All’s Fair

A controversy splits the fair trade movement


On one side of the road there were rows of bush-like trees for as far as the eye could see. Workers strapped with backpack canisters were spraying a white chemical fog that quickly dissipated in the midmorning sunlight. On the other side of the road, a tangled 50-acre patch of forest shaded a mix of fruit and coffee trees, scattered seemingly at random in the sun-mottled understory.

The chemical-intensive monoculture plantation grows cheap coffee for the international market; the other farm, an improbable island of biodiversity less than a dozen miles from San Jose, Costa Rica, produces higher quality and more expensive beans, but has a lower yield per acre.

photo of a man picking coffee cherriesphoto Counter Culture CoffeePreviously only small farmers and cooperatives could win the fair trade seal.
Now plantations can be called fair trade, too.

Raul Menendez pointed with pride to a flock of parrots chattering high in the canopy of the second plot. Those birds were the reason that he could make a go of it, he told me. He sells his beans to Bird Friendly Coffee, a program run by the Smithsonian Institute. Like other fair trade certifiers, the Smithsonian puts its label only on products that are grown in an environmentally sustainable way by workers who are paid a living wage.

Fair trade programs for coffee, cocoa, and other products have proved a boon for many small farmers like Menendez. By insuring high prices and ready markets for their crops, fair trade has helped insulate thousands from the market forces that have driven farmers off their land. Certifiers also offer low-interest loans and training programs to farmers and farmer cooperatives. Perhaps most important, fair trade involves buying from farmers directly, eliminating the extortionary middlemen.

But there is a growing rift in the fair trade movement that some believe threatens the gains made over the last three decades. Fair trade has never been one unified program, but instead is made up of a loosely knit collection of different certifiers. Now there is fear that a change in direction by the largest fair trade player in North America may imperil the small landholders that fair trade was created to help. This group, formerly TransFairUSA, recently changed its name to FairTradeUSA, a move that infuriated critics who see it as a ploy to claim ownership of an idea that was built up by the hard work of thousands. But what most worries fair trade veterans is the organization’s plan to certify coffee that comes from plantations. In the past, only coffee grown by small landholders – not coffee cultivated by plantation workers – could earn the fair trade label.

Santiago Paz of the Peruvian coffee cooperative, CEPICAFE, compares the change to “Driving a car going 70 miles an hour and they have put their foot on the gas pedal. Now it’s going 90, 100, 120 miles per hour and suddenly the small farmer in the passenger seat is flying out the window.” As Paz told a fair trade website: “They are so concerned with growing the system, advancing at all costs, that they will only end with the extinction of small farmers.”

What worries Paz and some others is that the plantations already enjoy big advantages of volume and efficiency that make it hard for small farmers and co-ops to compete. Offering the fair trade label to plantation-grown coffee, he fears, may prove the nail in the coffin for many small growers.

Paul Rice, CEO of FairTradeUSA, disagrees that the change will undermine the integrity of the system. “Plantation workers have been left out of the fair trade system. Now we need to help lift them out of poverty, too,” he says. Rice began his career as an advisor to a coffee co-op in Nicaragua and he says that fair trade has to grow if it is to make an impact on poverty in the Global South. “Small is not beautiful. I’ll be damned if I am the guy who disadvantages co-ops.”

While Rice denies the charge that his group is watering down fair trade standards to boost sales, his critics remain wary. “The fair trade vision is to work with small-scale farms,” says Matt Earley of Just Coffee, a roaster based in Madison, WI who is working with growers to set up a new certification program. “We see one another not just as faceless producers and consumers, but as individuals joining to create a sustainable global economy and society.”

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