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Chris Davis: A fair change experience

02 March 2016

 

Chris Davis, Fairtrade International:

Good morning. I would like to take you back in time 25 years to Oaxaca State in Mexico. A very sudden and rapid drop in world coffee prices as a result of subsidized overproduction, forced thousands upon thousands of small farmers to abandon their farms and migrate in search of work. Behind them, they left broken families and shattered communities. A Dutch priest who was present at the time, came up with a very simple but very effective observation. Surely there would be people back home willing to pay the true price of producing that coffee and to ensure there was a sufficient premium, a sufficient profit to enable those farmers to invest in their enterprises, but also in their communities.

On the early success of that movement, the Fairtrade was grown. Other countries started to replicate this example and it is built on very simple foundations: organized farmers with the right incentives will take control of their lives and their destiny and that organized buyers of their products, you and I, organized civil society movements, will provide a market for those products, but as a means to an end, as a means to building political awareness of the need for companies to change their behaviour and as a driver for governments to be able to provide the policies that are needed in order for a small-farming sector to thrive.

I have been very fortunate to have spent a lot of time with organized farmers and have seen first- hand the pride with which they have shown me that they have been able to give greater returns to their farmer members, but not only that, that they have been able to invest in their communities, to provide their children with schooling or with healthcare. But it is often not the tangible benefits that I am struck by, it is the self-esteem, it is the confidence. When you are told the general manager does not seem so tall anymore. It is just easier to negotiate, we find it easier to speak out. That is the impact of confidence and self-esteem.

But coming from the United Kingdom, I have also spent a lot of time with thousands of civil society groups who are campaigning for the rights of farmers. This very simple concept has enabled them to engage, it has enabled them to engage with their communities, to get people to stop when you are in the supermarket and think, there is a person behind the products you are buying, and what is the impact of your purchase. But not to stop there, to use these groups, be they faith groups, universities, schools, to campaign for companies' improved behaviour in the way that they purchase from smallholders, to campaign for governments to say, what are you doing so that they are politically engaged?

If this sort of action and this sort of activity was relevant in the case of the Oaxacan farmers 25 years ago, it is now even more so. We have witnessed decades of a decline in real commodity prices whilst at the same time, farm inputs have increased. This has had a devastating impact on small-farmer households who are the backbone of food production. They are struggling day-to-day to meet basic needs as a result of this. It is estimated that there are 2 billion people – that is a third of all humanity – living in small-farmer households, and a staggering half of those, that is 1 billion people, are amongst the world's most hungry. It is utterly shocking, and when I witness this first-hand, as I am sure that many of you do too, it is deeply upsetting, but it is not only a moral issue.

Cast your minds back to 2007 and 2008 and the food riots. These are very significant events that we cannot allow to happen again. So any serious attempt to address poverty and food security must have small-farmer households at its heart. Personally, I feel optimistic – this can and will happen. Six years ago, I travelled to Ethiopia and I was taken to visit some coffee cooperatives that are part of the Oromia Coffee Union, and when I talked to the farmers there, they told me that before, they had very little income, they had very low status and their children certainly did not want to take over the farm, but with support they became organized. They formed a cooperative and they formed links to other cooperatives, and through that collective strength, they were able to negotiate higher prices for their coffee, but also to reinvest back into their enterprises, to train the farmers on quality and to begin to move up the value chain in terms of production, which was a virtuous cycle, because they captured yet more income to do more of the same.

But the story does not stop there. Last year, I returned, but instead of being taken to the farms, I was taken to the centre of all of those coffee cooperatives, the administrative centre of all those coffee cooperatives, and I was shown a brand new roasting plant that they had all pooled their resources to purchase, and what it meant was that they were getting yet more value for their coffee. But in addition, they had also set up a cooperative bank in order to give those farmers and to give those cooperatives access to affordable credit. And with this growing strength, the leaders of the coffee union are now getting regular government access and that means that the government is well-informed of the needs of smallholders, and that there is pressure on them to ensure that government policy and government expenditure is well-directed to those small-farmer households.

But this is just one example and I have seen many. It can and it will work, but only if we put farmer households at the centre of their own solutions. They cannot be passive beneficiaries of demand-led initiatives. So a response would be, let us train them in quality, let us train them in producing yet more, but these are symptoms, they are not the cause, the cause is poverty and the cause is lack of organization so we need to tackle that as a starting point for all of these other interventions to be meaningful.

