During a recent visit to Nicaragua, I had a memorable conversation with Don Rafael, a smallholder farmer who was a high-ranking guerrilla during the Sandinista Revolution in the 1970s and is now a member of a Fair Trade cooperative. Over coffee during a visit to his farm, he explained that shortly after the Sandinistas seized power in 1979, a Sandinista comandante offered him a large house in the center of a bustling town in the coffeelands as a reward for his contributions to the Revolution. He declined the offer and returned to the countryside to grow coffee and raise his family, telling the comandante, “This is not what I fought for.” As we see more and more smallholder farmer organizations struggling to keep pace with constantly evolving standards for Fair Trade Certification, I can’t help but wonder whether the pioneering cooperatives here in Nicaragua, whose vision and hard work helped create the Fair Trade system, might make a similar observation about Fair Trade Certification: “This is not what we fought for.”
Today I am in the final day of a workshop on compliance with FLO standards for smallholder organizations in Nicaragua that we have co-sponsored with the coffee broker Expocert/Café Noble. The participants range from small organizations that are going through the Fair Trade inspection process for the first time to large organizations that were pioneers in Fair Trade, with lots of groups in between. What these diverse organizations have in common is the inability to digest and respond with confidence to the growing number of increasingly rigorous requirements for Fair Trade Certification – 148 criteria during the first three years and 61 more for years four to six. We are using funds from our CAFE Livelihoods project to cover our share of the event, and are happy to do so to respond to the expressed needs of our partners in Nicaragua.
But what will these organizations do in the absence of NGO accompaniment or grants to support these activities? Folding high-priced consultants into the day-to-day work of Fair Trade cooperatives will only increase their operating costs, putting more pressure on margins that are already thin. Even worse, the rising costs of compliance may reduce the social impact of Fair Trade. In fact, in some cases that is already starting to happen.
The manager of one Fair Trade cooperative in Central America recently told me that his group has used premiums to pay for consultants to ensure compliance with FLO standards. Another mentioned that his organization uses its Fair Trade premiums to cover the costs of its inspections. In other words, the social premium in these cases is not directly impacting the quality of life of smallholder farmers, but merely helping to ensure the perpetuation of the certification regime. That feels to me to be awfully far from the soaring ideals that fueled the rise of Fair Trade and continue to inspire Fair Trade coffee farmers, roasters and consumers.