Fair Trade Institute: Largest Online Library of Fair Trade Publications

August 18, 2008

Posted by Chris O’Brien.

Speaking as a researcher and writer, it is a great joy to find a resource as helpful as the Fair Trade Institute library of publications on fair trade. The count as of today was 268 entries. Each and every one is a book, article or another type of publication that addresses issues directly related to fair trade.

Each entry includes a brief summary of the publication, making it a veritable gold mine for researchers like me trying to save time and find the reference materials most salient to my topic. Major shout outs to the folks at the Fair Trade Institute and the Fair Trade Resource Network for collaborating and putting this site together.


Starbucks: Fair Trade or “Tradewash”?

August 1, 2008

Posted by Chris O’Brien

The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) is telling consumers to turn up the heat on Starbucks and pressure them to take Fair Trade more seriously.

According to OCA, many customers mistakenly assume that all Starbucks coffee is fair traded, but in fact just 6% of the company’s coffee is certified Fair Trade.

OCA is asks consumer activists to take these steps:

1) Sign OCA’s 2008 petition to Starbucks demanding that all espresso drinks be both 100% certified Organic and Fair Trade.

2) Make a free call to Starbucks’ Customer Service line and let them know how you feel. (800) 235-2883. Click here for a sample script.

3) Sound off on My Starbucks Idea, Starbucks’ public forum. We have an idea for you Starbucks, its called Fair Trade!

4) Find a non-corporate café near you using the Delocator.

Is the “all Fair Trade espresso” demand impractical or too idealistic? Not really. Dunkin’ Donuts, the world’s largest coffee and baked goods retailer, already does just that. Even McDonald’s sells all Fair Trade coffee in their New England stores and in the U.K.

So what’s up Starbucks? Why not empower farmers by supporting a minimum price per pound and buying from democratic cooperatives?

World Coffee Market – the Impact of Speculation

July 16, 2008
Understanding the intricacies of the world coffee market is no easy task. Throughout history, coffee farming families have been at the mercy of the world market prices, largely dictated by climatic issues, supply and demand and the ever-hungry profiteers who have long negotiated for prices that fatten their wallets. To understand how the conventional world market work, check out this piece from coffeeresearch.org.
      This year, the world coffee market saw more volatility than in years past due to increased speculation by  a new wave of traders. According to a recent article by Sam Kornell called ‘Commodity Speculation: Gambling with the futures of farming families’ in CoffeeTalk magazine,”Commodity speculation (including coffee) in the United States changed fundamentally . . due to a rather obscure piece of legislation written by Republican Senator Phil Gramm that substantially relaxed, and in many cases eliminated completey, federal regulation of futures trading in American commodity markets. Gramm essentially managed to turn American commodities markets into a kind of  financial Wild West”.
     From 1936 to 2000, the year when Gramm slipped the controversial legislation through by attaching it to a 11,000 page omnibus Senate appropriation bill, speculation in the commodities (sugar, cocoa, coffee) markets was limited to experienced investment firms whose trading practices were regulated by Congress. After 2000 world commodity markets were opened to the whims of day-traders and less experienced and unregulated investors.
     Couple this with last year’s purchase of the New York Board of Trade (NYBOT which housed the arabica coffee trading system in addition to cotton, sugar and other commodities) by the Intercontinental Commodities Exchange (ICE), a British electronic energy marketplace. Sam Kornell writes, “The sale of NYBOT to the ICE made it even easier for non-commercial investors to get in – in a big way – on the commodities futures action. For one thing, the ICE and other electronic markets are harder to regulate, and they make investment in commodities contracts relatively easy”.
     Add to this falling stock market prices and the devaluation of the US dollar and the result is a very tenuous situation for coffee farmers and buyers. While market prices have escalated tremendously – a good thing for farmers – the uncertainty of the future weighs heavily on the mind of our partners in the field. They’ve watched the cycles come and go and they worry that, while their cost of goods continue to sky-rocket, the market will once again bottom out as it does time and time again.
To read the full article Commodity Speculation: Gambling with the Futures of Farming Families by Sam Kornell in Coffee Talk click here: http://www.coffeetalk.com/images/CTJun08web.pdf

The next installment of this newsletter will include a piece about how Higher Grounds Trading (in conjunction with our importing co-op, Cooperative Coffees, is bucking the conventional trading system). We trade directly with our partner farmers, negotiating prices far above fair trade minimums via transparent and friendly conversations with our producer partners.  Suspenseful, I know . . .




