Loja, Ecuador: on the road to fair trade coffee

By the time I reached picturesque, beautiful Loja in southern Ecuador I’d had a wide range of fair trade experiences throughout the country. But I couldn’t leave without making a trip to a fair trade coffee co-op. Loja is home to an umbrella group of seven  co-operatives called FAPECAFES. One of those co-ops was APECAEL.

I spent a couple of hours there getting to know the organisation and the people. Housed in a modern building within the town, the office looked as typical as anything I’d see in Canada. During the afternoon I arranged a visit for the following day with Roger, a forestry engineer, to visit some producers of the APEACAEL co-op located out in the countryside.

Bright and sharp the next morning I met Roger at the bus terminal. It’s the way to get around of course, cheap and pretty easy. The small, comfortable bus wound its way up through the green hills and then down into San Pedro de Vilcabamba, the picturesque little town where the sparse, one-room office of the co-op was situated. A lone computer, printer and scanner sat on a formica table with a couple of plastic chairs. When we arrived, Sandra, a large grumpy woman wearing sparkly pink toenails came across. She was clearly angry about something, much to Roger’s bemusement. But after five minutes we headed out to visit some producers.

Roger, young-looking, is married with two children. He had an easy laugh and got a lot of enjoyment talking about music and nightclubs. Sometimes the world doesn’t seem so different after all.

This was my first visit to coffee producers in Ecuador and it was definitely different. We made calls via taxi to just two producers. These producers were easy to get to being just a little way out of town.

The producers process and dry their coffee at their homes. There is no communal processing facility that was typical in many of my other visits. Although still basic, the homes here tended to be of a higher standard than what I’d seen in Central America. Slate roofs were common.

We visited Elsa first, but it was a short visit with her and Roger chatting intently for most of the time. The coffee processing was different to what I’d experienced. Behind the house was a plastic covered greenhouse type of frame where the washed coffee was laid out to dry, resembling a hostel room full of bunk beds.

Elsa looked a little worn out, dressed in a dark apron and baseball cap. Her young son hovered around us while we chatted, hiding his face in his green flag for most of the time. Their ginger cat remained highly unimpressed with us, sunning itself on the roof.

After Elsa, we had an even shorter visit to another producer. Again, this one was unique. A couple of men washed their coffee in large blue plastic barrels, swirling it around with long wooden poles. They smoked as they worked. The coffee here was drying out on cement patios rather than the raised beds such as at Elsa’s. The depulping of the coffee (separating the bean from the cherry) is done manually using a small machine with a handle that is turned by hand to push the coffee between two rollers.

In Honduras I visited a couple of farmers who produced high-quality coffee at their own homes rather than via the co-op. Their equipment was superior to the mish-mash of rudimentary and improvised equipment I saw here.

Our third and final visit was to see Daniel Castillo, a ‘microlot’ seller. Microlot coffee tends to be produced in small quantities but is high quality and typically gets a higher price, often higher than fair trade. We spent the most time here and took a walk along the road to his finca.

Daniel, an older but genial man dressed in short-sleeved shirt, casual trousers and sandals, walked us up a short track to get to his plot, which is about one hectare (a typical size for millions of smallholder coffee producers throughout the world). He produces organic coffee, though it is not yet Fair Trade certified. His coffee is ‘shade grown’ under a diverse range of other trees and plants, such as yucca, banana and citrus. Daniel has 3,000 coffee bushes.

Roger explained that Daniel gets his coffee to a higher quality after the harvest, when he is able to take extra care with hand processing techniques. The coffee is dried on small, elevated beds rather than directly on the cement patio. This allows for better air circulation to improve the drying process.

We sampled a couple of seed-filled oranges before heading back to Daniel’s house and then back on the small bus to Loja. We discussed fair trade. Of the seven co-ops within the FAPECAFES umbrella,only this one, APECAEL, is not certified fair trade. They were currently underway with licensing process for certification. It’s a process requiring significant preparation and then approval by the co-op membership and it would take several more months at least.

Roger does support fair trade but had reservations about whether it was worthwhile. Different fair trade labels exist with different criteria and license costs so he wasn’t sure which one would be best for the producers. However, he expected the co-op membership to grow in future and the evidence was already there in the other six co-ops within the FAPECAFES umbrella.

My visits to coffee producers throughout Central America had exposed me to the realities many producers face in their day-to-day lives, whether or not they are fair trade producers. I was able to see the complexities involved and the hard decisions needed in how best to improve the lives of them, their families and communities. For the producers here in Loja, it looked like fair trade was still the best option. However, unlike many other producers I’d visited, they seemed to have other options based on their ability to produce high quality coffee, which attracted good prices. The families in Roger’s co-op could benefit from the experiences of the other co-ops.

However, the producers were worried about whether it is worth the cost. The most well-known certification (FLO, the blue-green and black label which is the most common) has a higher cost. In response to this, over the last several years another certification is being introduced that was created in Latin America, for Latin Americans (the Small Producer symbol, SPP). It is still little-known, but it is important. For many consumers, they feel it is enough to simply buy a product with the fair trade symbol. Of course, it’s a little more complicated than that, and my hope is that fair trade continues to evolve with the interests of the producers at its heart. The main thing is to support it as best you can.

