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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

Advertisements

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

Bananas and floods

A couple of things from the UK reminded me of my visit to the banana farmers in Piura, northern Peru. The first was seeing how areas of the south of England experienced some pretty awful floods throughout the course of this winter, so bad that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, got his Cobra committee together at one point to tackle the problem (or be seen to be tackling it) and even suggested that “no expense will be spared” to help clean up the affected areas and help prevent this from happening in future.

I’m sure much of the money the Government will end up spending on the clean up would have gone a long way to preventing this thing in the first place if proper land management practices had been implemented. Invoking Sarah Palin, Cameron could no doubt spur us to “dig baby, dig” to dredge numerous rivers. This won’t work either.

The second thing is we’re coming to the end of Fairtrade Fortnight and the focus has been to encourage people to learn about the problem of cheap bananas and switch to buying fairtrade if possible.

Banana producers and labourers generally have long had a hard time of it. If you work on a banana plantation, you’re likely to be susceptible to poor wages, long hours, poor working conditions, exposure to various pesticides and be vulnerable to losing your job should you wish to complain. Those farmers who do own their own land potentially have it a little better, though many who produce convential bananas also have to contend with receiving a meagre income, being at the mercy of the multinationals who dictate the prices paid to them.

The farmers I met in Piura belonged to fairtrade co-ops. They were able to overcome many of these problems by the means of receiving higher prices, payments towards community projects, better environmental management and working conditions, among many other things.

However, they are still just as vulnerable to the weather. When I visited, many of them had seen their small plots of land be drowned by floodwaters. The banana plants, stuck in standing water for so long, were dying and would have to be replaced in many cases, causing additional expense with the loss of income from a much smaller harvest.

For these Peruvian farmers however, there was no Prime Minister or President appearing on television to tell the country that no expense would be spared to clean up the area and put the farmers back to where they were. Without fairtrade prices these farmers would have been in even more trouble (Discovery Organics, a Vancouver-based produce importer and distributor, also donated money [also the ongoing fundraiser Pennies For Peru]).

No doubt the UK people affected by floods will have a hard time getting their properties back in shape. There may even be some long-term effects to deal with. I’ll leave aside the hardship of ‘lower property prices’ that will worry them into the wee small hours. For the banana farmers of northern Peru, they have some bigger issues to consider. Is their livelihood destroyed? Will they have to leave the land they own and move away, breaking important community and social links in their neighbourhoods? There were many problems ahead.

So when you’re next looking for bananas in your local shop, look for fairtrade. If they’re not available, try to shop elsewhere. Stick With Foncho, as the campaign goes. Stick with fairtrade.

http://foncho.fairtrade.org.uk/

https://www.facebook.com/Pennies4PERU

Fair trade hats, Sigsig, Ecuador

There’s a hat for every occasion, though when it comes to fair trade hats made at the ATMA women’s co-op in Sigsig, southern Ecuador, traditional is the style.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This following article originally appeared in the January 2013 edition of “fair trade”, a magazine published by the Canadian Fair Trade Network (CFTN).

http://issuu.com/cftnetwork/docs/fairtrade-magazine-jan2013/17?e=0

I tried to set up an appointment beforehand but was told that the workers were busy and might not have time to talk. I took my chance anyway.

I knocked on the heavy double door of the former hospital building. When the door opened, Rosa, the stalwart matriarch of the co-op, welcomed me. She wore one of the cooperative’s panama hats with a black cardigan and red skirt. Her braided hair gave her a traditional Ecuadorian look. She welcomed me with a smile and insisted that I join the workers for a homecooked meal. It was yet another example of the hospitality and generosity of time I experienced on my travels.
I was nine months into my Fair Trade journey, riding my bicycle from Vancouver to South America, visiting as many cooperatives as I could. I wanted to learn more about the people living in producer communities, and how Fair Trade plays a role in their lives.

