Tricky Waters

ByTomy Mathew

09 December 2010

It is an unusually hot summer in Kerala, as I write. Heat strokes, unheard of in Kerala until this year, have been reported from several places in the state. For the second year running, Fair Trade Alliance Kerala, that has between its members an estimated cashew yield of over 2000 metric tonnes, will struggle to meet its contractual obligations, indicating another year of crop loss of about half the normal. The reservoirs of our dams are turning in to parched dry beds and the Kerala State Electricity Board, dependent as it is on hydro electric power, is talking of an immediate twenty percent power cut. We are still in March, which under normal conditions should be a benign first month of the summer. Our coffee farmers in Wayanad waited with bated breath last week as a wild fire raged unabated in the adjacent forest for 2 full days. With vast tracts of one of the last havens of the Asiatic elephant reduced to ashes, we expect the hapless jumbos straying in to our farmlands with far greater frequency and wonder what direction the man animal conflict will take this season. With an inflation nearing 20 percent on the food grain prices, any yield loss in cash crops is fraught with dire implications for the food and nutritional security of several farmer families.
Kaalavastha Vyathiyanam, our farmers say. That tongue twister for the average Keralite is our common parlance for climate change. Except that it is more Sanskrit than our mother tongue Malayalam, which could actually come up with half a dozen simpler and more straightforward words to describe the phenomena. It is symptomatic of what happens when we are confronted with the unusual or the incomprehensible: we resort to the language of the priestly class and confine it to the realm of the esoteric.
While the science may be esoteric, the impact is not. It is real, felt. Though it is already here, intuitively we also understand it is something in the making; that the present foretell only inadequately the future misery. Characteristically though, the science is being dealt with in the safe havens where the impact is going to be last and least. As a natural corollary, the mitigation measures suggested too tend to have not just the smugness of those safe havens but also a perverse understanding of cause and concomitant responsibility.
That smugness has been explained in part by two unique features of the unfolding climate change crisis, namely, the unequal nature of the impact and the geographical separation of emission source from environmental consequence: “But global warming is not H.G Wells’s War of the Worlds, where invading Martians democratically annihilate humanity without class or ethnic distinction. Climate change instead will produce dramatically unequal impacts across regions and social classes, inflicting the greatest damage upon poor countries with the fewest resources for meaningful adaptation.” 1
For all the nuanced positioning and posturing by myriad stakeholders in the climate change debate, there is little contestation about what has been emphasized by the UN Development Report of 2007-’08: global warming is above all a threat to the poor and the unborn, the two constituencies with little or no political voice. 2Similarly, there is near unanimity that the challenge of climate change can simply not be met by steps that we consider practical. No matter, what simple and practical steps those ‘feel good do good’ TV spots might advocate, the climate change deity can be propitiated to avert environmental Armageddon only if there is determination to side step the practical and do the necessary.
There is therefore no mistaking the twin nature of the challenge that climate change posits:
i) a planet in peril calls for necessary not just convenient mitigation measures. Now, convenience, in the context of our discussion, has this strange capability to couch itself in an equity garb, against which we must be particularly vigilant.
ii) yet, all that we do must necessarily address the survival exigencies of those least equipped to adapt to climate change; it must be willing to look squarely in the eye the principle of cause and concomitant responsibility.
And the temptation to invert the above order is best resisted.
But tempted if you are to draw a parallel to the above with the red – green debate of yore, it is certainly not far fetched. That debate unfortunately only led to entrenched positions and a stalemate of ideas that crippled action. The burden of this piece is to explore if Fair Trade in principle and ‘Fairtrade’ in practice has the wherewithal to break the stalemate and propel us to action. Specific to our context, can global commodity trade in a climate challenged world chart a ‘fair green’ course?
But first things first and so a reckoning of what could be the implications of committing ourselves to doing what is necessary rather than what is expedient. Let us take on the FAQs of the debate, for it is important to make this as direct, prosaic and nearer home as possible:
Can the world continue to do commodity trade across continents in the volumes it does presently and still hope to save the planet?
– No.
Even if all of it was fairtrade?
– Irrespective.
