar cane producers. All the producers are small-scale, with around 1-1.5 hectares under cultivation.

CoopeAgri got involved in Fair Trade in 2004, starting with a small amount of coffee under harvest (~100,000 lbs). Now they sell ~3.5m lbs as Fair Trade. However, they have a capacity for ~25m lbs of coffee each year.

The co-op has survived many problems over the years, including the time of the coffee ‘crisis’ (around 10-11 years ago, when prices hit an all-time record low and farmers were unable to cover production costs). As a direct result of the ‘crisis’, many farmers removed their coffee plants, so over the last few years production levels have fallen. Now, because prices have risen significantly, farmers are replanting coffee. But it will take at least 2-3 years for those plants to bear coffee fruit. And by that time who knows what the prices will be like? This boom-bust cycle is typical in the coffee world, and a real reason why Fair Trade, in the long-term, has the ability to give farmers a minimum standard of living.

With prices relatively high at the moment, Enrique told me that many of the farmers are being approached directly by international buyers. They promise to pay farmers on the spot. Fair Trade typically pays farmers at set times of the year, often several months after the harvest. This is a big problem for the co-op, as it is very difficult to dissuade farmers from selling to these buyers. Despite the size of CoopeAgri, they are unable to pay farmers ‘on the spot’ to try to stave off the direct buyers. If they did, the co-op would run into credit problems, because it gets paid several months after the harvest. Also, prices fluctuate in those intervening months, which can cause additional credit problems. “Fair Trade” requires that buyers offer advance payments to the co-op (up to 60% of the contract), but even this does not alleviate the problem.

Another source of frustration for Enrique (really, he does support Fair Trade!) was the lack of opportunity to sell the co-op’s own roasted coffee in international markets. If you buy a bag of Fair Trade coffee at your local shop, almost always it will be from a company that roasts the coffee in the country you buy it from. CoopeAgri roasts its own coffee and sells it within Costa Rica. However, Enrique would love to sell this in other countries. In contrast to other co-ops that do this, CoopeAgri roasted coffee is the same quality as the beans it exports. Typically the import taxes are higher for a ‘product’ than a ‘raw material’, so it is very difficult to access North American and European markets.

The amazing thing, for me, was that Perez Zeledon is a Fair Trade Town. There are hundreds of these in Europe, and North America is catching up. But it was a huge undertaking for the town to get this status, because the criteria was the same as for any other town or city (e.g. a certain number of shops/cafes have to sell Fair Trade products; local council commits to buying Fair Trade products for internal use, wherever possible). The difficulties were many: lack of awareness of Fair Trade within the town, few products available, Fair Trade products are more expensive. They succeeded and it was refreshing for me to see that. It also challenged my assumption that Fair Trade Towns were a ‘northern’ thing, solely for us in the northen, developed world. With each visit, I learn a little more.

CoopeAgri is a great example of a successful co-op. Although Fair Trade can do a lot more for CoopeAgri, it has already done a lot or the community and is continuing to do so. There are many social programs, a Family Commitee (the only one in Costa Rica), which helps women in various projects, they co-ordinated with a Spanish NGO (non-governmental organisation) to bring $30,000 worth of computers for local children, and they have a sizeable number of female producers (around 35%). Over the last few years, the co-op has developed good relationships with their buyers. It is important that these relationships continue to develop, emphasising the ‘personal’ nature of Fair Trade. In a world of impersonal commerce, Fair Trade acts as an antidote to ‘the way things are’. And everyone can play a part.

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