Within the Fairtrade movement, we are very proud of touching the lives of 1.4 million farmers but it is a drop in the ocean. We are talking 450 million small-farming households. There is a lot more to do and how are we going to tackle these issues on this scale. Well, first of all, we have to do it in collaboration. No one has a monopoly on ideas and we must embrace the contributions of everyone and work together. At the heart of that collaboration must be organized smallholder farmers. Through them, we will truly understand what are the issues that they are facing on a day-to-day basis and what are appropriate solutions, and to enlist them in the delivery of the interventions. That way, we know our work at farm level will be successful and will be durable. But in collaborating, we must also not forget the need to continually raise public understanding and awareness of the issues of small-farmer organizations and the impact it has on our lives. And in raising that awareness, we need to give an outlet for action. We need people to express that concern, firstly as informed consumers. We want people to stop at the supermarket shelf when their baby is pulling at their leg and actually just stop and think, this coffee, this banana, this tea, there is a person behind that, and I need to make sure for their good and for my good that my purchasing decision ensures that they get a proper return for their labour. But it cannot stop there.

If we are going to have the dramatic change that we need, we need to mobilize the profile that all of those sales give us, in order to build politically active individuals who will then go to companies and say, what are your purchasing practices, what are you doing to sustain small-farmer households, how are you treating them. And we need to go to governments and we need to say, and what are you doing. We need to confront the absurdities where in the north, we spend 56 times more on subsidizing our own farmers than we do on agricultural aid. We need to challenge southern governments. You made a commitment in Maputo to spend 10 per cent of your GDP on agricultural support, but we do not see that happening. Why not?

These actions are absolutely vital. We need to bring together the power of organized farmers at the same time as bringing together the power of organized consumers and civil society, and here is why, because connecting us in an hourglass economy are very few, very powerful commercial interests. Consider this. Three companies control 90 per cent of the trade in grain. Just ten retailers control one-quarter of the US$5.3 trillion food market and that just five companies buy 50 per cent of all coffee. We know all too well from the recent banking crisis that that concentration of power, if not properly held to account, can be very dangerous for our common good, but we do know that when we bring together the power of the public and the power of consumers together with the power of organized farmers, it can indeed be very magical.

To illustrate this, I will not use my words, but the words of Renwick Rose from the Windward Islands who is a true leader and statesman in the fight for fairness in trade. He said, "When you see the farmers taking their businesses back into their own hands, against all odds, then you really know that Fairtrade is working. For years, the farmers produced to the dictates and for the benefits of others. They were thought incapable of managing their own business. The transition to farmer control has demonstrated beyond the shadow of doubt that farmers can do it for themselves."

So when we look back at the road travelled, yes, it is full of potholes but the one thing we have learned as a Fairtrade movement, is that organization is key. Organization of farmers, and organizations of consumers and civil society, and together, they can be a magical combination. But just as the philosophy underpinning the movement is one of many seemingly inconsequential actions, adding up to very big change when done on big scale, for example, like a mosaic where each tile does not signify anything, but when you stand back, the thousands of tiles add up to a big picture, so we too must recognize that our efforts to date have only been one small step in a much longer journey, and that others too are taking steps, and that rather than focus on differences in the way that we want to reach that destination, we have to collaborate around our shared interest and our shared destination, which is putting smallholders, organized smallholders, at the heart of any serious attempt to address poverty and food security. We must focus on the ground that unites us and not on the ground that divides us. Talk of partnership is cheap, doing it is much harder, but in these modern times with transparency, there is a bright light shining on the private sector, shining on government and shining on us as NGOs to do just that.

So we are committed to working with others, to share that experience, to learn from others, and to apply it in the context of making sure that those organized farmers are at heart of our interventions, and that we do not forget the need to continually raise public awareness, both as informed purchasers of those products so that we buy those products knowing the individual behind, but also to apply the political pressure that we need to apply to make the more fundamental changes. So the litmus test will be when you or your friends go to the supermarket and you pick up that coffee or that tea or that banana, will you pause and think, there is a person behind this product, and am I doing the right thing. Thank you very much.