Farmer Owned Fair Trade

Posted on October 8th, 2013 by Gavin | Posted in Newsletter Articles, Notes & News

By Small Farmers, For Small Farmers

SPP Symbol Starting next month, when you buy Equal Exchange’s fair trade, organic bulk coffee, you’ll see a colorful new symbol on the bulk coffee bins. It represents the first farmer-owned and run fair trade certification system. It guarantees the coffee comes from small farmers, not large plantations.

Ten years in the making, the SPP (Small Producer Symbol, SPP is its Spanish acronym) certification system represents small farmers’ persistent attempts to ensure a more just trade system for fellow farmers everywhere. The SPP logo initially will appear on Equal Exchange’s bulk coffee, and will become more prominent throughout stores as it appears on packaged coffee, and may eventually be on Equal Exchange’s other products including tea and chocolate.

The new symbol is a bold step forward for the people for whom the fair trade movement was built. It reflects how farmers now are taking a leadership role in shaping their own destiny. The potential impact this new system will have on small farmers, their co-operative organizations, and the entire fair trade movement is profound.

Roots of Conflict

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In the early 1980s, a division occurred in the fair trade movement. There were the early founders who recognized that small farmers and their co-ops were operating on an unfair playing field. This group wanted to create a system that could right the wrongs of hundreds of years of colonialism and unjust trade. But another group was more focused on maximizing the sales of fair trade certified products—period.

Once the certification system was underway, that second group succeeded in opening the system to some crops from large plantations. Plantations have one owner (versus a democratically run, small-farmer organization), and generally have more access to resources, so it’s usually faster and easier for them to move products from origin to market. This means plantations—with their greater access to loans, infrastructure, government support, market information, and technical assistance—almost always maintain the same historical advantages over small farmers that fair trade was designed to address.

Eventually, the international fair trade certifying system, Fairtrade Labeling Organization, allowed plantations to become a source for almost all fair trade products, with the exception of coffee, cacao and a few other categories. Since then small-farmer coffee and cacao organizations have been afraid that the fair trade system will one day grant plantations access to their categories as well. If this happens, many believe they will again become marginalized and lose the hard-won market gains that fair trade has made possible. After all, if it’s easier to source coffee and cacao from plantations and still label it “Fair Trade,” why wouldn’t corporations simply take this easier route?

It took 15 years of fair trade to substantially alter the global coffee industry and create meaningful access for co-ops. Unfortunately the option to label plantation grown tea and bananas as “Fair Trade” has stunted the growth of co-ops in these categories. Coffee farmers don’t want to suffer the same fate. (For more on how the prospects for small farmer-grown fair trade tea was inhibited by plantations, see An Analysis of Fair Trade: Reflections from a Founder (Part III)).

Farmers Take Control

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Small farmers, roasters, and other fair trade activists were outraged when the CEO of Transfair USA (now Fair Trade USA) lobbied in 2003 for a change in standards. He claimed large companies and corporations wanted access to plantation products and that there wasn’t enough small-farmer fair trade coffee on the market, which wasn’t true. Most farmer co-ops had far more coffee than they could sell to fair trade buyers. Eight years later, Fair Trade USA controversially left the international fair trade system that had given it birth and quickly announced its new strategy, “Fair Trade for All,” allowing plantations in every category, including coffee and cacao.

Small farmer organizations fed up with Fair Trade USA’s pro-plantation strategy took action. The SPP is their solution to keep fair trade focused on the needs of the small farmer. The SPP label represents an impressive certification system, with standards incorporating four dozen criteria for small farmer member organizations, including maximum individual farm size and a maximum percentage of farm work performed by hired farm workers. Most impressive, SPP is run and governed by the farmers themselves. After decades of the fair trade movement being managed from thousands of miles away, farmers are now in the driver’s seat.

Phyllis Robinson is Education and Campaigns Manager at Equal Exchange, a worker-owned co-op that sells Fair Trade coffee, tea, chocolate, bananas and a variety of other foods. www.EqualExchange.Coop