How fair is fair trade?

Buying fair trade products is popular back home. People happily pay a premium on their coffee, bananas, chocolate, and a range of other products in the belief that a proportion of the money is going to pay workers a fairer wage.

A fairly recent newsletter from the Environment Network for Central America looked at some of the problems. Here’s a summary:

- The process of certification is often manipulated by multinational companies growing the crop. Certifiers are only taken to selected farms, and are only allowed to speak to selected farm workers. In reality therefore, many of the fair trade requirements are not met throughout a plantation.

- There has been criticism over the environmental standards of some fair trade products. Growing cash crops can be a very chemical heavy affair. Pollution from the plantations are a big threat to water courses, for example, and distance from water supplies is very important.

- Fair trade products are almost always produced for export, and therefore are required in large quantities. This is to the detriment of small producers who cannot grow enough, at the right price, for the international marketplace. Ironically, the popularity of fair trade seems to have outgrown the capacity of those growers that need the benefit the most. It is also a problem in terms of environmental resources. Large demand needs large supply base, and this means mono-cropping which is not always the sustainable option, environmentally speaking. In addition the process of certification can be long and beyond the financial capacity of small producers.

- There are concerns around the repression of trade unions, even in fair trade certified plantations. Being a member of a trade union can be a dangerous affair in Latin America. In Guatemala for example, just 4% of the workforce are organised in unions (the history of terror and repression during the 1980s repressed the movement). The solidarismo phenomenon is particularly concerning in Latin America. Supported by the church, this movement calls upon workers to settle disputes with their bosses without the involvement of unions. In effect this works to the detriment of workers who are easily manipulated by those with power, influence and education. Solidarismo denounces unions as the devil’s work.

- Fair trade is still better than conventionally produced products but the issue is complicated. Conventional plantations provide much needed jobs, and if demand for non-fair trade products drops these jobs will be lost.

It’s a confusing issue. The reality is that crops such as bananas – Britain’s favourite fruit, I think – are grown in conditions that hurt the land and the people. As the newsletter points out, even in Costa Rica – a country known as having a good human rights and environmental protection record, plus being a peaceful, beautiful tourist destination – the situation is pretty dire.

In Guatemala the history of the country is inextricably linked to the history of growing bananas. The United Fruit Company of the USA was a major force in shaping the course of the turbulent history of Guatemala. (More on that to come.)

I don’t know what the solution is – bananas are a staple part of our diet, and all Guatemaltecos for that matter. Raw, fried, mashed, liquified, and today, a new discovery – frozen bananas on a stick covered in chocolate:  the choco-banano!

I think Banana Link has some suggestions.

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