The Asociación de Toquilleras de María Auxiliadora (ATMA) is a women’s Fair Trade cooperative that produces artisan crafts, and in particular, panama hats. It is located among the beautiful Andean highlands of southern Ecuador, on the edge of the dusty, patchwork town of Sigsig, a 90-minute bus journey from the colonial city Cuenca.

Inside the old building, there was a central courtyard, almost filled by a wooden structure with a wide central column, which was decorated with a colourful ribbon to make it look like a hat. It stood about three metres high and 10 metres wide and was really a circular table that could also be used as a stage. I made my way into the main working area, where a thrum of activity was already underway. The workroom was open and well lit by the large windows that stretched the length of the room. This was not some factory-style operation. The women worked busily at their own stations, but the atmosphere was relaxed. Most of the noise came from a mix of machines and children. Eight to 10 women typically work here, eight hours per day, Monday to Friday. During busier times, they’ll work Saturdays too.

On the edges of the clean, tiled floor, the walls were lined with shelves and cupboards full of hats in various states of completion. Tables were piled high with materials. The panamas are made from palm-like grass from the Pacific coast. The style was originally named after the coastal city of Montecristi, but they became known as “panama hats” when they were given international visibility during the construction of the Panama Canal in the early 20th century.

The women use many different dyes to colour the grass straw and then hang them in bunches to dry. The traditional hat weaving, an important traditional local skill, is meticulously completed by hand. The women continued to work while I visited. Their sewing machines rattled as they stitched labels onto the finished hats.

Every minute or so there was a loud hiss of decompressed air, as a woman named Maria moulded hats into different styles. Another woman helped to shape the hats with an iron. Meanwhile, a group of children ran in and out of the room, playing games.

The women sell their products directly to Pachacuti, a relationship that has been established for many years. Pachacuti is a Fair Trade certified fashion retailer that in 2009 became the first company in the world to complete a pilot study for the new World Fair Trade Organization certification process. It was the first international Fair Trade organization allowed to put “Fair Trade Certified” on its full range of products, certifying the organization as a whole rather than
specific items.

ATMA provides many benefits for its employees. It offers them fair wages and provides health benefits and educational assistance for their children. Because of ATMA, important cultural knowledge will be maintained and transferred to younger generations. What’s most important is the sense of empowerment. The women here have created their own business, invested in training and equipment, and are earning their own incomes.

The cooperative also has its own shop that sells hats, bags, and crafts. It felt good buying a hat straight from its source. I was satisfied, knowing my money went directly to the women here. It might be a small contribution, but it’s important.

For more information (and to buy): http://www.pachacuti.co.uk

Getting to know quinoa: Riobamba, Ecuador

Three elderly, indigenous farmers were crouched over a blanket on the rough grass. Piles of grain sat with them in hillocks, like sand. Two of them held large sieves. They hunkered on a blanket, sieving through and separating quinoa. It spoke of a lifetime of tradition, hard work, and an existence on the margins of life. I was with Avelino Morocho Coro, the diminuitive, poncho-clad President of COPROBICH, a Fair Trade cooperative based in Riobamba, Ecuador. I accompanied Avelino on a tour of one of their producer areas and quinoa is the primary product within the co-op. This was the highland area (altiplano). It is cool, windy and life here is a challenge.

The previous day I spent some time with the rest of the co-op staff at their simple but homely office in Riobamba. Riobamba is the largest town in the region and was undergoing much construction amidst its historic, cobbled heart. In the same way, the co-op staff represented the mix of the modern and traditional. All were indigenous. Maria, the secretary, was dressed with the traditional poncho and hat, whereas everyone else (except Avelino, the President) wore regular clothing. The atmosphere was light-hearted. At least that was my interpretation, as I found it difficult to follow the mixed-language conversation – Spanish mixed with a healthy dose of quechua, an indigenous language of this region.

It was a busy week with visitors coming from other organisations based in Quito, which led to plenty of animated discussion. Beforehand there was much hand-shaking and mucho gusto, which became funny to watch with all the smiling and exaggerated gestures. More inadvertent comedy was provided when Auorara, the bookkeeper, called Octavio on her mobile phone; he was sat just five yards away.