USFT Campaigns for Fair Trade at University of Houston

June 18, 2008

Posted by Chris O’Brien

My brother, Tim O’Brien, is at it again on campus at the University of Houston. He’s been waging a campaign to get the school to convert to fair trade ever since he started a chapter of United Students for Fair Trade there about two years ago.

USFT Universoty of Houston protest

Tim first tried the conventional channels – he got himself elected to the student government where he succeeded in passing a resolution calling for fair trade coffee on campus. Then he worked through the administration and the dining services company, Aramark, and managed to get some commitments and a minimum level of fair trade offerings made available on campus.

But these nominal successes were not enough – why accept a few token sides of chips and dip instead of going for the whole enchilada? So in recent months he’s taken the campaign to the next level by conducting attention-getting direct action events like the one he pulled off yesterday. He rallied a crew of about 20 students and delivered a giant papier mache coffee bean to University Chancellor Renu Khator’s office. Khator was out of the office but the police were called in anyway to hustle those pesky students away – and their giant coffee bean too!

Read the whole story in today’s Houston Chronicle.

The Grassroots take on NAFTA

June 17, 2008

By Chris Treter

We’re 14 years into NAFTA and many throughout the U.S. don’t know what the North American Free TradeManifestation at the Other Campaign in Chiapas, Mexico Agreement (NAFTA) is or have forgotten its’ significance. That isn’t true south of the border where the gap between the rich and poor continue to grow at an alarming rate.

Meanwhile, 2008 sees the governments of Canada, the United States, and Mexico working on the Security and Prosperity Partnership. However, from the looks of the advisory board which include the CEO of Walmart and 28 big businesses, security and prosperity for all in North American seem to be far from its objectives.

In multiple visits to Mexico in the past decade we’ve
been witnesses to the lasting negative impacts of neoliberal economic policies manifested within NAFTA. From increased migration in southern corn and coffee growing communities to diminishing mom and pop shops being replaced with big box stores, cultural assimilation is on the move and the grassroots are fighting back. Check out “Reclaiming Corn and Culture” in YES! Magazine by Wendy Call to learn more about the role coffee cooperative are playing to support community sustainability.

Revolutionary Agrarian Law Struggles on in Bolon Ajaw

March 18, 2008

Posted by Chris Treter

As you sip your morning cup of coffee, there are many throughout the world that are living a daily struggle of survival. However cliché as it may sound, it is true. Many of the world’s coffee farmers have no formal support network except for their family and neighbors. They pick bean by bean from the tree and travel miles away to the nearest market, selling to the highest bidder. Called a coyote, the individual then sells to a larger coyote – he who has a warehouse. The big coyote sells to a processor – one who can process the coffee for exportation. They then sell it to an exporter who sells it to an importer who sells it to a roaster. Those beans are roasted up and then find their way to your cup at your local gas station or diner. Since so many players get a piece of the coffee dollar, very little ends up in the hands of the farmer. The bit they do earn then goes to purchase staple products for the family – shoes, clothes, maybe a flashlight to light their way in a village without electricity.

Such is the life for the chttps://i1.wp.com/www.traveljournals.net/maps/311/3117839-agua-azul-mexico-map.jpgommunity of Bolon Ajaw where many in the community hike hours to tend to their coffee fields. Theirs’ is a remarkable story of perseverance in the face of persecution. On the 12 of March, 2003, 47 Zapatista families established the community of Bolon Ajaw on the banks of Rio Azul in Northern Chiapas, Mexico. The establishment of the community was part of the EZLN’s, Revolutionary Agrarian Law which states that,

“The poor campesinos’ movement in Mexico demands the return of the land to those who work it and, in the tradition of Emiliano Zapata and in opposition to the reforms to Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution, the EZLN again takes up the just struggle of rural Mexico for land and freedom.”

Through this Zapatista Law, thousands of acres of land have been redistributed to the landless and poorest of the campesinos in Southern Mexico. Having righted a bit of the mal distribution of tierra, most of the landowners have been compensated for their land. The Revolutionary Agrarian Law is a direct response to the elimination of Article 27 by Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gotari. At the demand of the U.S. government, Salinas eliminated the provision in the early 90’s in preparation for NAFTA. Article 27 stated that ejidos (communally held land) cannot be privatized and sold. By allowing for the privatization of communally held land, the elimination of Article 27 has paved the way for the sale of valuable land and its resources to the highest bidder – often times transnational corporation looking to take the resource and turn a profit.

