Fairtrade at 20 – guest post – Harriet Lamb
Ali recently attended the Fairtrade Foundation’s 20th Anniversary celebrations (read more here) and is delighted to present a guest post by Harriet Lamb, CEO of Fairtrade International on 20 years of the FAIRTRADE Mark in the UK and on her newly updated book Fighting the Banana Wars and Other Fairtrade Battles.
“As I talked to small-scale gold miners in Tanzania who had worked their way down shafts dug into sheer mud, knowing if it rained they could be trapped underground, I knew that in all my years fighting unfair trade, I had never seen anything so shocking. I watched old women sitting in the furnace of the open sun, breaking rocks with hammers, hoping to find some gold dust and earn a paltry dollar a day. I saw men mixing the dust with mercury, to attract the gold, and then burning off the mercury in the open air, with kids crowding round, despite the lethal effects on people’s nervous system. It left me reeling. And angry. And reminded me yet again just how much more work we have to do in Fairtrade.
Oscar Wilde once said: ‘An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all’. Twenty years ago, Fairtrade burst onto Britain’s shop shelves with just such a dangerous idea: that farmers and workers in developing countries should be paid a fair price and that we, the companies and consumers in Britain should pay for the true value of our cocoa, coffee or bananas. We began with three products: Green & Black’s Maya Gold chocolate, Cafédirect coffee and Clipper Tea. Now there are thousands: from T-shirts to tea, ice-cream to face-cream, bringing benefits to over 1.4 million farmers and workers across 74 developing nations.
Fairtrade arose from the failings of free trade. When the International Coffee Agreement collapsed in 1989, prices fluctuated wildly, leaving farmers with prices so low it wasn’t worth picking the coffee berries. Coffee farmers in Mexico, facing starvation, reached out to a Dutch non-governmental organisation and from this sprang the Fairtrade Mark. Soon the idea was inspiring a whole grassroots social movement around Europe.
Now our childhood and teen years are behind us and new challenges lie ahead. At 20 we are full of ideas and there’s no shortage of work to be done. For example, just as coffee groups in Central America become strong and well organised, they are hit by climate change and the resulting disease, coffee rust, devastating their trees with harvests falling by 40%. We know how much more we need to do to reach women in co-operatives, tackle the problem of child labour and inspire the next generation to become farmers… and how much further we have to go to balance out trade when so much of the value is still captured in the rich Western nations.
We know that we want to grow the Fairtrade market in the producing countries including South Africa, Kenya, Brazil and India. We know we want to grow sales especially in sectors such as tea or cotton where low Fairtrade sales undermine our ability to leverage change. And we know we want to push the producer leadership of Fairtrade globally further still: Fairtrade International is half owned by the networks of producer organisations in Africa, Asia and Latin America, a source of great pride to all and unique among certification systems.
It is exciting to consider where Fairtrade should go next and all dangerous ideas are welcome! Sometimes the problems of putting justice into trade seem overwhelming but, when we consider how much progress there has been in 20 years, we can take heart.
In my recently updated book, Fighting the Banana Wars and other Fairtrade Battles, I describe how many years ago I visited banana plantations in Costa Rica where the most poisonous chemicals, already banned in the US, were still being sprayed on crops, leaving men sterile and causing devastating birth defects. One young woman described to me the terrible deformities her son had been born with. She was unable to cuddle him to ease his crying because it somehow made his pain worse.
This was the moment that I learnt in my soul of our responsibility to farmers and workers growing our food on the other side of the globe. We cannot let ‘cheap at any price’ rule the markets. And the public have shown just how keen they are to play their part in making trade fairer. Some of the worst excesses no longer take place, those chemicals are no longer sprayed on banana plantations, one in three bananas sold in the UK is now Fairtrade. Yet problems persist and in some cases worsen as supermarkets battle it out with ever lower prices. In fact, the Fairtrade Foundation’s ‘Stick with Foncho’ campaign earlier this year showed that over the past ten years the typical price of bananas in our shops has nearly halved while production costs for banana farmers have doubled.
We have to keep pushing for greater justice in trade: in food, cotton, and in mining where we have only just begun. Thanks to a grant from Comic Relief, we have started to work with the gold miners of Tanzania. We will not be able to overcome all of their problems overnight. But the miners working with us have put wood into the shafts, they have hard hats and boots, the women breaking rocks have protective glasses and wear rubber gloves when mixing mercury. These improvements are basic but they are a beginning. Now we have to grow the market for Fairtrade gold so that these miners get the income and investment they so badly need to drive change.
Our mission, with gold, bananas and much else besides, is to scale up to help millions more, to reform global trade rules and to deal headfirst with the challenge of this century: to make trade fair.”
With thanks to Harriet Lamb Fairtrade International.
Harriet’s newly updated book ‘Fighting the Banana Wars and other Fairtrade battles’ is published by Ebury.
Buy it here: www.eburypublishing.co.uk/editions/fighting-the-banana-wars-and-other-fairtrade-battles/9781846040849
Follow Harriet on twitter @harrietlambFT