Two of the visitors were Lorena from Oiko Credit and Wiliber from CECJ (Coordinadora Ecuatoriana de Comercio Justo). Producers within the co-op need access to credit to help their soil productivity and quality. The co-op was also looking to improve their quinoa washing equipment, a likely cost of several thousand dollars. In 2011 the producers had a major problem to wash the quinoa properly resulting in decreased production levels. Each year the co-op applies for credit so Lorena was there to discuss their requirements. In addition, a major client of the co-op (the French company Ethiquable. Others include Canadian companies Just Us! and Discovery Organics) donates a small amount of money.

CECJ works within Ecuador and represents several small organisations and advocates on their behalf to give them better representation. Wiliber felt that the well-known international fair trade (FLO) certification and conditions required of co-ops puts smaller ones at a real disadvantage. As a result he was in favour of COPROBICH changing their certification to the Small Producer (SPP) certification (criteria for this certification originates from within Latin America and more focused to the needs of these countries).

ERPE, celebrating its 50th anniversary, is a local community radio station based at the same location as the COPROBICH office. They have been a lifeline over the years to get knowledge and information to these remote communities.

We visited two warehouses (bodegas) and a processing area. They are small, simple concrete buildings and many are scattered about the terrain. Despite the difficult conditions of life here, I felt as if it wasn’t as poor as other places I’d visited.

The typical size of a family’s production area is very small, around 0.6 hectares. Growing conditions are tough in this climate so the producers are in a vulnerable position. Aside from wheat for local consumption, some herbs for tea, there are few crop alternatives. Many producers lack the technical knowledge to improve their harvests, which the co-op tries to rectify through education. The harsh nature of life in this area leads many of the younger generation to migrate away from the land, a problem endemic to farming in most countries.

Quinoa is harvested once a year, typically between June and September. Seed planting is from October to January. At harvest, the quinoa is cut, washed and dried. It can be stored for up to three years, which can be a problem for the producers who need to be paid promptly in order to be able to look after their families and to invest for the next year’s production. Production costs of quinoa here are approx $40 per quintal (1 quintal [qq] is approx 100 lbs). Producers hope to receive around $100 per quintal. In 2011 the co-op produced around 90,000 quintals, up from just 2,000 qunitals in 2004.

Our tour of the campo proved interesting in several other ways. Jose, a father of three, was our driver for the day but the combination of his shoddy and wayward driving, four of us cramped in the back and the bare-bones state of the pickup truck meant an uncomfortable ride. At least for me; this was pretty normal for everyone else. When we stopped for petrol Jose left the engine running while filling the tank half with ‘extra’ and half with ‘super’. Clearly there is no Spanish translation to the phrase “health and safety”. The cramped back seat led to unwanted intimacy, such as witnessing Luis clean his ears with a pen top.

We stopped for lunch at a nondescript cafe on the highway. This location seemed to be a regular haunt for the COPROBICH guys. I wasn’t expecting much in the way of a vegan meal. No menu here either, lunch was just laid out in front of us. No complaints from the others; three plentiful and meat-heavy dishes were delivered quickly, to (almost) all-round satisfaction.

I ended my visit to the co-op with a shopping expedition at the Sumak Life shop next door to COPROBICH. Sumak Life (or Sumak Kawsay in the indigenous language) means good life or good living. This is an organic shop where local producers offer a range of goods from their communities. It had a surprisingly diverse range. Herbal tea, dried fruit, nuts, cocoa, jam and of course quinoa. But not just quinoa grains – quinoa flour, quinoa hot chocolate, quinoa snack bars. My snack quota was filled easily.

