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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Fair Trade

Air Date: Week of

Bob Carty reports from southern Mexico on a coffee cooperative that conducts "fair trade" exchanges with European bean buyers. Proponents call "fair trade" an economically and environmentally sustainable way of doing business in the developing world.

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CURWOOD: Most advocates of fast tack share a common notion of the unfettered movement of goods and services across borders: free trade is their motto. But there is an alternative. It's called fair trade, and, simply put, it's a way for rich and poor countries to relate to each other, not on the basis of supply and demand alone, but with consideration of economic justice and environmental sustainability, as well. Living on Earth contributor Bob Carty found a working model of fair trade in the coffee producing mountains of southern Mexico.


VANDERHOFF: We are in the southern part of Mexico, in the isthmus of Tehuantepec, over a dirt road, because it's the only one which exists here.

CARTY: Francisco Vanderhoff steers his truck up a cliffhanger of the road. The Pacific Ocean is behind us. The mountains of the state of Oaxaca ahead. Vanderhoff is a Catholic priest originally from Holland. His missionary work brought him to Mexico, and he's long been a Mexican citizen. For two decades he's been working with Indian peasants in these remote mountains.

VANDERHOFF: All the tropical wood, sixty years ago, got cut by an Italian company, which never reforested, and now it is a completely dry area. We are heading up into the mountains. There we have a rather wet climate, and there are the coffee fields, on the altitude of 700 to 1200 meters.

CARTY: It may be wetter up in the coffee fields, but that doesn't make life easier. The problem is the price of coffee. Consumers in Europe and North America may be paying $6 to $10 a pound for coffee, but peasants here get only 35 cents. And without coffee there is no livelihood, and people are leaving.

VANDERHOFF: Some tried to move across the border, legal or illegal. In one village, for example, at Cecila, 60 percent has left, but also in the same village, the first coffins came back, which were found dead in the Sonoran Desert. They tried to escape and they got lost and died.

CARTY: But not everyone is leaving. Despite the lowest coffee prices in decades, some villagers have found a way to survive the downturn in the coffee market, a way to deal with globalization on different terms.


VANDERHOFF: Like you see, this one will flower within a couple of days. This is the way we grow coffee here in Oaxaca, always under shade tree. This one is under banana trees, and because of the shade trees, the birds are happy to be there. And mulching, we use organic compost.

CARTY: Any chemicals?

VANDERHOFF: We don't use any chemicals. And we discovered that the yield during proper organic agriculture, your yield, in five, six years, doubles. At this moment, we are higher than the average yield of Mexico.

CARTY: But it wasn't always this way. When Vanderhoff came here, twenty years ago, farmers had to sell their coffee to middlemen, who often paid less than it cost to produce it. People lived with debt, misery, and malnutrition. And that's why they set up the Union of Indigenous Cooperatives, or UCIRI.


VOICEOVER: The principle objective of UCIRI was improving the life of the campesinos in the mountains.

CARTY: Isaias Martinez is a Zapotec Indian and one of the founders of the USIRI coop.


VOICEOVER: We know that coffee has ups and downs in prices, usually downs. The middlemen bought at low prices, and life was very heavy, very hard. What we wanted was that more of the income from coffee stays in the communities, with the small producers.

CARTY: This kind of tactic, getting rid of the middleman, is common in cooperatives everywhere. But this coop in Oaxaca, UCIRI, took cooperativism a few steps further. It started with a bit of good luck. Farmers here were too poor to afford pesticides. They were organic by default. And, with organic certification, they were able to ride the boom in organic food sales in Europe.


VANDERHOFF: Here is the main warehouse of all organic coffee. What you hear now, the noise, are the computerized selection machines, and they select, bean by bean, which has to be proper for export quality and which doesn't.

CARTY: You're computerized.

VANDERHOFF: We are completely computerized.

CARTY: The best beans are put in specially labeled sacks, for sale under what are called fair trade agreements. Francisco Vanderhoff explains that his buyers pay more than the market rate because this coffee is organic and shade grown. But they also pay an additional premium because the money really goes back to the peasant farmers, not to multi-national coffee companies, not to Mexican middlemen. So, while current world prices are hovering around 60 cents a pound, the UCIRI coop, through fair trade deals, gets a guaranteed one dollar and forty-one cents.


VANDERHOFF: Here we enter our office space of UCIRI. Here we have the computer, linked, internet, etc., to see what the stock market, the commodity market in New York is doing.

CARTY: So you're checking the markets in New York from here, in the isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico.

VANDERHOFF: Yes, we do. We are in touch with the entire global economy. In the meantime, we don't obey the rules. We don't believe in the free market. They don't ask the consumer what kind of price you want to pay, unless they ask the producers what kind of price you need. But, with our clients, we make a different deal, and they are yelling to get our coffee.

CARTY: You can't sell enough.

VANDERHOFF: We can sell the double, if we could have it.

CARTY: The UCIRI coop now organizes 52 mountain villages, with a population of 80,000 people. Its annual sales of organic coffee are worth almost six million dollars. Now, what does this mean for the local Mexican peasant farmer? It means that annual incomes have doubled since the mid-eighties. Just as important, that income remains stable in bad times, like these times. And, because the coop has capital and credit, it has built other services for its communities: a hospital, a dental service, a school that teaches organic agriculture, a series of coop stores, a bus company. And it's all been done without foreign aid.

To diversify from coffee, the coop has just opened a jam factory to use the fruit from the banana and mango and guayaba trees that shade the coffee up in the mountains. And down below, in the lowlands, they set up a textile plant.


CARTY: A hundred young Indian men and women sit behind sewing machines, working on pants for the European market. They are made out of organic cotton, from a coop in Peru. The factory is clean and bright, and it's owned by the workers themselves. For Isaias Martinez, the most important thing is that the young men and women of his villages do not have to leave the land and their way of life.


VOICEOVER: Globalization means we all have to be the same. People limit themselves to wanting money, to having jeans with a good trademark. That's the most fatal thing. It destroys cultures. We think that, to the degree we are creating work, work in the jam factory or the clothes factory, people don't leave the communities. It's true we are part of globalization and we have to live with it, but we have to think of new ways not to fall into the trap of the system.

CARTY: Up in the mountains of Southern Oaxaca, Francisco Vanderhoff knows that these cooperative projects--the textile plant, the jam factory, the organic coffee trees--are but a tiny anomaly in the bigger market driven system. But Vanderhoff believes there are lessons from the fair trade experience, lessons for the global economy.

VANDERHOFF: Until now it is a tiny thorn in the side of the system, but we are not on our own; it's not only UCIRI. We are rewriting the rules; bit by bit we are building an alternative system in between small producers, which we get into the market under different conditions. I think you can make the battle with the big enemy, knowing that you have to use their technology and you turn it around for your own benefit. And, already we can say, "there are alternatives."

CARTY: In the mountains of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, I'm Bob Carty, for Living on Earth.



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