In individual cases fair trade may not be the best option. One year of high prices may be great for producers. But in coffee (and other commodities) the price fluctuations can play havoc in producer communities. Over the long-term, fair trade still offers a positive path towards a sustainable means of living for the people in these communities.

But there are still risks. For the producers of APECAEL, they will pay out the costs of obtaining a fair trade price without the guarantee they will be able to sell all their coffee at fair trade prices. For them, for now, it’s still a risk worth taking. It is up to us to make sure that the risk pays off.

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CO-OP INFO:
-in its current form since 2008; FAPECAFES formed in 2002
-APECAEL comprises five communities with 122 producer members. The seven co-ops total 1,700 producers and the other six are certified fair trade
-The co-op is currently in process of applying for certification so they apply fair trade and organic principles ahead of this

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Ethical tea? A brief lowdown

I visited many fair trade co-ops and producers on my trip. They were producers of coffee, cacao, fruit, quinoa, cotton, flowers, to name a few. But the world’s most popular drink – tea – was one that never came near my radar. Very little tea is produced in Central and South America. Being such a popular drink, even outdoing coffee, it has a large cultural, economic and social impact on people throughout the world. From it’s origins in China, through colonisation and oppression in bringing it to the West, flashpoints in popular history (the Boston Tea Party), tea has shaped the lives of millions.

I bring this up because of the some myths and half-truths that recently came to light for me were dispelled when I read a detailed and enlightening report into the tea industry conducted by the UK non-profit organisation Ethical Consumer (learn more here).

Poor wages and working conditions remain the stand-out problem in the industry. Tea monoculture has an impact on biodiversity and has increased the need for pesticides. The most lucrative stages in tea processing – blending, packaging and marketing – are mainly carried out by tea brands in buyer countries, which continues to leave tea farmers and workers in the most vulnerable position.

Four corporations dominate global tea trade, the top two being Unilever (Lipton, PG Tips) and Tata Tea (Tetley). Little of the profit included in the retail price of a box of tea goes to the producing country e.g. for a GBP1.60 box of tea bags sold in the UK a tea picker will make just 1 pence. According to an Oxfam investigation, pickers in Assam, India receive only $1.60/day, half the legal minimum wage. Families struggle to support themselves; children become vulnerable to human trafficking.

Ethical Certification?
Various labels now adorn boxes and packets of tea in our shops (see examples below). Unfortunately, the same report highlighted that neither Fairtrade nor Rainforest Alliance certification resulted in higher wages in these large-scale plantations. Fairtrade certification alone has limited power to bring about wage increases, as they are usually decided at a regional or national level. Fairtrade did bring other benefits, though, such as proper contracts, better working conditions and a social premium for the local community.

Rainforest Alliance is a relatively new certification (2006) but has spread quickly due to deals with multinationals Unilever and Lipton. Its rapid rise is arguably due to it being a more ‘business-friendly’ ethical label (similar for the UTZ label). Rainforest Alliance focuses on how farms are managed, which is in stark contrast to Fairtrade and its emphasis of minimum prices and shofting the terms of trade more toward producers.

Muddy waters
No, not the famous blues musician. Rainforest Alliance and UTZ now muddy the waters of ethical labelling. On the surface it sounds laudable yet in reality they are too vague. Fairtrade and organic standards are stringent, clear and measurable. Fairtrade certainly has flaws, but not to the extent of Rainforest Alliance.

Another consequence of the proliferation of Rainforest Alliance certification and sales is that it takes away from the Fairtrade and organic certified farms. One of the reasons why so little Fairtrade certified tea is sold at Fairtrade prices is because of the rush to support competing labels by the multinationals.
Only 6% of fairtrade tea is sold at fairtrade tea prices due to lack of demand.

Are you confused yet?
Can you tell the difference between different ethical labels? Is there a real difference and does it matter?
Similar claims are made by these competing labels. And they have many common objectives that are hard to disagree with in principle. However, some objectives are hard to measure.

With Rainforest Alliance being applied on such large-scale farms and estates, auditing them properly is also a problem. One such estate investigated in 2011 by Oxfam was 75km long and employed 16,000 workers.

What to do?
Despite some concnerns over what Fairtrade can deliver, it is still the best overall option for ethical purchasing. Rainforest Alliance or UTZ tea would be preferable to non-certified tea, but it is ‘buyer beware’. Many people have a certain sense of a feel-good factor when buying ethical products. But the key is to be aware of the certification (even Fairtrade) and particularly with Rainforest Alliance, realise that it is a very flawed label.

There are also some other ways in which you can make a positive contribution to those workers. These include:
-buying direct sourced tea
-buying single origin, not blends
-buying loose leaf tea rather than tea bags

Ethical labels you might see:

At A Glance – label summary:
Fairtrade: aims to reduce poverty, integrate sustainable development and for tea farms and estates, promote sustainable management
Organic: strict criteria on wildlife and the environment
Rainforest Alliance: Promote better management of tea farms and estates through environmental, social and economic criteria, with focus on environmental criteria. Only 30% of the tea needs to meet the standards in order to gain certification
UTZ: like Rainforest Alliance, focus on better management of farms and estates