Quinoa has been in the news a lot this year, from the positive (NASA-approved superfood!) to the negative (misleading stories suggesting that increased ‘western’ demand has led to price increases and thus affordability problems for local families). However, from the perspective of COPROBICH they are in a potentially good position to take advantage of this increased demand and prices. Through their increased production and exports they have improved the lives of the families within the co-op and are making investments in their future, such as the new warehouse. What was also really encouraging was relationships that exist with other groups. Together with ERPE and the Sumak Life shop, the local community is better positioned to support itself in a sustainable manner.

COPROBICH: some information

COPROBICH (Corporacion de Productores y Comerical Izadores Organicos “Bio Taita Chimborazo”)

  • Located in the Chimborazo region, Puruhua territory
  • Coop created 2003, Fair Trade exports began in 2006; 80% of quinoa exported
  • 86 indigenous communities
  • More than 1,600 producer families
  • 100% organic
  • Co-op comprised of only indigenous population families. Some of the people I met: Luis Francisco Morocho (“Promotor”), Avelino Morocho Coro (President since 2009), Lorena from Oiko Credit (Quito), Wiliber (CECJ), Jose (driver of pickup to campo), Auorara Guaman (bookkeeper), Maria Delia Guapi Guacho (secretary)
  • 2004 – 2,000 qq produced; 2011 – 90,000 qq produced
  • 1 qq grain requires approx $40 investment; producers hope for $100/qq in return
  • Co-op received a fair trade ‘social premium’ over $6,000 in 2011
  • Wheat grown for local consumption; additional income possible for other products such as herbal teas
  • Sumak Life shop and ERPE radio station provide outreach and interaction between COPROBICH and local communities
  • First large client was Ethiquable, a French fair trade company. Relationship continues today

Nevado Roses, Ecuador…Say it with Fair Trade Flowers

“If I had known 10 years ago that we’d be in the same position today as back then, I wouldn’t have bothered with Fair Trade certification”. So says John Nevado, the charismatic owner of Nevado Roses. He’s as colourful as the flowers he grows here. After my trip to Nevado Roses in Latacunga, a two-hour drive south of Quito, I reflected on the some of the complexities of Fair Trade certification. It’s not all a bed of roses…

Latacunga is a medium-sized town, a typical mix of a few pleasant, central, historic cobbled streets surrounded by forgettable, dusty, congested concrete roads. I took a short bus ride a few kilometres out of town to get to Nevado Roses.

Up until this point, most of my Fair Trade visits had been to co-ops, farms and small-scale operations that typically worked with land-owning farmers. In a few cases I’d seen small operations that employed local people, such as the APPTA fruit/cacao co-op in Costa Rica and Fruandes in Bogota, Colombia. Nevado Roses, high up on the hillside of the altiplano, has a very different style of operation.

Nevado Roses is a Fair Trade certified flower producer. Fair Trade flowers differ from other products like coffee and cacao because of the nature of the business. Flower production typically uses a ‘plantation’ style model, in which people are employed directly for a set wage and have no ownership in the land. It all looked very professional, very modern. John Nevado is a committed Fair Trade producer, but he has many reservations about the process.

After a quick introduction with the energetic John, I was shown around the site by Miguel, a somewhat more subdued sort of bloke. And my post-lunch visit meant I missed the height of the action, which takes place in the mornings.

There are 90 greenhouses here, each about half a hectare in size, making 45 hectares in total. Flowers are cut and shipped on the same day. It was quiet wandering amongst the six-feet tall (they were huge!) flowers, with some workers quietly attending to the flowers, trimming, feeding, conducting quality control. Each plant takes around 13 months to flower from initial planting. For about 90 days it will produce flowers, though a plant can last up to 20 years.

It was much more active in the processing and packaging areas. Dozens of workers were preparing the flowers that had been cut that morning. A modern, efficient production line of equipment and workers took the freshly cut flowers, sorting, cutting and arranging into their packaging. In a separate room many more workers, layered in warm coats and gloves, were busy in the 5C degree refrigeration area putting the final touches to the roses to get them ready to be flown out that evening.

