Producers & Roasters Seek Fair Trade Beyond Certification

Whether or not to allow plantations into the fair trade model is not the only debate raging within the specialty coffee industry. Another, and more wide-reaching debate, is whether certification schemes benefit producers, or if they are in fact barriers to trade. While millions of small-scale coffee producers have benefitted from certification systems like Fair Trade, Organic, Bird Friendly, and Rainforest Alliance over the last twenty years, they have not done so without critique and resistance. Drawing from conversations I have had recently with producers, cooperative administrators, exporters, roasters and distributors, this post addresses the dark, untold stories of certified production and trade.

Mauricio Martinez

Mauricio Martinez has worked in the coffee industry for twenty years. Now a member of the buying and managing team at Green Star Coffee based in Goleta, California, he got his start in coffee as the assistant to the director of a fair trade cooperative in Mexico. While he enjoyed working for this cooperative, particularly the productive sales visits to Europe he facilitated, he feels disenchanted because the problems that plague the fair trade movement today, and the conversations being had about these problems, are the same ones that have plagued producers for decades. Reflecting on the forum on the future of fair trade that we both attended at the recent convention of the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), the same reported on in our earlier post, Mauricio expressed his frustration.

 “I went away from the coffee industry for almost ten years, and now that I’m back, I see the same stories but just different faces. And some faces haven’t changed. The certification agencies like Fair Trade USA, they are the same people. But sadly, what I noticed is for the last twenty years, they have been showing farmers around the world, and they have been using them as a marketing gimmick. When I was sitting next to you at that lecture [the forum on the future of fair trade] I felt disgusted because it was like groundhog day, it was [the same] all over again… The speech that [Rob Everts of Equal Exchange] gave, it was just the same speech I’ve been hearing for my whole adult life. ‘The sweat, and tears…’ But they haven’t done much. What they’ve been doing repetitively is showing these farmers around the world in these trade shows, but that is just a small sample of the communities in Africa, Central America, everywhere, you know?”

Mauricio is cynical about the presence of producers at trade shows like the SCAA because certification systems have been documented by researchers to consistently cause problems for producers, while adding value on the roaster and distributor end. The primary critique of certifications from small producers and their advocates is that they must bear the costs imposed by certification models. These include costs associated with upgrading farm infrastructure, water systems, conversion to certified organic practices, and the costs associated with farm audits required by most models. Samuel Kamau, Director of the African Fine Coffees Association (AFCA), which represents coffee producers throughout the continent, explained when I spoke with him at the SCAA event that the variety of models, and minor distinctions between them, are a burden to small producers.

“What we have now is that the African farmer has been forced to take more than one certification, because the certification Rainforest [Alliance] is not the same as fair trade, is not the same with Starbucks… and since they are not standardized, fair trade does not get you accepted in Rainforest, nor in organic… So what you find is for one farm, the cost is double, triple, or even four times because you have to keep going for the certification, and what we found out when we came to the market here is that the consumer is not aware of all this cost that we are incurring.”

Most certification models have systems in place to give producers financial support for the cost of on-site certification, but in reality, many of them bear the costs themselves. Because of this, Kamau describes certifications as “barriers,” not gateways, to trade.

“…from a trade perspective we consider these a barrier to trade because we get additional cost of certification which we must now bear ourselves from our pocket in spite of the heavy cost we are already bearing as farmers, and we have been excluded to certain segments of the market because we are not certified coffees… We would like to trade with Europe. We would like to trade with the Americans. But this certification project is a barrier to trade… We agree, and we acknowledge that sustainability in production is a key need, but the importer tells me that I cannot sell coffee because it is not certified, it is not fair.”

To Kamau, the certification concept is fundamentally flawed. He argues that one must “not peg access to the market to the production method,” because by prohibiting market access  based on absence of certification, “You are killing an already dying person, because we are really struggling.”

