Fair Trade vs. Rainforest Alliance

Friday, 17th April 2009 at 14:55 UTC 2 comments

There’s a silent shift going on in coffee trading at the moment, or so it would seem to someone like myself who simply can’t miss changes to labelling practice. For years, the “big deal” has been Fair Trade, tied perhaps to a concern that one’s coffee has not been touched by the “Big Bads”: Nestle and Starbucks.

True, this is an over-simplification, but its probably one most consumers will be familiar with. There were always the renegades like the Zapatista’ Cafe Rebelde, an excellent ground coffee from Chiapas, in South Eastern Mexico, which refused he Fair Trade Accreditation program because it dealt in quantities so small it would have massively increased the price, and which everyone knows is actually passing far more cash to the producer communities, which in turn, are far more “co-operative” than the typical fair trade qualifying group of farmers.

Then enter the new kid on the block for ethical cuppas. From vending machines on campus to supermarket shelves, there Rainforest Alliance certification is making a big splash. With much less in the way of logo-advertising (remember the FairTrade post campaigns, which sold the logo, but no actual product?), the upstart alternative is being advertised by some of the biggest players in the coffee market, Kenco the first coming to mind.

Lets start with its appeal: here, the brand name is something of a dead giveaway: if you buy this you protect the rainforest. Obviously its not totally straightforward, but there might be an argument that this is a return to classic “poor people can help themselves, but the rainforest needs us to protect it” argument, which, crass as it might be, dominated pre-Trade Justice ideas (along with the detestable “lifeboat theory”). OK, that’s a tad tenuous, but I think its worth drawing that thread out for historical records.

FairTrade, it should be noted, does not equal organic, and this is for very real reasons. In order to be “organic”, no ‘bad’ fertiliser must have been used on the land for 7 years. Issues around what exactly is a bad fertiliser aside, because these are way more complex than one might first think, expecting farmers who must survive year-to-year to get register before receiving premiums is a no-no.

To demand it would be a massive case of affluent blindness, as we impose a western demand on people ill equipped to afford it. Instead, Fair Trade includes a commitment to make a transition. Whilst I have no idea just how effective this has been, I know it has worked in some cases, with the rise in income used to begin what can be a costly and unrewarding process. Unthinkingly, some wish to pursue this, but a real producer-centric model must not put the cart before the horse. Yes, pesticides harm health, but sudden drops in output with no immediate corresponding rise in per-tonne income can be more immediately deadly.

Rain Forest Alliance rules might make a big deal of looking after the land, but they’re not doing it for the benefit of the workers, out of a bleary eyed “we don’t want them to have deformed babies” sentiment, more an easy route to the hearts of Western Consumers.

Moving on, we have the actual details of the “deal”; the reason this is important in the first place. The impression of happy workers in the rainforests growing harm-free coffee is mostly illusion. Yes, the RFA want to save rainforests, but are they concerned with ending production based on mass land holding in favour of farmer-controlled land and cooperative organising.

You see, coffee is generally produced under one of two sets of conditions: either local producers hold the land they themselves farm, with few extra-familial pairs of hands, and they must then take the coffee to market, which is where FairTrade buyers step in. The alternative, practiced in large part as a tail-end of the American slavery era, takes large scale plantations, where the land owner employs people for (low) wages to grow coffee for him to sell to his friends in the transnationals.

Think about which companies you see selling RFA stamped coffee. Are they the ones buying from local, small holder farmers who are joining equipment cooperatives and selling cooperatives where they have collective control, or are they the kind of companies that deal with the big land owners, who continue to undermine land sovereignty in the Global South?

When Starbucks says there isn’t enough FairTrade coffee available to quench its needs, many shake their heads and proclaim that this is silly. The injustice comes from much deeper down; so much of the world’s land is now owned by large-scale land holders, there isn’t enough suitable land to grow enough coffee to cover all of Starbucks needs. Under the FT rules, you can bring more small holders under the FairTrade logo, but only RFA will let you get away with passing off coffee from major holdings as ethical.

The solution, one might suppose, therefore involves breaking up the major land holdings and returning sovereignty to the indigenous individuals and communities from where it came, Sadly, this is unlikely to happen any time soon, but its a goal worth bearing in mind. In the meantime, it will be interesting to see if the FairTrade Authorities put up a fight. This hasn’t happened yet, and time might well be running out if they are to prevent a complete shift towards this weaker set of rules.


Entry filed under: Development, Economics, Ethics, FairTrade, Indigenous Rights, Poverty, Sustainability, Workers.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. brainduck  |  Friday, 17th April 2009 at 16:41 UTC

    Thanks, good post.

    The Soil Association organic rules are frustratingly illogical – and they are one of the more sensible accrediting bodies.

    Check up on copper sulphate, was banned for everyone *except* organic farmers for a while – toxic, environmentally horrible, accumulative… there’s safer and more effective alternatives available but the Soil Association decided to keep copper sulphate for purely ideological reasons.

    There’s also much wider issues – water use for a start, organic cotton is one of the most water-hungry crops there is, and non-organic cotton is seriously pesticide-intensive, a proper lifecycle analysis might even conclude you are best off just being honest about it and wearing petrochemicals directly.

    Public health – eating organic food has *no* proven health benefits, unlike affording to eat more fruit & veg.

    A blanket ‘Organic is always a good thing’ stance lacks granularity to the point of being nonsensical, and insisting on organic or even fair trade branding without looking at wider social issues makes me Grumped.

  • 2. Matthew  |  Tuesday, 21st April 2009 at 23:40 UTC

    Land ownership in Latin America is a massive issue and not just when it comes to coffee growing.

    The roots of the problem don’t go back to the era of US slavery so much as to the Spanish Conquest. Conquistadores were given massive haciendas in the vast lands they invaded as reward for helping out with the invading and pillaging business, with natives and poorer immigrants providing cheap, (sometimes forced) labour.

    The same thing can be seen in Andalucia in the South of Spain – nobles who helped reconquer Spain from the Moors were rewarded with massive estates in the South which they’ve still got today.

    The legacy of the latifundia system lives on. Land reform has been tried in various parts of Latin America in the 20th century, but it’s really rather difficult, especially when there isn’t all that much political will behind it.

    The one successful bit of land reform in Andalucia which I’m aware of, was the last duchess of Medina Sidonia (one of the largest landowners in Europe) voluntarily giving away lots of her own land for the simple reason that she was a socialist, republican, antifascist lesbian. Her children tried to sue her for giving away their inheritance.


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