Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize winning development economist, wrote an influential essay more than 20 years ago suggesting that “More than 100 million women are missing” due to systematic neglect and mortality of girls in patriarchal societies. With apologies to the great Dr. Sen for the title of this post, I am writing to gently remind readers and supporters of the growing number of petitions against Fair Trade for All that the estates whose entrance into the U.S. market for Fair Trade Certified coffee has stoked so much controversy are not the only ones who stand to benefit from the initiative. There are more than 10 million smallholder coffee farmers currently outside the Fair Trade system whose future market opportunities stand to be affected by the way FT4All unfolds. To date, they have been largely missing in the public discourse around the initiative.
Opponents of FT4All have focused on FTUSA’s decision to permit estates to enter the market for Fair Trade Certified coffee, and the process by which that decision was made. But there has been no mention in their statements of the smallholder coffee farmers who are not in Fair Trade Certified cooperatives — more than 10 million by most estimates — or the fact that the FT4All strategy proposes to create opportunities in the Fair Trade marketplace for smallholder farmers who are not organized into cooperatives of any kind.
In our coffee projects in Latin America, we have worked closely with cooperatives, which make sourcing smallholder coffee possible by aggregating supply for the market. Where there is no co-op, there are few other commercially reliable and socially equitable models for performing this function. In these places, we often find ourselves trying to link large numbers of unorganized farmers to competitive markets outside of cooperative structures. There has not historically been a lot of interest from other supply chain actors in joining us in these efforts.
All of this makes the FT4All proposal to link unorganized farmers to FT markets look, from the perspective of a development agency, like something that is at least worth understanding better. Unfortunately, smallholder farmers who have not successfully organized for the market haven’t organized themselves to participate in the current debates about the future of certification and sustainable trade, either.
I don’t mean to suggest that the Fair Trade producer organizations or pioneering coffee roasters who have publicly opposed FT4All should reconsider. I do regret that the smallholders outside the Fair Trade system — who outnumber farmers in Fair Trade Certified coops by about 10 to 1 — haven’t weighed more heavily in the discussion.