In addition to the economic barriers to trade posed by certification systems, producers are often subject to ideological barriers. Mauricio of Green Star recounted his experience of facilitating fair trade certification for the producer members of the coop he worked for in Mexico:

“It was part of my gig, showing the certifiers the plantations and everything. So when I dealt with certifiers for organic, I would have to walk with them the woods [of farms]. They would get samples of the plantations and stuff. That was easy. But then the other certifications, the social part, that wasn’t easy. Because my plantation was in Chiapas, they would come with all kinds of questions, like, ‘Who are you affiliated with? Are you taking money from the government? Are they buying votes? Are they part of certain social groups? What side of the conflict [are they on]?’ Because there is always conflict there. So they wanted to know everything, the roots of where the money was coming from.”

Mayra Orellana-Powell with film maker Sarah Gerber in Portland, Oregon. Photo by author.

In this statement Mauricio refers to the series of political uprisings known as the Zapatista movement, which has fought for over a decade for increased rights for the indigenous peoples of Mexico. Mayra Orellana-Powell, the Honduran American owner and distributor of Catracha Coffee Company based in Alameda, California, pointed out other aspects of the fair trade model that make it difficult for some small producers to get certified. She explained to me why the coffee from her family farm is not fair trade certified when we spoke at the SCAA event in Portland.

“I went to visit the fair trade organization in Oakland [Fair Trade USA] and I asked them, ‘How can my product be fair trade?’ Because at the time I was unemployed, and I was doing my investigation on how I could bring the coffee to the U.S., but also how could I sell my coffee in the U.S. Then I saw that many people were interested in fair trade, and I read in many labels what fair trade was about, and was interested in being part of fair trade. I went to the office, made an appointment to see someone. She explained the process on how to become fair trade certified. One of the requirements she gave me was you have to be organized as a cooperativa. Our business is different, because in my region cooperativas have not been very successful. For the most part they have a cooperativa, they get the funds, and the president of that cooperativa runs away with the money, and they leave everybody else stuck in debt. So my business model is not to have a cooperativa because so far I don’t see the benefit for the farmer. I see the benefit for the president of that cooperativa. And so, I’m someone who is not against presidents and I’m not against the organizations but I think it should be fair. I think if you’re a member of a cooperativa, you should get the same benefits. I don’t think you should be taking advantage of the position you have, and so that’s why I don’t believe in cooperativas.”

Mauricio too pointed out that leaders of coops end up in better financial situations than other members when he reflected on the coop he used to work for in Mexico.

“I want to emphasize that the leaders, back then when I worked in it, and the leaders from the few years later, they are in a way better position [financially] than the rest of the farmers. They have bigger houses and bigger farms, and everything better. And again, it’s not fair how the leadership gets selected by, let’s call it, the market. That’s why when I see these faces at events like the SCAA, it’s like, ‘Alright, I’ve been there.’ So these leaders, some of them are not so loved back in their community.”

What Mayra and Mauricio describe is not unique to their experiences. Researchers who have studied producers’ experiences of working with fair trade organizations throughout the agricultural sector have found that many face the issue of corrupt governance within their communities. Favoritism on the part of coop leaders can privilege some growers over others, awarding more land and thus more income for some, as researchers Christy Getz and Aimee Shreck found in their study of fair trade banana growers in the Dominican Republic and organic tomato growers in Mexico. They refer to this as the “politicization of certification,” and point out that “this process contributed to increased but skewed income flows for those members who were ‘in favour’ with the cooperative’s staff.”

In part, this problematic and unjust situation transpires because coop leaders are often selected by those who work for the northern NGOs who administer certifications, and who do not fully understand the local social, economic, and political dynamics in the producing communities they seek to serve. Mauricio described how economic exploitation, also cited by Mayra, often follows.

“…these fair trade organizations like Equal Exchange, they go to Central America and they are treated like kings. It’s like, ‘Oh, this is the white man who is going to save us. They’re going to find us buyers for our coffee.’ And what I noticed happens is that they pick the smart ones, the leaders, but these leaders, they don’t last long. They rotate every five, ten years, and they walk away with money in their pockets and the communities, they don’t get a fair deal.”

When Mauricio said this I remembered the striking impression that was left on me by the documentary film, Black Gold, which showcases the struggles a fair trade coop in Ethiopia faced while breaking into the global market. The manager of the coop, Tadesse Meskela, and the star of the film, was visibly wealthier than the hundreds of small land holders who produced for the coop. While producers lived in huts in impoverished villages, Meskela and his wife lived in a multi-room ranch-style home, replete with consumer amenities. It struck me that the film’s narrators said nothing about this significant difference in standard of living between the coop leader and the coop’s many producers. Mauricio and Mayra filled this void by sharing their experiences with fair trade coops.

