News Update

Fair Trade Suits Climate, Economy to a Tea

Posted December 2nd 2009

Article for Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Saturday, November 28, 2009

by Zack Gross

The “taking of tea” is steeped in tradition, a product of estates and small holders in Asia, East Africa and elsewhere, and a tasty and sometimes nutritious beverage of choice around the world. Unfortunately, the process of payment and environmental control, when tea is not produced through the fair trade system, leaves a lot to be desired. Basic farm commodity prices have been falling worldwide over the past generation and small holders are worst hit, creating abject poverty in the Global South, and insecurity and urban migration here at home.

Deepening environmental problems are also affecting Third World farmers, as climate change delivers drought, in particular to tea and coffee growing areas. Fair trade prices cover the producers’ minimum costs and give them enough to live on. Fair Trade also pays a premium (often about 10%) that allows for investment in the community. More and more small holders are forming fair trade cooperatives or community associations in order to take advantage of having this “extra” money to purchase drip irrigation and other low impact technologies, to reduce pest infestations without the use of harmful chemicals, or to plant shade trees to attract birds and lessen evaporation.

To deal with the environmental crisis, beverage companies and growers’ associations are researching best practices for lower levels of rainfall and higher temperatures. Research in the Americas and East Africa have shown, for instance, that growers are being forced uphill in altitude at a rate of three to four metres per year on average as temperatures rise. Along with decreasing rainfall, these changes are creating new problems with insects and plant disease. Potentially, the most vulnerable farmers’ incomes, in areas growing tea, coffee and other commodities that we enjoy, could fall by up to 90%. As these industries collapse, our access to these products will cease.

Thus, spokespeople for Third World growers are calling on the wealthy parts of our world to understand that intervention to support producers and alleviate climate change through funding and lifestyle change are in our best interests. The British government, in response to this, recently donated 12 million pounds Sterling to a Fair Trade Foundation fund to help double the number of fair trade producers in developing countries. The British International Development Minister said, “Fair trade products are already a big part of life in the UK, with new products appearing on the shelves every day. Our funding will help to improve this situation even further”.

In Tamil Nadu, south India, the Chamraj town tea estate is a long established business, once tied to British merchants and bankers, but now owned and run by Indians. It produces 50,000 kg of tea leaves, both green and black, every day and exports 85% of that to Germany, Japan and the United States. Currently, eight percent of their production and sales are fair trade certified, fifteen years after the creation of the fair trade system. The fair trade premium has helped Chamraj build a new school block with computers and laboratories, to purchase several school buses, and to double the number of children able to go to school. Chamraj also now has a doctor and modern medical equipment, and an allowance for workers to fix up their homes.

The story in much of south India is not so positive. Dozens of tea companies have gone under due to low prices. Workers have lost their jobs. Children have had to leave school and start working for very low wages. People haven’t got the money to move and start elsewhere, so they are trapped in poverty. Tea workers remain amongst the poorest labourers on earth and while fifteen million rely on the tea industry in countries like India, still only 10% of tea is sold fair trade certified. In Britain, support organizations have dedicated themselves to doubling fair trade sales in the short term, but help is needed at the government and international level.

To celebrate fifteen years of fair trade efforts in Britain this fall, activists were invited to hold a tea party at 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister’s Residence in London. Many charitable organizations, politicians, celebrities and food business executives dined on fair trade chocolate cakes, nuts, fresh and dried fruit and, of course, coffee and tea. They acknowledged that while the rich world often lives in greed and waste, the majority of the world’s producers, in developing countries, lives in poverty. Fair trade offers producers stable prices, opportunities to improve their lives and communities, a cleaner environment and an opportunity for dignified work, rather than slavery or idleness. That would suit most people to a tea.

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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)

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