Can the planet survive if we continue to drink as much coffee, eat as much chocolate, or consume in myriad forms as much amount of sugar as we presently do?
– It cannot.
What if all that coffee, all that chocolate and all that sugar were sold fairtrade?
– Irrespective.
So, here it is in black and white. I re assert, it is a voice from the global South. And it comes from a producer hungry for more and more markets, who cannot stop complaining that Fairtrade sales are just not good enough. Above all, he loves to hear Harry Hill’s knitted character repeat a zillion times – Fairtrade works, what is the alternative? Unfair Trade!
The central issue is not transportation, as is often portrayed. Of course, the massive haulage of commodities across continents is unsustainable. Of course, the food mile advocates have a real case and are right in pressing for answers here and now. (Some of those answers have already come and what appeared to be extremely complex arithmetical jugglery labouring to justify commerce with the third world have now solidified in to incontrovertible evidence. The IIED’s ‘fair miles’ formulation3 will continue to inform the food miles debate in the future reminding every one of the crucial distinction between simple and simplistic conclusions on the environmental footprint of consumer choices. But that is beside the point.)
For in the hierarchy of problems the issue of food miles is lower down the order compared to problems of food security, dwindling forest cover and endangered bio-diversity in the producing origins. The countries of the South can ill afford to be command cultivating cash crops for distant markets as they presently do if we are to still retain our optimism about saving the planet. But do we need more or less of Fair Trade to save the planet?
It is an excellent juncture to digress from the conceptual to the empirical. And to move from the dining tables and supermarket shelves of the West, which still retain its argumentative edge in the debate to the farms and forests in the producing origins to see if another perspective emerges:
The Indian state of Kerala produces just under 20% of its requirement of rice, which is its staple diet. It did not matter, until some years ago. The state’s agriculture was encouraged to tilt heavily in favour of cash crops, for the country needed dear foreign exchange to fuel its developmental and industrialisation aspirations. We grew tea, coffee, spices, rubber, coconut, areca nut… practically everything that had takers in distant markets, but little food for our own consumption. Central Government allocations for the public distribution system, as a quid pro quo for our contribution to the Foreign exchange reserves, and imports from the neighbouring states kept us going. Until our command economy got dismantled, statutory rationing was withdrawn and the universal public distribution system in the state that ensured essentials at affordable prices to the people began struggling to keep itself afloat. The crash in prices of cash crops – we had not just the collapse of the coffee agreement but also the dismantling of the Eastern bloc to blame – was simultaneous. The perils of ignoring the food security of families and communities could not have come in to sharper focus; but as any one familiar with peasant life will tell you, there is no worse time to talk to farmers about food security concerns and the necessity of crop diversity as when the commodity price graph cruises south.
Fair Trade Alliance Kerala, a small farmer organisation comprising of 3600 farmers was set up at the peak of this crisis. The guarantee of a minimum price for cashew, coffee, vanilla and other spices has brought in a small measure of predictability to farmer’s lives. And one of the first uses the premium money found was to fund a group farming effort by the farmers to grow rice and a community kitchen to prepare noon meals for school children. Tubers, seasonal crops that significantly contribute to nutritional security of farming households, have made a significant come back. Delegates at the Global Assembly of INPC – Liberation that FTAK hosted in 2008 were surprised that the agricultural exhibition hosted on the sidelines of the event displayed neither cashew, its flagship export commodity, nor any coffee or spices, which are the other products that they commit to the Fairtrade markets. Instead, the exhibition displayed about 60 indigenous varieties of rice, preserved in precious little amounts by farmers, despite the relentless promotion of chemical fertilizer / pesticide guzzling HYV crops by the government. It displayed at least two dozen tubers, innumerable varieties of bananas, forgotten legumes and ignored wild food. If ever evidence was needed about farmers fair-trading their way in to food secure situations, here it was.