In producing communities, the implications of these models are not just economic, but social and political too. Getz and Shreck found that the rules of trade imposed on producers by fair trade and organic certification systems were so visible and rigid that they disrupted long-established and routinized social relations and traditional modes of trade that existed in these communities prior to the implementation of certification. Due to the disruption of social norms, in addition to the favoritism and wealth inequality described above, resentment often breeds between coop leaders and community members, and factions can develop that compromise the organization. Mauricio recounted to me with sadness what has happened with the coop he used to work for in Mexico.

“…they got broken down into smaller groups because it was just too big. Sadly, it’s embedded in the culture in that region, they just have these rivalries with neighboring communities. So it broke into pieces, and they are having a harder time now exporting their goods because of that.”

More disturbingly, Mauricio relayed the exploitation of producers that can take place at the hands of coop leadership. Speaking about ISMAM, a coop based in Chiapas, he said:

“The coop was put together by a Catholic priest, and he kind of ripped off a lot of people, and there were stories of abuse. He got a bunch of indigenous women pregnant, and just horrible stories. They were given an award by the Mexican government. They were shown all over Europe as a model organization, and they were doing some shady things with fair trade… This guy, he sold them in votes to the ruling political party. There are stories of murder, kidnapping, money laundering… [and] [the leader] walked away with a very generous retirement package.”

Half a world away in India, researchers Jeffrey Neilson and Bill Pritchard found similar problems in their study of small coffee producers’ reactions to an initiative to implement a set of common standards for coffee production known as the 4C Common Code. The key problem they identified was that the designers of the code failed to account for local knowledge and conservation practices, and thus the universal sustainability “check point system” they devised would undermine and disrupt existing efforts at conserving biodiversity. In addition, they found that producers were very resistant to outside regulation of their localized ecologies.

Citing research by Ninan and Sathyapalan, Neilson and Pritchard wrote, “the positive attitude of the planter community is contingent on the use of a participatory approach towards conservation. The imposition of an externally dictated management regime is less likely to receive widespread support… undermining local social institutions, by weakening the economic and political power vested in traditional authorities, can result in enhanced degradation of these systems.” They thus conclude that “there is a strong need for a holistic and contextually adaptive, rather than a piecemeal, approach to sustainability. Such an approach questions the ability of traceability-driven certification schemes to address complex ecological realities locally.” In essence, the one-size-fits all model of certification systems is not nearly as effective and welcome as organizational marketing campaigns have taught us to believe.

Neilson and Pritchard also found that small coffee producers critiqued the goals of the code with the same economic argument offered by Kamau, of the AFCA. They feared the process would be a costly burden to them, and thought it seemed designed to benefit roasters and distributors of coffee–with the value added by a certification–far more than it would themselves. The producers they spoke with also feared that the implementation of this code would restructure power in the supply chain in a harmful way. Of this, Neilson and Pritchard wrote:

“…concern is expressed that the compliance requirements will engender structural change in the industry, as the economies of scale associated with large plantations will be advantaged over smaller producers. It is feared that the introduction of this regime will encourage further economic concentration in the sector, with serious concerns over the social justice of implementing such a system.”

The concern expressed by Indian small-scale producers has borne fruit in the recent decision by Fair Trade USA to welcome large-scale plantations into its certification model. Because large producers can more easily offer a uniform bulk product, they are poised to rise to supremacy within market for fair trade coffee. Further, this is something that benefits large buyers who can streamline costs by buying from select large producers, as opposed to a globally scattered collection of coops.

The critique that certification schemes bear economic benefit for roasters much more so than for producers is one that resonates with many. Some point out that such models were created simply for consumers who want to feel good about their coffee purchases. Certainly the plight of small farmers, and the ways in which certifications bring them benefits–marginal though they may be–have been used by roasters quite effectively as marketing tools.

