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Symposium spotlights fair practice


Tessie Borden
Republic Mexico City Bureau
Sept. 14, 2003 12:00 AM

CANCUN, Mexico - There were two trade meetings in Cancun this week. One featured diplomats and Cabinet ministers, the other was a fair and symposium at which small farmers and textile weavers talked about making a real living.

The Fair Trade Fair and Symposium, sponsored by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a trade think tank, featured about 80 producers, businesses and non-governmental organizations in an event that ran parallel to the World Trade Organization meeting here last week.

Better price

"We are fighting so that coffee can be sold at a better price at the national level," said Alvaro Hernandez, a coffee grower from Chiapas. "We work so that producers, instead of going to the United States, stay to work the land."

Elizabeth Dougherty, who was in charge of the fair, said it aimed to show how what is known as fair trade practices - basically, paying small farmers a price for their crops and goods that better reflects their actual production costs - can work in the real-world market.

"I have to say it's gone so much better than we ever expected it to," Dougherty said. "We were targeting WTO delegates, government officials and the press, but it's ended up being a huge volume of tourists."

Organic movement

One aspect of the fair-trade movement is organic coffee, cocoa and other products, which are slightly more expensive for consumers but convey a guarantee, with a seal and strict standards that growers must follow, that they were grown in environmentally friendly conditions without chemical pesticides. Many people believe organically grown products are healthier than conventionally grown foods.

The fair-trade model also takes a page from social consciousness movements like that against cruelty to animals, which has prompted some companies to stop testing cosmetics and other products on animals, and to say so on their labels so they can appeal to customers who care about the issue.

But fair trade tries to fight cruelty to small farmers and focuses on trying to even the market for them.

The model encourages small producers to band together in cooperative groups and to educate both buyers and the public about the social benefits of fair trade. Buyers pay a higher price for the product, and so do consumers, Dougherty said. But they also know they are not getting an unfair advantage over Third World farmers who haven't had access to technology, education and government subsidies that large agribusinesses might have.

Mushrooming growth

Dougherty said the movement has grown slowly over the years, but interest lately seems to have mushroomed, and fair trade now appears poised to move into another, more organized, more business-oriented stage.

"At first, we were like, 'No, we don't want capitalism,' which is rather ridiculous," Dougherty said. "That's the current system. So the question then becomes, how do you help small producers enter the market in a way that's beneficial to them instead of a market that ends up raping them?"

Hernandez, who has been with a fair-trade cooperative called Vida y Esperanza, Hope and Life, for about eight years, says that in his small community of Tziscao de Lagos de Monterrey, there is no comparison between the farmers in his cooperative and those who choose to go it alone.

Those not in the cooperative simply are no longer there. They long ago left their coffee parcels to join the river of mostly undocumented immigrant laborers that cross the U.S.-Mexico border every year. Thanks to the cooperative, Hernandez said, he has been able to stay on his land and grow the coffee that supports him and his parents.

The difference

Last year, he made about $2,400 from the sale of the 2,800 pounds of coffee he grew on 3.7 acres of land. At current market prices, the same amount of coffee would have brought only about $800.

"There is a difference," Hernandez said. "In comparison with how things were before, I could say that coffee for us would have been history (if we had stayed the way we were)."

Maria del Carmen Cano Alvarez, who weaves and dyes cloth and makes it into blouses, pants and skirts, said she also receives better money for her craft. Her Chiapas women's cooperative, Mujeres del Maiz en la Resistencia, is made up of nine groups of women from largely indigenous areas, like Ocosingo and San Juan Chamula.

Training women

"We have been training the women so that they can learn to figure out their costs," Cano Alvarez said, and use those figures to base the prices of the items.

She said that, without the cooperative, she and the other women would have to sell their clothing to middlemen who wouldn't give them much of a price. But the association now is exporting their clothing for sale in Los Angeles, she said.

"The price people pay is better," she said. "They value the work more and the experience is very positive."

Even so, the women have not yet reached the point where they can live solely from the money the clothing brings them.

"We know that handicrafts never bring what they are worth because the time spent by the artisan is a lot," she said. "But this way, we get a fairer price."

Building a network

Hernandez said he sold only about 12 pounds of his Biomaya coffee at the fair.

But that was not the most important goal, Dougherty said. Organizers wanted the farmers and the producers to get to know each other so that they could put together even larger networks. Participants came from as far away as Bolivia, Nepaland Panamato show their products.

"We're trying to tell the large industrial entrepreneurs of the world that there are other ways of trading," Cano Alvarez said. "People should be taken into account."

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