This program was made possible with financial support of the Government of Manitoba,
and was undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada (GAC)
Posted February 23rd 2009
It has become pretty mainstream these days to see fair trade products on grocery store shelves – coffee, tea and chocolate being the most prevalent. Here in Manitoba, lesser known fair trade products, such as sugar, rice, dried fruit, spices and hot chocolate are available in more specialized shops such as Ten Thousand Villages or the Marquis Project’s “Worldly Goods”. A new product on the horizon is fair trade nuts, mostly at this point cashews.
Liberation Nuts, based in Albuquerque, NM, says that they are “helping people trade their way out of poverty and change an unfair trading system, one nut at a time!” This company works with smallholder producer co-operatives in Asia, Africa and Latin America that represent over 22,000 shareholder growers in their operation. The growers earn a better return, while we get a high quality, nutritious snack.
The Liberation Nuts website explains that in the traditional supply chain, the grower sells to the middleman, who sells to the exporter, and then on to the importer, the wholesaler and, finally, to the retailer. In fair trade, the co-operative takes the place of both the middleman and the exporter. Indeed, in Liberation’s case and increasingly with other fair trade concerns, such as Level Ground which supplies Ten Thousand Villages and others, the roles of importer and wholesaler are combined, shortening the supply chain even more.
Along with fetching a fair return, cashews properly managed can also contribute to environmental sustainability. Pruning of trees in cashew orchards can supply large amounts of firewood to local farmers, reducing the impact of cutting large, old-growth forestry. Cashews also grow in harsher tropical climates and in less fertile soils, and stands of trees are often used as windbreaks and shade canopies. Finally, cashew orchards serve as habitat for birds and small animals, encouraging them to thrive at a time in our world when biodiversity is threatened and many species are endangered. Cashews fight malnutrition locally and through export as they contain more Vitamin C than oranges do.
Another company, Just Cashews, operates fair trade agricultural initiatives in Central America and Asia. In Honduras, one of the Western Hemisphere’s poorest countries, 40% of children suffer from moderate to severe malnutrition. Particularly since Hurricane Mitch struck that country ten years ago, Honduras has struggled with few available jobs, extensive environmental damage, and agriculture that cannot meet the subsistence needs of its population.
When cashews were first planted in the 1970’s, the new crop was a boon environmentally, but the conventional trade relationships in the industry led to exploitation. Local middlemen waited until the cashew growers were at their lowest point economically and then offered them the lowest possible price. In the early 80’s, an association of rural development initiatives was created that helped establish cashew co-operatives to protect growers. These groups are now seeking certified fair trade status, and have moved to growing only organic trees to avoid the health problems associated with pesticide use. Adding value to their product, many co-ops also roast cashews in brick or adobe ovens, or dry them in solar driers, and package them as well.
In Indonesia, Just Cashews has worked to establish networks of fair trade cashew farmers in the villages surrounding the Lambusango Forest, to improve the economic situation of the region and to maintain its ecological diversity. By making cashew farming more profitable, hunting and harvesting of endangered species in the forest has been slowed. Cashew trees actually grow wild in many areas and all farmers have access to harvesting them, while also earning a living from the production of dried fruits, ginger and fabrics. The Indonesian group is also seeking fair trade certified status and plans to export to Europe and North America.
Just this past September in Tanzania, the African Cashew Alliance held its annual meeting with 140 participants from around the continent. International players came from grocery store chains, food processing companies and large funding bodies to discuss with African growers issues ranging from cultivation to financing. The industry is optimistic about its future as cashews have become the most popular nut worldwide even though there has yet been little research into, or promotion of, its health benefits. Sales are increasing currently by 7% yearly, with 40% of cashews globally being grown in Africa. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced that it has decided to invest heavily in the African cashew industry to alleviate poverty and malnutrition.
The challenges now, says the ACA, are to organize the sector to maximize earnings, to get involved in the value added side of the business, rather than sending raw product to other countries (Brazil, India) for processing and packaging, to develop appropriate technology to increase production and processing, and to better promote cashews as a health food. The key, of course, is to create a profitable industry that supports the growers and their families first – to offer a fair trade premium to their communities.
While it’s no longer considered that you have to be nuts to support fair trade, it’s great to see that fair trade will now be a source of support to nut growers. One hopes that fair trade will bring needed cash to those who produce cashews, allowing their economies to come out of their shells, and bringing immense benefit to their families and environment.