Full of Beans

| 1st March 2005
According to a Mori poll in March 2004, the fairtrade mark is now recognised by 39 per cent of the British public, up from 11 per cent five years ago. But what difference does fairtrade actually make to the lives of the producers? John Atkin looks at the Nicaraguan community of La Pita who sell half of their coffee on the fairtrade market

La Chureca, Managua’s city dump, is a desolate monstrosity - teeming with the putrid stench of rotting goods and industrial waste. Over a thousand people, many of them children, live and work here, fighting with flocks of vultures amongst hypodermic needles as they scavenge for scraps of food and resaleable items. In the midday sun the undulating horizon gains an unnatural white glare and you are left wondering whether or not those are really cows you see making their unsteady way across the rubbish.

As it turns out, they are, as the City Council leases the land out to a dairy farmer who sells their milk, contaminated by heavy metals, to the local community. There are similar scenes of unsustainable desolation across the developing world and while Altamira - a wealthy suburb of repatriated Nicaraguans, returned from Miami - may supply the most obvious contrast, the coffee-producing town of La Pita is more apposite.

Lying in the north of the Central American country, some 100 miles from the capital, La Pita is a co-operative of 16 families that grow coffee in the shade of the forest on the steep slopes of the surrounding mountains. Unlike much of the country, the Howler Monkeys that abound are as unthreatened as the forest - whose wood could provide a potentially lucrative, if non-renewable, building commodity - and remain untouched. There is therefore no soil erosion, and a regular supply of clean water.

Much of this has been enabled by the community selling half their coffee on the Fairtrade market. The fixed rate of $1.26 (67p) per pound for green coffee beans was instrumental in the co-op’s survival during the October 2001 coffee crisis when prices tumbled to an all-time low of 43 cents (23p). This guaranteed income has meant that the producers have been able to protect the environment and, for the first time in their lives, plan for the future. The Fairtrade premium - an extra five cents (3p) that is paid on top of the fixed rate specifically for social investment – has meant that each of the 16 homes now has clean running water after the community completed a channel running from a spring 3km away in September.

The Nicaraguan Solidarity Campaign runs Fairtrade work and study tours to La Pita with the aim of giving people a practical understanding of the daily life of coffee producers in the north of the country and the impact Fairtrade has on their lives. Anna Ridehalgh, a teacher from Southampton was there in September and was heartened, if exhausted, by what she saw.

‘Life is hard,’ she said. ‘Work begins at daybreak following a stiff, muddy climb from the village to the 45-degree slopes of the fields. At the end of the afternoon, we all pick up huge sacks of fruit and begin the 30-minute walk back to the village.’ On their return the families sort out any accountancy or administration issues, in which they are largely self-sufficient having received training in this and democratic representation from the Agricultural Co-operative Union (UCA), a vestige of the Sandinistas’ agrarian reform policies of the 1980s.

The UCA also helps find grants for children from La Pita and the 21 other co-ops under their umbrella to travel for study and provides training on social, farming and environmental issues. In addition, La Pita and three other co-ops are now involved in establishing an eco-tourism project, again with the guidance of the UCA. Fairtrade has been a lifeline for the people of these communities. ‘On a number of occasions the farmers reflected that without fairtrade they wouldn’t have survived,’ Ridehalgh recalled.

In 2005 the US-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) is likely to be ratified. Central American producers’ organisations are extremely concerned that this could mean the destruction of Central American agriculture because of the dumping of highly subsidised US agricultural products. Fairtrade will therefore become even more important to the survival of thousands of farmers like those in La Pita, and they need the continued support of consumers in the West to carry on their development.

As Fairtrade Fortnight celebrates its tenth birthday this month, sales of products carrying the Fairtrade mark are now worth over £100m a year. But despite the very significant expansion of Fairtrade in the international coffee market, it is important to remember that there is still a long way to go. Half of the world’s coffee beans are still controlled by four giant multinational companies: Nestlé, Proctor & Gamble, Sara Lee and Kraft, who produce household names like Kenco, Maxwell House and Nescafe. The quartet have been instrumental in reducing the proportion of retail value of the coffee we buy which goes to the coffee-producing countries from 30 per cent to just ten in the space of ten years.

It will take a major ground shift of political will to reverse such grossly unjust terms of trade to ensure that the La Churecas of this world are eliminated from our landscapes. But there is hope. A few years ago, Cafédirect followed in the footsteps of AMT to sell only fairtrade coffee and they have used the ethical model of success to take their annual sales to £22m, making them the sixth biggest coffee brand in Britain.

There are now over 100 companies making 250 Fairtrade coffee products, a burgeoning niche that accounts for 20 per cent of the UK roast and ground coffee market, and three per cent of total sales and is worth £92m per year. That is up from £18.5m three years ago, an exponential rise that people in communities like La Pita will hope to continue as more and more people take the ethical option.

For more information on the Fairtrade Foundation and Fairtrade Fortnight vist www.fairtrade.org.uk.

For further information on the Nicaraguan Solidarity Campaign's fairtrade work and study tours, please contact the NSC at nsc@nicaraguasc.org.uk or phone 0207 272 9619.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2005