COINACAPA is a Bolivian cooperative of Brazil Nut gatherers. Indigenous communities of Bolivia, Peru and Brazil hold the rights to gather the Brazil nuts from the Amazon forests. The gatherers have formed themselves in to cooperatives but negotiating the international markets have not been easy and most of them are steeped in debt. The livelihoods of the gatherers hinge crucially on a remunerative price for Brazil nuts, and the announcement of Fair Trade minimum prices for Brazil Nuts could not have come more handy. In the absence of remunerative prices, not only will none undertake the risky and arduous task of nut collection, livelihood imperatives will override environmental concerns in people’s approach to the surrounding forests.
Close on the heels of reaching their first container of fairtrade Brazil Nuts to the UK braving rain and land slips, the cooperative along with eleven other nut producer coops from Asia, Africa and South and Central America, pioneered the formation of the International Nut Producers’ Cooperative to take controlling stakes in Liberation Foods CIC, the worlds first ethical nut company co owned by producers. The 2007 Annual General Meeting of the cooperative took place following these momentous events. The focus of the AGM how ever was not prices, not the debts the coop was struggling to repay, not the quality issues that fussy customers were always nitpicking on. ‘The Brazil Nut tree is a patrimony to humanity’, the AGM declared. It must survive and the forests surrounding it must be protected for it to survive. Community strictures evolved about the stewardship of the forests that held the Brazil Nut tree. What hoards of punitive legislation failed to do to prevent the deforestation in the Amazon region could be achieved by the fairtrade guarantee of remunerative prices and fair market access. Even more, beyond their immediate stakes in the protection of the forests, the international peasant solidarity that the fair trade supply chain engendered made the cooperative assert the human connectedness. They were protecting humanity’s patrimony, not just their livelihoods.
Further in Africa, “Fair Trade supports some of the most bio-diverse farming systems in the world. When you visit a Fair Trade coffee grower’s field, with the forest canopy overhead and the sound of migratory songbirds in the air, it feels like you’re standing in the rainforest,”
says Professor Miguel Altieri, Leading expert and author on agroecology. But for a minimum guaranteed price, each coffee crisis will see a bit of that forest canopy disappear as the agrarian crisis in Kerala’s coffee belt of Wayanad showed. The coffee crisis changed Wayanad’s landscape completely. Debt ridden farmers initially selection felled and then increasingly clear felled the shade trees. From the farms to the fringe forests was a short distance and the forest cover dwindled almost irretrievably. Compare that scenario with the ‘Jumbo nuts’ story FTAK talks about now:
The man animal conflict is nothing new in farmlands that adjoin the forests. An entire crop can be wiped out by a herd of deer, wild boar or elephants. With elephants, it could be that your lifetime’s toil can come to naught with perennial crops like coconut, jack, cashew or Mango that have been around for decades uprooted by a marauding herd in the dead of the night. Instances abound of farmers guarding their crop with lethal weapons and resultant law and order problems if they ever are forced to use them in self protection or to save their crops. Some of FTAK’s premium funds went to commission a solar fencing around farms adjoining forest land – a benign deterrent to the elephant and round the year crop protection without sleep less nights to the farmers. Jumbo nuts normally referred to the large sized Indian cashews in the market. The Fairtrade cashews from FTAK are called ‘Jumbo Nuts’ because they are elephant friendly nuts!
Continuing on the bio diversity angle: The Nilgiri biosphere is a natural biodiversity hotspot and plans are afoot for the UN to soon declare it a World heritage. The environmental sensitivity of farming operations here should therefore be a global concern. If you leave alone the cash crop estates of tea, coffee and rubber, the small holder farming in the Nilgiri biosphere was characterised by crop diversity. The homestead farming traditions in this area was the spring bed of biodiversity and the basis for food security of the households and communities. And average hectare sized farm grew on rough count at least 60 varieties of crops, leave alone the shade and wild trees that provided fodder and timber. The immodest green they sport on a rain drenched monsoon day, to the untrained eye, will resemble a veritable rain forest. Next to deforestation, the shift to mono cropping is considered the most significant factor in the environmental devastation of the Nilgiri Biosphere and we can spare research about the cause: Unstable prices and farmers force changing to crops that fetch the better return only to be bitterly disappointed by the time the new crop reaches yielding stage and the prices crash. Coffee farms gave way to cocoa to rubber. Pepper gave way to vanilla; all to no avail. Today, a fairtrade farmer in the Nilgiri biosphere who sticks to homestead farming traditions can, under an enterprising small farmer organisation enjoy the stability of prices for coffee, a dozen tropical spices, coconut, cocoa, cashew and soon for rubber. There is no greater incentive this farmer needs to preserve the fragile ecosystem of the Nilgiri biosphere, one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots.
