Question and Answer with Paul Rice, President and CEO of Fair Trade USA: Part I: Cooperatives and Estates
Fair trade has to be more inclusive.â
Your wait is over! Itâs finally here. The post I know youâve all been dying to read:Â President and CEO of Fair Trade USA, Paul Rice, shares the reasoning Fair Trade USAâs decision to leave Fairtrade International and their plans for âinnovation.âÂ So sip on a cup of freshly brewed, fair trade coffee, grab a bar of chocolate (fairly traded of course!) and prop up your feet because this interview is rich and juicy.
Question: âWhat was the biggest motivation in your decision to leave Fair Trade International?â
Paul: âLeaving FLOâ¦ (Laughing)...How much time you got?
Fair trade desperately needs innovation in order to expand impact. The historic fair trade model is not scalable in our view and we are not content just serving a few million farmers a year while billions of people around the world struggle with poverty. And itâs our belief that fair trade can be a relevant model for poverty alleviation on a grand and global scale. Out of that belief and analysis, that fair trade could make a bigger impact if it were simply innovated, we proposed an innovation agenda that FLO was not willing to support. It wasnât our first choice to leave FLO. It was our first choice to innovate, but when FLO decided they wouldnât come with us in that journey, separation from FLO became inevitable.â
Question: âWhy the push for plantation certification? Why not focus on certifying more cooperatives?â
Paul: âIâve been organizing cooperatives since 1983. I can tell you for a fact that this polarized, 2- dimensional framing --the small farmer in the co-op vs. the small farmer working on the estate-- is not the reality on the ground. We are talking about the same family. Itâs the same family.â
âThereâs an inevitable math at hand here. Most small farmers have 2 or 3 acres of land. If you have 2 acres of land and 4 kids, thereâs no way you can leave a land inheritance to all of them. Maybe 1 or 2â¦â
The story of Santiago and Armando:
âMy buddy Santiago Rivera is a classic, coffee farmer, a 4th generation farmer, owns 3 acres of land and lives on a mountain top in Nicaragua. He studied until the 2nd grade. He struggled to put food on the table his whole life.Â He joined a fair trade co-op in the â90s and started to make a little more money each year. His oldest son, Mercedes, who works on the farm will inherit the land.Â His oldest daughter, Rosario, married and moved away to her husbandâs farm. Santiagoâs youngest daughter, Yolanda- and this is a classic fair trade, success story--was pulled out of school at 6th grade because the family couldnât afford it.Â But shortly after her family became fair trade certified. The village set up a fair trade, scholarship program and Yolanda was the first person in entire village to finish high school. She went on to college and is now the co-director of a health center in the region.Â However, Armando, Santiagoâs youngest son, is 21 and is never good in school and didnât want to apply for the scholarship. He likes farming, but there is not enough land for his dad, his brother and him to farm. He works for $3 per day at a large coffee estate down the road. Heâs a farm worker. When I sat on their porch in December, we go back every yearâ¦.I stay very connected to these communities Iâve known since the 80sâ¦. I talked to Santiago. Armando was there and it hit me on the head like a ton of bricks. These great ideological debates we have in the States- when you peel it apart- what we are talking about is Santiago, a fair trade farmer and Armando, a farm worker on an estate. I didnât pose the question but you can imagine what Santiago would have said if I had asked himâ¦ âSantiago, does your son deserve fair trade too?âÂ Heâs not going to say no, donât let the plantations in. Heâs going to say âyes. I want my son to be paid a fair wage and to have good working conditions.â
âFor me, at the heart of it, if you look at it in human terms, the real communities we are talking about are the same people. The same families in co-ops and large estates. To draw an artificial line down the center of the community and say âall people on this side are eligible and if youâre on the other side of the line, youâre notâ¦.Itâs unethical and unprincipled.ââ
âReach more small farmers in next few years than FLO could ever hopeâ
âAre we abandoning small farmers: No! We are going to reach more small farmers in the next few years than FLO could ever hope to because we are going to open up the model to small farms who arenât in co-ops. We are piloting in Columbia, starting with 1000 farmers, hope to include 5000 in the project. We are going to engage that network of independent smallholders and give them a path to organization, using access to the fair trade market as part of incentive.
Itâs a pilot- I think it will work, I hope it will work. But if it doesnât work, we wonât continue it. The point is we are absolutely committed to small farmers, we are committed to small farmers being empowered and getting organized and we are also committed to farm workers on large farms.â
âI would argue that this is broader, more inclusive model is the only way fair trade can maintain its moral authority. If fair trade continues to stand on model of excluding the poorest of poor- excluding majority of people in a product categories in industry- itâs really on moral thin ice- this is where we found ourselves and this is why we felt so committed to innovating the model and, even when it led us to leave FLO. We feel very deeply and we arenât trying to convince everyone we are right. We are very committed to innovation for impact. We donât expect debate to go away. We celebrate the debate. We celebrate the fact that there are people who are concerned that co-ops might get hurt. Obviously, we arenât doing this lightly. We obviously agree that is a potential risk and we are managing for that. I can tell you suffice to say that the debate is part of our journey as a movement. Itâs necessary.â
Question: âHow, in practice, are you managing for the impact the certification of estates will have on cooperatives?â
Paul: âInnovating slowly and with care, we plan to implement 10 â 20 pilots over the Â Â Â Â Â Â next two years. We will assess results at both the farm level and the sector level, reporting on system-wide sales for both cooperatives and pilot farms to ensure new producers is not displacing the sales of current cooperatives. To further strengthen existing Fair Trade cooperatives, Fair Trade USA is developing innovative new partnerships to connect, create and transform the lives of farming communities worldwide â this is our Co-Op Link program. These partnerships enable targeted projects that help farmers improve quality, increase productivity, improve access to capital, and become stronger business partners.Â A few of our current partners include: Ansara Family Foundation,Â Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE), Atlas Coffee Importers, AVINA Foundation, Green Mountain Coffee, Kiva, Progreso, Rabobank, Rabobank Foundation, responsAbility, Root Capital, Scientific Certification Systems, Sustainable Harvest, VIVA Trust , W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the World Bank.â
âThe opponents of what we are doing are asserting that fair trade doesnât work on estates, that it only works for small holder cooperativesâ¦. I would really caution people to draw quick conclusions on that. The reality is thereâs been some research around the performance of fair trade on large estates in terms of lifting farm workers out of poverty, improving incomes and living standards, working conditions and also empowering them. Most of that research is very positive.Â Itâs not negative.â
âPeople say, âHave you seen the research that says fair trade doesnât work on large estates?â
âI say: Show them to me. Show them to me. Because what Iâve read and what I continue to read is actually very positive. It very much matches my own personal experience and part of what led us as an organization and me as a leader here to these crossroads was our experience on larger fair trade farms over the last 3, 4 5 years. We didnât just say, âOh what a great idea, letâs extend the farm worker model to coffee.â We actually spent a lot of time on the fair trade certified estates.â
âAnd my personal feeling and impression of my team from all these interactions is that fair trade works. It actually works. NotÂ to say that itâs perfect and that we canât improve on it. We want to improve on the farm worker model and we have very specific ideas of how to do that. But the bottom line is that itâs working. Itâs really amazing.â
To be continuedâ¦