Producer Profile

An Alternative Perspective on the Benefits of Certified Fair Trade

This photo was taken at an event held to educate coffee producers on growing techniques and ways to lessen the impact of ROYA, a coffee fungas currently descimating coffee crops throughout Central America. These are members of the cooperative COMSA sharing their organic strategies to combat this disease. Farmers helping farmers.

Often we are asked by consumers about the direct benefit producers experience from certified fair trade. At times, we can point to a higher price paid for the coffee, though not always. The market is volatile and coyotes working on behalf of large corporations can in times of tight markets offer an immediate higher price. Other times, we can point to tangibles procured through the social premiums incurred in certified fair trade sales: roads for the transport of coffee and goods, schools, clean water, health clinics, micro-finance opportunities, amongst many other things that communities decide are important for them.

Less tangible and less talked about are the long-term benefits that are inherent to small scale producers participating in the certified fair trade system, namely those that come from collective organization. Seeing this benefit, hard-won as it is, in action, is what consistently reminds me of how much we have to learn from our producer partners in fair trade.

As small scale farmers, they must learn to organize and work together. If you are producing 10 quintales of coffee, then you have to work with others in order to put together a container of coffee. You have to create a system of democratic organization with elected representatives who make decisions on behalf of their communities. These are folks who, through necessity, have learned how to work together and harness their collective strength; together we do indeed rise! It is this ability to work collectively, not without strife, problems and controversy that ultimately, makes strong communities and nurtures leadership. It is not just about the coffee.

Organized for fair trade purposes, their collective action starts paying off locally. Politicians start paying attention. Producers find their voices, and grow in confidence. Pedro Haslam, founding director of CECOCAFEN in Nicaragua and now Minister for Community, Cooperatives and the Associative Community sums it up nicely when he says, “Together people can fight for things in their daily lives”.

Unlike direct trade, which benefits a single farmer, fair trade can initiate and strengthen community building, cultivating and using the collective strengths, talents and knowledge of their members. To me this is pretty seismic stuff and it is what keeps me optimistic in the presence of on-going change and definition in the fair trade world.

Linda Burnside is a roaster/owner of Coffeehouse and Roastery, Alternative Grounds based in Toronto, ON, which is also a member of Cooperative Coffees.

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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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