The roses themselves were quite amazing. Growing conditions here (warm days, cool nights) are some of the best in the world. The colours, textures, size; everything about them stood out. These were quality! As John repeated many times, quality always sells.

Fair Trade in flowers

John was one of the most opinionated and excitable people I met on my travels. Originally from Spain, he spent many years in Sweden which influenced his “fair” principles and conscience. Around ten years ago John helped develop the standards for Fair Trade flowers. As the sales of Fair Trade products increased, Fairtrade International, FTI (previously known as Fairtrade Labelling Organisation, or FLO), was keen to expand the range of products that could be certified as Fair Trade. John was willing to contribute his expertise.

However, the ‘promises’ of Fair Trade for flowers have been hard to realise. John changed his working practices at the farm to meet the new Fair Trade standard. The farm became “100%” certified Fair Trade. This included ensuring a minimum (fair) wage, creating a ‘social premium’ for the workers and local community and enabling the workers the right to association (unionisation).

Nevado Roses was one of only a few growers that adopted Fair Trade standards; just 10 out of more than 550 growers in the country. In the ten years since, this is still the case. Nevado Roses sell only 7-8% of their flowers as Fair Trade, a figure that has barely changed in these ten years. How can this be? Like I said, the market for flowers is very different to coffee and cacao. Flowers can’t be stored in a warehouse. Quality and the ability to distribute fresh flowers is paramount. People who buy flowers tend to place a high premium on quality and freshness ahead of Fair Trade certification (imagine giving someone wilted flowers and trying to convince them that because they’re Fair Trade they are ‘better’ than conventional flowers!). Sadly, this is the reality.

Even organic flowers here are a tiny part of production. Only two hectares out of 90 are grown organically. Organic production requires more work, higher costs and is less productive. Without the associated demand, it doesn’t make business sense.

The low percentage of Fair Trade sales means the amount of the ‘social premium’ that goes back to the community is limited. Although it can reach up to $100,000 annually, this amounts to very little considering there are 500 workers here. But despite frequent bureaucratic interference, this is one area where the employees have a lot of say in what to spend the money on.

Some final thoughts:

Despite John’s equitable principles, he’s a capitalist too. His approach to Fair Trade is very much market-driven. He disagrees with a lot of how the current Fair Trade model works, particularly its lack of flexibility and costs. There has long been issues with how Fair Trade was perceived as a ‘northern’ initiative that made the decisions on how to help the ‘southern’ farmers, including how the farmers and cooperatives had to pay for certification. However, this is changing. But John advocates for even more flexibility, such as companies making their own decisions about Fair Trade purchasing (think Whole Foods and their “Whole Trade” brand). In this respect, I got the impression he was in favour of controversial recent moves by Fair Trade USA to change standards and start working more directly with companies.

I liked John. He swore a lot, he was funny. But he was knowledgable and I could understand his frustrations with the Fair Trade system. He wanted it to have achieved more in the last 10 years. It is still a work in progress.

Fair Trade has a place for many products, but each is unique. For us, as end consumers, we see the “Fair Trade” symbol on the products we buy and we trust this. I saw some of the problems with certification of flowers, but it is imperative that to maintain trust in the symbol it must be tailored effectively to each different product. I left Nevado Roses knowing that John treats his employees as well as he can and that he has had a positive impact on the lives of thousands in the local community. However, the Fair Trade model for flowers still needs improving. It’s possible it will only ever achieve limited success, but I hope that John continues to work towards the benefit of this and whatever the picture is in 10 years’ time I hope these communities see continued benefits.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Why does Fair Trade differ for flowers compared to coffee?

