Fair trade avocados, Trujillo, Peru (Part I)

The first avocado farmer I met made an impression on me of the kind I didn’t expect: his perhaps slightly overweight resemblance to the actor Vince Vaughn. He sported a slouched sombrero, wide-necked shirt and jeans and drove a decked-out, twin-cab Ford pickup truck. I thought I might be in Texas, not northern Peru.

If I had been in Texas, it probably would have been guacamole with everything. In the US avocado really means guacamole. Promoting avocados during this year’s Super Bowl was big business when consumption is peaks. “Avocados from Mexico”, the company behind the Super Bowl advert, proclaim that guacamole is the #1 use of avocados. Nachos anyone..? But let’s look a little beyond this – avocados aren’t only grown in Mexico. I was in dry, dusty Trujillo in northern Peru to see what was happening in the smaller world of fair trade, organic avocados.

CEDEPAS is the local cooperative that until recently produced only conventional avocados. And different varieties too. Most of the exports to North America and Europe are Haas, but there are plenty of others. Haas tends to get the highest price for export, but producers here also have varieties such as Fuerte and Nava, sold locally. Luckily, no such thing as the avozilla.

Fairtrasa started working with the coop three years prior to my visit, at about the same time as an outside NGO. Fairtrasa works with small-scale, marginalised farmers and manages their supply chain, from farmer to the end customer. They helped CEDEPAS transition to organic and fair trade. Organic and fair trade avocados receive higher prices for the farmers despite having to put up with a couple of tougher transitional years.

The advantages of organic and fair trade certification is clear for the farm owner with higher revenue from the better prices. But it was still too early to know the full extent of the benefits for the hired workers. This being their first full year of fairtrade/organic supply, the value of things like the fair trade social premium weren’t fully known. Theresa, a mother of two young daughters, was one of seven workers at the farm we visited. She works on several local farms but the work can be sporadic, not always available. She works on fair trade certified farms but knew nothing about what fair trade was. The seven workers I saw typically bring in 80-100 boxes per day. For this they’re paid 30 soles each (approx. CAN$13).

The transition to fair trade and organic requires more work (including paperwork) and more investment. For example, each tree requires a lot of water. Gallons of water are used to create a ‘moat’ around each plant which is left for 10-15 days. The cycle is then repeated. The new system the farm invested in is more efficient, using a release mechanism underneath the soil to release water each day. But some hard work can’t be changed – weeding is constantly required.

One of my Fairtrasa companions for the day, Sophie, from France, clearly caught the attention of “Vince”, who tried to impress her on our drive home in his pickup truck. He barely noticed that I was there with them. I heard later from Sophie, who hadn’t been enamoured with Vince’s greasy eye-mongering that his main concern for his avocado farm was to make more money. If fair trade allows him to do that, he’ll adopt it. He wasn’t an advocate for fair trade and Sophie indicated that it would be difficult to get him to understand fair trade/organic production and why it exists as it does.

The larger farms like Vince’s rely on hired labour at harvest. But even at the coop/producer Association level there is no formal process yet in place that would give guarantees to the local workers. The farm owner likes to rehire the same workers, but at best it seems to be only based on a verbal agreement to do so.

Fairtrasa’s role has been to share their expertise in order to help bring producers like Vince into the fair trade and organic export market and to help them take advantage of it. It does mean they work with the larger producers so that they can get sufficient volume to ship abroad. Fairtrasa also tries to get large groups of smaller producers together.

The model for fair trade avocados is still developing. In this case, Vince was clearly doing ok for himself, but it his workers had more of a struggle. Would fair trade change any of that for them?

Later we returned to the Fairtrasa office in Trujillo. It was a small, open office; very ‘no frills’. Plenty of thick binders sat on shelves. Computer equipment straggled across simple veneer desks. One lonely table; a whiteboard; a wall calendar. Brown veneer panelling served for wallpaper. It felt very 1970s. But the office had a busy atmosphere, as any typical office would, working on spreadsheets, doing accounts. Despite an imminent audit, the Fairtrasa staff within certainly brought the place to life.

I’d spent the day with Sophie and Jorge (our driver) and now met the rest: Juan, Mario, Juan Carlos, Ivan, Johana and Luis (Luchito). Luis and Mario had phones stuck to their ears, and the others needed to crack on. I knew I would be back the following day so I left them to their work, descended the concrete stairs and headed out into the warm Trujillo afternoon.

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