Is There a Future for Small Farmer Organizations?

Last week a few of us from Equal Exchange traveled to El Salvador to attend the CLAC’s First International Gathering of the Small Producers’ Symbol (SPP), an historic...

Last week a few of us from Equal Exchange traveled to El Salvador to attend the CLAC’s First International Gathering of the Small Producers’ Symbol (SPP), an historic event which marks the first Fair Trade initiative developed by small farmer organizations. As opposed to the FLO International Fair Trade system, which was designed in the North to support small farmer organizations in the South, the SPP was created and developed by farmers’ organizations in the South and will be implemented by Alternative Trade Organizations in the North.

Equal Exchange’s Todd Caspersen, at The First International Gathering of the Small Producers’s Symbol

For two days, representatives of small farmer organizations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean and their closest industry allies in Europe, Canada, and the United States, gathered together at a beautiful retreat center outside San Salvador, at the top of the San Salvador Volcano to learn, debate, and share ideas concerning the best ways to launch the new symbol.  It was exciting; and incredibly inspiring to have the opportunity to participate in this gathering and help shape the initiative so that it can have the strongest chances of success and impact in the market. We  will be sharing much more about the Small Farmer Symbol in the coming months, and soon we hope you will start to see the symbol on small farmer products in grocery stores throughout the United States (and elsewhere).

Why is the CLAC ( The Latin American and Caribbean Network of Small Fair Trade Producers) developing a small farmer symbol?

Once it became clear that the FLO system was moving away from its original mission: to provide market access to small farmers and to change the way international trade is conducted (by leveling the playing field between small farmers and plantations), small farmer organizations realized that they would need to create their own ways to survive and thrive in the international arena.

Ironically, just as the CLAC launched their own symbol to differentiate their products in the marketplace (and within the Fair Trade system itself), TransFair USA (now FairTrade USA) announced their new initiative, Fair Trade For All.  Although TransFair’s press release never explicitly states so, the organization has made it clear elsewhere that they are now fully ready and willing to allow plantations growing coffee, cocoa, and sugar to receive Fair Trade certifications.  In doing so, their goal is to continue growing the system fast, far, and wide.  When small farmer organizations (ATOs, Fair Trade organizations, and FLO International itself) protested, TransFair USA responded by withdrawing from the international Fair Trade system to go it alone.

We don’t yet know what the future will hold.  Will plantation coffee, cocoa, and sugar (along with all the other plantation products already certified by TransFair USA and FLO International) signify the end of these small farmer products and therefore the end of small farmer organizations? Will they be able to compete against all the competitive advantages that plantations have been allotted through the past centuries? While we can’t predict the future, the threat is real and it is safe to assume that life just became increasingly more difficult for small farmer organizations.  It is sad; even with a small farmer Fair Trade system, the past twenty-five years have not been easy and so many hundreds of small farmer organizations, ATOS, and other Fair Trade advocates have worked hard to build small farmer supply chains, and to educate consumers about the issues and challenges involved in trying to structurally change an inherently unfair trade system.  Will  all this hard work have been in vain?  Do Small Farmer Organizations have a future?

Well, as all social justice activists know, no one ever said changing the world was easy.  Thanks again to all of you for your support and willingness to question, learn, and ACT.  We will continue to stand by and for small farmer organizations and an alternative trade system.

Cartoon courtesy of John Klossner, copywrite 2011

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