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278. How CRS came to be involved in FT4All in Colombia

Yesterday we announced here that we are getting involved in an FT4All pilot project with independent smallholder farmers in Colombia.  Today we explain how it came to pass.

The Borderlands Process.

Beginning in mid-2010, CRS was invited to develop a proposal to work with smallholder coffee farmers in conflict-affected areas along the Colombia-Ecuador border.   On the Colombia side, we focused our efforts on Nariño, an origin that is known in the coffee industry for the quality of its coffee.  Unfortunately, it was known to CRS for its complicated humanitarian situation — we had some previous experience there helping two local Church organizations working to address the social, psychological and economic needs of people displaced by Colombia’s armed conflict.

Over a period of many months, CRS met with farmers and a broad range of stakeholders in each country in patiently developing the proposal for what came to be called the Borderlands Coffee Project.  In the process, we developed partnerships with the two local Church organizations mentioned above and a family-owned exporter called Empresas de Nariño.  The proposal to serve 1,600 smallholder farmers in Nariño was approved just before Christmas that year.  We officially began operations on 1 September 2011.

The FT4All Process.

Later that month, Fair Trade USA CEO Paul Rice visited CRS heaquarters in Baltimore to explain why Fair Trade USA was splitting with FLO and launching its Fair Trade for All initiative.  As part of that conversation, we learned that FTUSA’s first pilot project with independent smallholder farmers was being planned for some of the same communities in Nariño where we had been planning to implement the Borderlands project.  And that we had a common partner in Empresas de Nariño.

Over the intervening eight months, we engaged in another patient process: staying up to speed with the changing times in Fair Trade.  This included reading up on the new standards for independent smallholder farmers, learning how they would be applied in Nariño, meeting with people participating in the pilot process, understanding how “our” Borderlands project intersected and overlapped with “their” Fair Trade pilot, and going on a “Fair Trade listening tour” that included countless discussions with Fair Trade pioneers, importers, roasters, researchers, etc.  We wanted to understand all the perspectives on the FT4All process in Nariño in order to make the best possible decision about whether and how to engage with it.

Tying the two together.

In the end, and notwithstanding concerns about FTUSA’s process and the potential impacts of estate certification on smallholder coops, we found three reasons to be excited about engaging with the independent smallholder pilot process in Colombia.  We also came to appreciate that operationally we would have created problems if we had not engaged with FT4All.

As we were settling in for one five-year coffee value chain process (Borderlands), Empresas de Nariño’s lean team was fanning out over the same terrain with a series of quick-hitting, six-month pilot projects to initiate a different six-year process of social and entrepreneurial incubation (FT4All).  Failing to coordinate “our” process with “theirs” would have put us in competition with our partner: two partner organizations working with two different approaches on two separate initiatives  in the same communities.  So we agreed to keep the two approaches separate, save for one space in which they will be integrated: in two municipalities, 199 farmers will participate in Borderlands and the FT4All project.

This way, we will position ourselves to take advantage of the opportunities we believe that the pilot offers.  But we will do so in a way that avoids competion with our partner and confusion for the farmers we serve.  And we will be able to treat the pilot like a pilot — something we engage with on a small scale, evaluating the results carefully before considering whether to replicate it in the other areas where we are working.



  • Very thoughtful posts on this. And, it is convenient to ignore the context. Fair Trade USA, with the support of CRS, is now unilaterally deciding that fair trade should be helping all poor people. That’s an ambitious agenda. Some would call it admirable. But, if you choose to look at who is making this decision to radically change the imperfect tool called fair trade, you might admit that it is nearly totally driven by well intentioned white folks in the US with lots of money and big dreams. The original idea of supporting the political and economic development process of organized small farmers has been tossed aside. The voice of those farmers and their organizations has been overridden in pursuit of this bigger dream.

    Change comes in many forms. To me, this feels like a move right out of the colonial playbook—we know best what is good for poor people.

    Perhaps this arrogance was an inevitable outgrowth of the success of fair trade, as we don’t have a very evolved macroeconomic strategy. Still, to drive forward over the objections of so many of the farmer and activist organizations that have built fair trade is a sad and hurtful act.

    Shame on you Fairtrade USA. Shame on you CRS.

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      Thank you as always for your valuable perspective.

      As someone who has had the pleasure and privilege over the years of collaborating with pioneering Fair Trade cooperatives in Central America — and the visionary roasters in the States they partnered with — I can certainly understand what is painful to you and other Fair Trade leaders about the way that FTUSA has decided to make change in the system.

      But I am surprised that you do not draw clearer distinctions between FTUSA’s initiative on the one hand, and the ex-post efforts of CRS to engage with that initiative in ways that could generate significant benefits for poor people, on the other.


  • Jeff Goldman says:

    While I won’t personally comment on the merits of various arguments for or against CRS participation in the controversial FT4All pilot program, I will appreciate your (seeming) transparency and articulate writing on issues of the day. The Fair Trade movement seriously needs some substantial discussion on ideas, evidence, and how to get better organized in N. America! Your posts are excellent contributions to public discourse.

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