When I visited the Mbale region of eastern Uganda, I wasn’t sure what I was going to see. I had heard that Fairtrade provides education, access to health, better terms of trade, minimum prices, respect for the environment and perhaps most importantly, connection with the consumer and hope for the future. But is it true? Could something so vital in a capitalist world, really deliver all of this?
As I made my way from the capital, Kampala, on the 5 hour journey on one of the worst roads I had ever been on, passing through slums and landfill sites littered with people trying to carve out an existence, I left the haze of browns and greys, the hustle and bustle of busy city life and entered miles upon miles of green, luscious sugar and tea plantations. A reminder of the concept that thousands of miles away, poor people are working hard to provide us with the things we need.
As I reached the town of Mbale, a busy and active typical African looking town, I was keen to visit Mwenyi Rd; home to the Gumutindo Coffee Co-operative factory that I had heard so much about before my trip. It has been certified by Fairtrade International since 2004, and appears to have grown from strength to strength.
Access to work, childcare and minimum pay
I was keen to meet the workers, to find out for myself what life was really like. Most of them are women. Some are from the Namatala slums, where the factory provides free childcare, free lunch and a minimum wage in exchange for their immense skills in selecting only the best high quality coffee beans for the global market. One woman told me that “there is nowhere as good as here. I have good pay, food and know my children are safe. I like being with the other women too”.
From here, I headed east, into the Budduda district, an area prone to mudslides. A landscape that reminded me of home; Wales. Sadly, thousands of people have been injured or buried alive in recent years, due to climate change bringing unpredictable heavier rains, which are hard to respond to quickly enough. Here I visited the coffee store and met hundreds of farmers, who told me that if it had not been for Fairtrade, they would not be able to survive. The price they get for their coffee is higher than ever before, and more than they could have imagined. They no longer have to climb Mount Elgon, across to Kenya, to sell their coffee on the open market to get what they can. They are part of a co-operative; a primary society among 9 others that sell to Gumutindo Coffee Co-operative. They get the best price, as their coffee is organic and they benefit from the guaranteed minimum price set by Fairtrade International. The 5% premium that they get on top, is spent on projects decided by the primary society board members, who are elected democratically and must have women representatives. I was surprised to see more women than men on some of the societies.
Education and climate change
I asked to see where the premium had been spent. I was keen to see with my own eyes, the impacts and the difference Fairtrade reported to provide. I was blown away. Not only were the societies deciding for themselves, but they had vision and hope that took my breath away. They had action plans on coloured card on walls of the schools and the offices. The community was working as whole, to ensure that the farmers’ success was having the greatest impact possible. I saw classrooms, solar panels, cow sharing schemes, water provision and water storage, and the planting of trees. I witnessed one of the 1st tree saplings being planted as part of the Size of Wales, million tree scheme, a partnership response to climate change. I met people who had suffered from malaria, and thanks to the community Fairtrade premium, had been given medication. The children who had been left orphans because of HIV/ Aids went to school, had uniforms and food. All paid for from the Fairtrade premium.
There is no doubt in my mind, that when I see the FAIRTRADE logo back here in the UK, that I know it does what it says and that there is no other label or certification process that can guarantee all of this. It may have a long way to go; and it was never a one-size fits all or fix-all, but empowering farmers to take hold of their own destiny and develop their own community sustainably is a truly wonderful outcome.
Irresponsible and inaccurate?
I have seen and witnessed the benefits of Fairtrade in action and the dramatic improvements made to people’s lives first hand. So when I see what appears to be erroneous, sensationalist news headlines and read a research report that appears to not only give inaccurate information, but also uses unbalanced research methods that discredits what I know to be true, I become sad and angry. I expect better from the UK press than to publish potentially distorted and prejudiced articles garnered from lazy reporting and fact checking. I expect a balanced open debate. The Fairtrade Foundation have responded here. It appears that the research project not only failed to compare like-for-like e.g fairtrade smallholder farm versus non-fairtrade large-scale farms, but it also appears that some facts included and used to justify its findings, are inaccurate.
We welcome research, it is important; it helps us be better. It allows us to recognise success, highlight issues, investigate them further and make necessary improvements. However, is it responsible to give such exposure to research that appears neither balanced or accurate? I worry for those farmers that truly benefit from Fairtrade, and the impact this kind of publication can have on them. I wish that unfettered capitalism received the same level of scrutiny that trade justice appears to receive. I will certainly not allow one research paper to undermine my own opinion of a truly amazing model of trade and international sustainable development, that of course has its faults and is still in its adolescence, but despite that, delivers some truly wonderful and vital outcomes.
I agree with Mike Gidney, Chief Executive of the Fairtrade Foundation in that “it is wrong to say that Fairtrade does not improve the lives of the poor”. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Since 2005 we have had more than 50 Fairtrade farmer visits to Wales, all of whom have told their story and the positive impact Fairtrade has had on their lives and their communities. Were they all wrong too?
I urge people to continue to buy, support and promote Fairtrade, as the risk of us not doing so, is too hard to bear.
Elen Jones, National Co-ordinator, Fair Trade Wales