This was a kick in the teeth to the poor campesino and indigenous communities throughout the country. The ejido system was a hard fought //web.ku.edu/~mexind/source%20data/procede_pic_guelatao.JPG” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
victory resulting from the 1910 revolution when revolutionaries like Emiliano Zapata fought and died for the poor of Mexico. For this reason, among others, thousands of Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Chol, and Tolajobal Mayan people rose up against the Mexican Government on Jan. 1st, 1994, the day NAFTA was implemented throughout North America. Evoking the memory of Emiliano Zapata, they called themselves the Zapatistas and ushered in an international movement against neoliberalism and in defense of humanity.

Along with the implementation of NAFTA, the Mexican government has further worked to deteriorate the ejido system by forming programs and supporting organizations which work to dismantle the very threads of communal living. PROCEDE (Program for Certification of Rights toEjido Lands) has three objectives: a) surveying and certifying parcels of land, b) certifying rights to common use lands, and c) titling urban plots for individuals. According to many analysts and thousands of indigenous communities, the program which offers incentives to gain private ownership to communally held land is a form of neoliberal economic policy that leads to migration, deterioration of community and pulls the indigenous population away from the natural resources of which they have protected and held sacred for centuries.

In order to ensure compliance with PROCEDE, paramilitary groups masked as “indigenous organizations” have reemerged. Bolon Ajaw is one of many Zapatista communities aggressively attacked by The Organization for the Defense of Indigenous Rights (OPDDIC), a right wing organization considered by many Human Rights Organizations and indigenous communities as a paramilitary organization. In the past two years they have become an increasing force throughout the Selva Lacandona and the Northern Zone of Chiapas. Under the pretext of “disputing lands” recovered under the Revolutionary Agrarian Law, the group aims to force indigenous communities off of recovered collectively owned lands and try to gain private ownership.

Occupation and Conservation

The Revolutionary Agrarian Law not only calls for the occupation of land but also aims to conserve it. “Zones of virgin jungle and forest will be preserved. There will be reforestation campaigns in the principal zones.” Bolon Ajaw is a prime example of the Zapatista attempts to conserve and cherish the abundance of natural resource.

The community is prime real estate. Nestled between a steep hillside and the banks of the Rio Azul, it is home to three of the most beautiful waterfalls in the state. Members of Ejido Agua Azul, a nearby tourist destination have joined OPPDIC and demand that the habitants of Bolon Ajaw pack up their bags and move elsewhere. “There are major plans for tourism in these parts,” Juan, a resident and Zapatista supporter in Bolon Ajaw who asks that his identity be kept secret tells us. “We want to work the land and be left peacefully alone.”

A hike to the waterWaterfall Bolon Ajawfalls with the children of the community quickly confirms how valuable this land is. The journey is filled with sights, smells, and tastes beyond one’s North American experience. Cacao trees, a part of the culinary heritage of the Mayan people, fill the shaded canopy of diverse native trees. Deep, dark soil softens each step as the smell of clean fresh water fills your nostrils as water splashes high into the air from the white water of the river below. Appetites are satisfied as our young host, Maria, a thirteen year old Zapatista girl dressed in a traditional bright colored huipil hands us fresh corn and beans straight out of the field we hike through.

Even as an eventual confrontation with the paramilitary and government loom. Daily life in the community continues unabated. Morning finds the women waking early to get the fire going in their dirt floored kitchen while they quickly prepare masa to make tortillas. After an older man blows into a conch shell to signal the beginning of the collective work day, men arrive to a pile of wood near the church. By days ends it will transform into a school. Meanwhile children play with our group in the river, enjoying the fast moving cool water on a hot sun drenched day.

On numerous occasions the members of Ejido Agua Azul have entered the community and shot their rifles, threatened and violently attacked members of Bolon Ajaw. Typical fashion includes entering the community and shooting into the air while verbally threatening the villagers. More egregious acts very recently include:

11th of September, 2007 – 50 members of OPPDIC entered Bolon Ajaw and brutally beat 3 members of the community

24th of November, 2007 – 80 members of OPPDIC entered Bolon Ajaw and brutally beat a sick man until he lost conciousness. They then went on to harass and beat an 8 year old child, pulling his fingers until he screamed.

2nd of January 2008 – After hearing shots in the milpa, villagers found a shirt strung from two trees with machete tears through it. A clear indication of what may happen if the community doesn’t pack their bags.