Speaking cynically about this situation, Mauricio recounted instances in which small producers in Mexico were told they were not poor enough to take part in the fair trade model, or that their region has not suffered enough “drama” in the form of armed conflict or political uprising. He noted that because of the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, people from the north were eager to support the communities of indigenous small producers growing coffee in that region. Relatedly, Mauricio is frustrated that he has been shut down by fair trade organizations when he has attempted to pitch certain coffee and hand crafts coops, seemingly because the projects are established, as opposed to something that a northern NGO can claim to have “found” and “saved.” In his words, “the deals happen if it meets [the NGO’s or roasters’] agenda.”

Why is there such a great disconnect between the seemingly benevolent goals of the NGOs that run certification systems and producers’ experiences of working within them? Why are those like Mauricio, Mayra, and the small producers of India so frustrated with these initiatives? The answer is shockingly simple. In most cases, producers have not been included in the process of creating certifications. This manifests as a universal issue of governance. Certification systems are created and administered by northern actors, and southern producers historically have had little say in how they operate, how to chart goals, nor how to measure the success of a model.

Scholars who study processes of globalization have long argued that the rise of global NGOs and global civil society organizations, that now broker and administer trade and aid policies, privilege northern perspectives and goals at the expense of those of the south. The simplest of Marxian logic accounts for this: our lived reality is a reflection of the world view of the ruling class. This holds true for the outcomes of certification projects because they have historically been created and guided by people from the north and west, and have not adequately consulted with and included the perspectives of those they seek to serve. This means that historically fair trade organizations have not been democratically administered, because they give northern actors much more power to decide and implement policy than they do the producers to whom these policies are applied. An important exception is Fairtrade International (FTI), which has increased producers’ stake in the workings of the organization in recent years. For this reason, small producers were able to override FTUSA’s desire to certify large-scale plantations within this model last fall. It is because of producer power to affect FTI policy that FTUSA broke away from the international umbrella organization so that it could move forward with certifying plantations.

This recent conflict within the fair trade movement over the certification of large-scale plantations speaks to the broader issue of power and control in the coffee supply chain, and brings to the fore questions of who benefits from certification models. Daniel Randall, owner and roastmaster at Green Star Coffee, is concerned about the inequities inherent in the fair trade certified model. When I first met him in 2007 he was gung-ho about sourcing fair trade coffee. But, as we continued to talk about his work in the industry over the ensuing years, I noticed that his perspective on the model changed. Today, he sees the model offered by FTUSA as inadequate, and is looking for another solution that offers more transparency, efficacy, and long-term partnership with producers. When we spoke recently in Santa Barbara he expressed his lack of faith in FTUSA.

“I feel like I am just throwing pennies in the sea [by purchasing Fair Trade certified coffee]. I might as well go put a twenty dollar bill in a bottle and chuck it in the ocean and hope for the best. It might be better than that, but that’s how I’m feeling now, that it’s some sort of Sally Struthers scam.”

Because of this, Daniel is brainstorming and reaching out to other roasters in the industry to conceptualize an alternative form of “fair” trade. When we spoke in Portland at the SCAA he told me that he imagines a model in which producers have a vested interest in the success of their coffee after export, meaning they are not merely compensated for the sale of green coffee, but that they would also receive a cut of wholesale and direct sales. He envisions this as a partnership, as opposed to a purchase transaction. He explained, “So, that was the idea of a further vesting of sorts, an actual partnership beyond just the exchange of the money and the coffee. That way the farmer is incentivized to grow the best coffee because they are going to get this percentage back, so the more that the coffee fetches at market, the more that they actually earn.”

This proposed solution responds to the critique that certification models add value for roasters and distributors, and I would argue, for consumers too, who are imbued with the ethical halo of a certified purchase, more so than they do for producers. As Daniel points out, this type of arrangement channels some of the value added through directly traded high quality coffee to the farms through a vested contract.

He has run into trouble implementing this though, because it is very difficult for a small, independent coffee roaster to develop direct trade relationships. His partner Mauricio explained the problem as an economy of scale issue.

“We would love to buy directly from farmers, but you have to be as big as Gaviña, or Green Mountain, to buy a whole bunch of coffee from the same origin. For a roaster like Green Star, it’s not sustainable to buy directly from one of these guys. In a better scenario, it would be like a hub, where they would store all kinds of origins so roasters could just pick.”