So how is flower production different from coffee? Here’s a quick overview of how this model of fair trade flower (roses) production differs here at Nevado Roses from what I’d seen elsewhere:

  • It’s a ‘plantation’ type of structure. The owner, John Nevado, employs more than 500 workers, who work for an hourly wage
  • Flowers must be shipped the day they are cut to ensure freshness for the markets they are sent to in Europe, Asia and North America. This makes it difficult for small owners to succeed within the Fair Trade model
  • Flowers require an intense amount of work and Fair Trade introduces additional costs that cannot be saved in other parts of the supply chain (unlike coffee) so Fair Trade flowers are more expensive for the end consumer
  • Because of the higher consumer cost, small florists in developed countries rarely adopt Fair Trade flowers. The nature of flowers as a product typically means appearance, quality and freshness override any concerns over the means of production
  • The Fair Trade model insists on workers’ right to unionisation, but this is difficult in Ecuador due to inherent political influence

A few stats on Nevado Roses:

  • Employees: >500
  • Workers are paid hourly rates as typically determined by Government
  • Fair Trade “Social Premium” is invested back into the business
  • Fair Trade certified for 11 years
  • Very small percentage is sold as organic (~4%) or Fair Trade (7-8%)

Fair Trade alcohol: yo ho ho (but no bottle of rum)

It’s fair trade alcohol, but (sorry to disappoint you) not the drinking kind, at least not yet. Alcohol has many other uses, so when I met Carlos Cabrera in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, I was keen to find out more about how alcohol production fits into the fair trade picture. For Carlos’s organisation CRACYP, their fair trade alcohol is produced for cosmetics.

Leaving Colombia, I travelled a little of the backbone of the Andes and wound my way to Quito. It sits snugly in a scenic valley at 2,800m above sea level. Hills of varied gradients radiate outwards on all sides. I liked it immediately. The city comprises a mix of the colonial and modern, with spacious parks and boulevards giving breath to the confined, historical centre.

I met Carlos Cabrera, the General Manager of CRACYP (Rural Reforestation and Progress Network Corporation), in the tourist district. CRACYP is a non-profit organisation founded in 1999 that works with more than 200 communities (many indigenous) in the poorer regions in the south of the country. Their mission is Progreso Verde (Green Progress) that promotes sustainable, environmental development for these people. Their communities produce a diverse range of crops, not just sugarcane for alcohol. Cacao (for chocolate) and coffee are produced in-house as Fair Trade. Other initiatives include ecotourism, community banking and youth development projects. When I met Carlos in a quiet cafe one afternoon he told me more.

With CRACYP’s help, a sugarcane cooperative was formed in 2003. This cooperative, CADO, helps 280 families. Over the years training and technical development have enabled the coop to produce alcohol for many purposes, including perfumes, cosmetics and now liqueurs (surely the best part!). Clients include the Body Shop and since 2011, Dr. Bronner’s, when Fair Trade certification was obtained.

Fair Trade certification gives these communities a helping hand. And at the same time, it gives the families here a chance to maintain their way of life, producing alcohol in an environmentally and socially responsible way. But despite benefits such as higher prices and community ‘social premiums’, life is still incredibly tough for these families. Carlos told me that the current season had been one of intense rainfall, which wiped out some crops and reduced the quality of the ones that survived. The community still lacks the capacity to produce more and many children find it hard to access good educational opportunities. Fair Trade certification helps overcome these problems, but it is a long-term project that requires patience and relationship-building from North American and European clients.

Carlos is based in Quito as it is easier for him to deal with the various clients, NGOs and government groups that are part of developing and promoting the organisation. As such, he’s a busy man and our meeting was rushed. Despite looking tired, he was animated and excitable with years of knowledge and experience behind him. I only got a brief insight into the organisation, but I was grateful just for that.

My plan from Quito included visiting some of the cooperatives we talked about. But in keeping with my travel experience there were glitches ahead and I wasn’t able to make it there. So I missed out on seeing some Fair Trade alcohol first hand. Pity…by this time, I’d got used to such things. Once again, I dug my map out, tracing the road south looking for my next Fair Trade port of call.

Carlos Cabrera of CRACYP squeezed in some time with me to tell me about Fair Trade alcohol when we met at this quiet cafe in Quito
Carlos Cabrera of CRACYP squeezed in some time with me to tell me about Fair Trade alcohol when we met at this quiet cafe in Quito