Four days after we left Bolon Ajaw and a day after a deadline to leave the community or face eviction, the paramilitary and state police again entered on February 21st, 2008. They shot guns and beat two women with their pistols. This time though, the community gathered on the outskirts of the village. With sticks in hand, they demanded the police retreat. An armed “reporter” was with the police and was detained and dearmed by the Zapatistas. In a February 24th La Jornada article, journalist Herman Bellinghausen reported that the “reporter” in question was actually an agent from the National Security Investigation Center (CISEN), Mexico’s top intelligence agency.

When asked why OPDDIC continues to harass them, residents of Bolon Ajaw told Gloria Munoz of La Jornada, “ So that we have fear. That is why they harass us. They say that they are going to kidnap us, they are going to cut our necks and cut us up into little pieces….We want to resolve the problem peacefully. We are not looking for a confrontation. We only want to work the land and be left alone. We are not going to leave,. They’ve already done all this and here we still are. And here we will die.”

Elsewhere, the Zapatistas, NGOs, international supporters and Human Rights Organizations are gearing up for a long struggle. February 15th saw people in nearly a dozen countries manifest their support for the Zapatista communities under threat. The Center of Political Analysis and Social and Economic Investigations (CAPISE) and Peace and Justice Service in Latin America (SERPAJ) are launching a legal case against the members of the Tzeltal Indigenous Ecotourism of the Agua Azul Waterfalls. On December 30th, CAPISE and SERPAJ organized an Observational Land and Territory Brigade (BOTT) to Bolon Ajaw. When leaving, they were briefly detained and threatened by members of OPPDIC from Ejido Agua Azul. Luckily they caught some of it on video tape. Today, NGO’s throughout Mexico are encouraging tourists to boycott the water falls of Agua Azul, sending a clear message to Ejido Agua Azul that the world cares what happens along the banks of their river.

The Wall Street Journal’s Fair Trade Faux Pas

March 12, 2008

Posted by Chris O’Brien

Today the fair trade adventures of the Bean Activists hit the big time in a story covering fair trade coffee tours in the Wall Street Journal.

The article gets off to a bad start by making the most common mistake of sloppy journalists covering fair trade – interchanging the terms “free trade” and “fair trade.” These terms are prima facie contradictory in meaning. Free trade in this context refers to the conventional global coffee market that allows coffee to be traded as a commodity on the New York coffee exchange. Fair trade refers to a system of trade that embraces principles of social and economic justice. Please, journalists, get this right. Your job is to communicate clearly, not to confuse very basic facts. If I seem testy about this it is because fair trade is complex enough as it is without the media complicating it further by making easily avoidable mistakes.

I suspect the journalist in question may actually be sympathetic to fair trade, as is often the case with people covering this issue, but unfortunately the article only gets worse after the unforgivable “free trade” faux pas. In predictable WSJ form, the article treats fair trade coffee tours as little more than a low-cost marketing tool used for building customer loyalty and increasing business.

Even worse is that the article contends that small coffee roasters embrace fair trade merely as a way of carving out a business niche. While this is undoubtedly true for some roasters, it is most certainly not true for at least two of the companies referenced in the article: Higher Grounds and Just Coffee.

They see their devotion to fair trade as a way to set themselves apart from less socially conscious competitors. And these companies are using tours to coffee farms that use fair-trade practices as a way to reinforce that mission — and, ideally, forge a stronger connection with current and potential customers who also are committed to the cause.

Higher Grounds was started by Chris and Jody Treter as a way of addressing economic and political injustices in Chiapas, Mexico. Just Coffee has a similar commitment to justice and sustainability. They even say so in their company tagline: “Not just a market but a movement.” In other words, they are specifically not trying to differentiate themselves from other coffee companies but rather to align with those who hold similar convictions regarding fair trade.

Fondo PaezI know from first hand experience that Higher Grounds conducts tours as primarily an opportunity for educational outreach (that’s me in the cowboy hat at left, with L-to-R Mel from Peace Coffee, Chris and Jody, and Miguel from Fondo Paez).
Higher Grounds does conduct paid fair trade coffee tours to Chiapas. Do they cover their costs through participant fees? Sure. Does it ultimately lead to increased customer loyalty and hence improved sales? Probably. Is that why they do it? No.

In fact, the particular tour pictured above was actually not even a paid tour – we were all there at our own expense to learn about the indigenous farmer coop Fondo Paez. To be fair, the journalist may not have known that about this particular picture, but it does point up the fact that the Journal seems incapable of seeing human behavior through any thing but a capitalist lens.

The point of fair trade is that profit isn’t the only thing driving human behavior. Justice and sustainability are important in their own right – not just as marketing strategies that permit business growth. The Wall Street Journal article misses this point entirely.