Coffee is shipped in intermodal freight containers, like those seen above.

Mauricio points out that because they are a small (yet growing) business, Green Star cannot buy an entire shipping container’s worth of coffee from one origin. He suggests at the end of this statement a solution for small roasters that is in fact already in play in some form. Cooperative Coffees (Coop Coffees) is a sort of import hub, in that it is a cooperative buying group composed of twenty-three member roasters from Canada and the U.S. Daniel is enthusiastic about the model, but has had a hard time joining the group, in part because of geographical constraints. Coop Coffees has offices in Montreal, Canada, and in Georgia in the U.S., and imports through eastern North American ports. Again, because of the economy of scale issue, Green Star is currently unable to receive imports through the group, as entire containers purchased for them would have to be landed on the West Coast for their use. Both Mauricio and Daniel envision something similar yet different, that would benefit both roasters and producers. Mauricio points out that what producers needs is “a hub in the U.S.” that gets their coffee into the consumer country, and that allows small roasters access to top quality coffees at lesser volumes, a “platform [that] connect[s] roasters and growers.” So, Daniel is currently taking steps to create a buying cooperative for small roasters on the West Coast.

No doubt this conflict within the fair trade movement over the inclusion of large-scale plantations in the model, and the conflicted stance of small roasters like Daniel at Green Star–who openly critiques FTUSA as he continues to source coffee certified by the organization–is confusing for consumers who want to do the right thing by coffee farmers. The troubling reality is that though we have come to trust certified products over the last two decades, the ongoing onslaught of critiques of these models–from producers, roasters, scholars, and think tanks–has rendered them untrustworthy. They provide much more value to roasters and distributors than they do to the producers they purport to serve.

In light of this, what consumers should look for is transparent relationships between roasters and producers. These can be found in a variety of business models, from medium-sized roasters, to small independent roasters, to members of buying cooperatives like Coop Coffees. Regarding this, Mauricio spoke passionately about his trust and respect for the owner of Coffee Klatch, a Direct Trade roaster based in Upland, California.

“They don’t go out of their way and play the certification dance, but Mike, he goes and buys from the farms. He doesn’t care how poor they are, or what challenges they have. If the coffee is good, he buys it, and he pays them a fair price. Now, his customer base, they love it and they trust him. And we have the technology, there is Twitter, there is media, there is the website, it’s very transparent. I’ll be happy to buy pounds of coffee from Coffee Klatch. I don’t need to see a seal from Fair Trade. I know they’re doing the right thing.”

Chad Morton and Kirby Watson, owners of the Direct Trade Coffee Club (DTCC), offer consumers the same transparency and assurance through their web-based coffee subscription service. Subscribers receive a rotating selection of directly traded high quality coffee from a small collection of roasters from around the country. A novel feature of their service, one that has been somewhat of a barrier to growth, is that subscribers are not allowed to choose which coffees they receive. Like the concept of eating seasonally, the DTCC displaces consumer desire and uninhibited choice, and instead sends its subscribers the varietals that are considered the highest quality and the freshest from their roaster members.

In the end, your best course of action as a consumer in these troubled times is to ask about sourcing practices and producer payment wherever you buy your coffee. Keep in mind that there is no silver bullet solution for the world’s estimated 70 million small coffee producers, most of whom live in poverty. No one certification or sourcing system has got it exactly right yet. To do so, organizations that seek to help coffee producers will have to actually listen to them in order to understand the social, economic, and political nuances of their varied communities, and work with them in ways that fit their distinct local structures, and respond to their unique concerns and needs.

Readers interested in learning more about the messy dynamics of certification systems can find numerous research reports on the topic compiled by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development. A recent book by anthropologist Sarah Lyon titled, Coffee and Community: Maya Farmers and Fair-Trade Markets, offers an in-depth look at the struggles faced by producers in Mexico. Those who prefer filmic narrative can look for the upcoming release of Sarah Gerber’s documentary film, The Way Back to Yarasquin: A Coffee Pilgrimage, which tells the story of Mayra Orellana-Powell, owner of Catracha Coffee Company, and her family of coffee producers in Honduras.


2 thoughts on “Producers & Roasters Seek Fair Trade Beyond Certification”

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