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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, November 1, 2007

Wake-up call for economic justice

What’s in a cup of coffee"

For many of us, stumbling to wakefulness in the morning, it’s a necessary jolt. For others of us, meeting with friends in a coffeehouse, it’s a stimulant to good talk and a backdrop to good times.

For Beltran Masias, coffee is a way of life. He was born in the coffee-growing community of San Fernando, Peru, and has been drinking coffee for as long as he can remember. A coffee grower, Masias drinks the rich beverage every day, from dawn till dusk, he told our reporter, Rachel Dutil. When he's harvesting his coffee beans, he brings a thermos with him to the fields.

Last week, Masias visited Indian Ladder Farms, which sells Fair Trade coffee, chocolate, tea, and bananas along with local foods. He told us how the Fair Trade cooperative in San Fernando has changed his life.

"We’re able to sell coffee at a higher price, and our children can go to school," Masias said. The cooperative has also enabled the growers to improve the quality of the coffee, he said.

"Coffee has existed for a long time, but not cooperatives," he said "The change was radical and excellent."

Before the cooperative formed, Masias said, the farmers were trading, but weren't really making any money. Now, the coffee farmers are the owners and members of the cooperative, making decisions through a democratic process.

The Fair Trade movement that has changed Masias’s life began in Europe in the wake of World War II. The movement for social change spread to North America as a means of linking ethical northern consumers with democratically organized groups of poor southern producers. The goal of the alliance, in the words of the Fairtrade Foundation, is to provide disadvantaged producers a chance to "increase their control over their own future, have a fair and just return for their work, continuity of income and decent working and living conditions through sustainable development."

Key principles of Fair Trade, besides payment of a fair price, include transparent management, safe and healthy working conditions, gender equality, and environmental protection.

With Fairtrade labeled goods, where selling can take place in mainstream markets rather than just at church fairs or specialized shops, sales over the past decade have soared. Last year, Fairtrade labeled sales totaled about 1.6 billion worldwide, a 41-percent year-to-year increase, according to Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International. While this is just one-hundredth of a percentage point of world trade, it can mean everything in individual lives.

To be included in Fairtrade labeling, producers must be small, family-based growers who are organized into politically democratic associations, and they must pursue ecological goals by conserving natural resources and limiting use of chemicals.

The Fair Trade Research Group, based at Colorado State University, conducted in-depth case studies of Latin American Fairtrade coffee producers and found that, without the middleman, producers were paid double the conventional market prices. This helped not only individual farmers and their families, as might be expected, but also provided additional benefits, including increases in lower cost credit, family and community stability, training, new business opportunities, increased self-esteem, more formal education, cultural revival, and environmental conservation.

"In a world where consumption is separated from production over increasingly greater space and time," says the Fair Trade Research Group, "modern consumers experience the processes shaping their lives with growing detachment. While most consumers express concern over a range of social, economic, environmental and other issues, many remain resigned to powerlessness in the face of the seemingly unbending and ‘natural’ progression of global economic forces"Fair Trade is one small avenue toward reclaiming a sense of engagement and empowerment in the modern world."

We should think about this the next time we go to buy a bag of coffee beans. We have the power to change lives with our purchases. And it doesn’t have to stop with coffee.

Lee Capuano writes us this week about the annual Work of Human Hands Sale. She is a member of the Peace and Justice Committee, which each year holds a sale of Fair Trade handicrafts at St. Lucy's Church in Altamont. This Saturday, you can buy jewelry and housewares, baskets and chocolate made by artisans from developing countries around the world. Fair Trade coffee will be on sale, too.

The sale is spawned by a partnership between Catholic Relief Services and A Greater Gift, a non-profit program of Sales Exchange for Refugee Rehabilitation and Vocation International. SERRV International was one of the first groups, in the 1940s, after the war, to develop Fair Trade supply chains in poor countries.

Capuano quotes Lal Maya Rai, an artisan from Nepal, whose life has improved since she joined A Greater Gift. She has learned to weave and says, "I have become independent and am able to earn my living. I can provide education for my children and fulfill their daily needs."

"In hosting and taking part in this type of sale," writes Capuano, "we put our faith in action and help to promote solidarity and economic justice."

Is that a grandiose claim for the small act of buying a handcraft" We don't think so.

The authors of the case studies refer to John Stuart Mill's argument that the power of democracy is not in its efficiency, but in the qualities and character it builds in the people it engages. "Similarly," writes the Fair Trade Research Group, "Fair Trade will realize its potential not in the rate of return it provides to impoverished farmers, but in its contribution to a more just and sustainable global system."

Fair Trade is a way to raise consciousness through example.

The research group argues that, since we live in a world where information is transmitted instantly by television and the Internet, a world where we travel the globe rapidly, we share a collective consciousness in which images and ideas can, for the first time, take on both an immediate and global character. Fair Trade can stimulate this collective global imagination.

"Therein lies the hope for a truly fair and sustainable global economy," says the research group.

We have the power to reach across the world every time we buy a cup of coffee. Let us be mindful of our actions and use our power wisely.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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