Take the case, again, of organic farming. That the environmental standards under Fairtrade, with its list of banned chemicals and sustainability criteria should qualify as organic production is beside the point. Apologies, but examples continue to spring from nearer home but the parallels are universal. The farming crisis of the 90’s and first half of the present decade brought home the perils of chemical farming in Kerala. Spurred by grant funds, NGO programmes and government patronage, large scale conversion to organic farming took place in Kerala. The state was in fact, first off the bloc in the country to announce an organic farming policy. The world (as in First World!) is waiting for organic products – convert, certify and enjoy premium prices! Small farmers formed themselves in to collectives to fall under Internal Control Systems that enabled group certification. Certification agencies descended on to the scene and a flurry of enthusiasm, also lot of meaningless frantic action – farm diaries, input registers, irrational head count of every plant head – ensued. And then, nothing happened. No product got sold. All that enthusiasm dissolved in to thin air. After a decade of such frenzied action on the organic front, what have we left to show? There are still organic farming organisations, the steadfast still continue. But almost all of them continue in business because they have had something to do with fair trade! The viability of organic farming, the cause of sustainable agriculture is best served under Fair Trade and it is not just the super market shelves that are underscoring the point, but experience in the producing origins too.
So that is what you hear if you are ‘listening to the grasshoppers’. Fair market access enables communities to trade themselves in to sustainable farming situations and food secure positions even as it propels action towards community control over protection of natural resources. The global south hence needs more not less of Fairtrade especially in a climate challenged world. In fact, the disproportionate burden of climate change concerns that Fair Trade is asked to shoulder is a recognition of its spectacular success in effectively using the instrument of trade to address inequity and poverty compared to most other interventions. If you can do so much, you could do much more is what the food mile advocates, the slow food movement and the deep ecology activists are telling Fairtraders. They are our allies, they sure are. Contrary to popular belief, Fair Trade makes common cause with them. We how ever assert that our relationship with the planet is inextricably linked to our relationship with fellow human beings, which must be reorganised around concerns of justice and fairness.
One of the poignant moments of the Stockholm conference is believed to be the declaration by Mrs. Indira Gandhi, then Indian Prime Minister that poverty is the biggest pollutant. Except that the world wasted about four decades since the dire warnings of Stockholm, chasing the mirage of development as the grand panacea for poverty. Growth in its value neutral form and of lately in its ‘inclusive’ variant has been and is being chased with missionary zeal. Quantity of trade from the South to the North became part of the grand narrative of growth and development supported by massive governmental incentives and grant money. It made millionaires out of export license holders in the Global South, created sweatshops where thousands laboured in inhuman conditions and chemically abused vast tracts of arable land. What is intriguing is that the Stockholm conference was acutely conscious of the equity angle of trade in addressing environmental issues. Principle 10 is explicit:
“For the developing countries, stability of prices and adequate earnings for primary commodities and raw materials are essential to environmental management, since economic factors as well as ecological processes must be taken into account.”
So you could not just trade your way out of poverty. In the absence of stability of prices and adequate earnings for primary raw materials, international trade would only perpetuate poverty and accelerate environmental degradation. Enter Fair Trade, we dare say?
The logic of free trade is Siamese twin to the conventional wisdom surrounding growth and development: Maximising efficiency and comparative advantage will ensure that growth continues unabated and then the all too familiar trickle down theory comes in to effect, which is what the world’s poor should see as their stake in the system. With nearly 3 decades of mission driven praxis, Fair Trade could legitimately claim that it has effectively challenged this logic and it is the common ground we share with the environmental movement, even if we addressed it primarily from the equity and trade justice angle.
So, back to our dry FAQ postures. If the case were that global commodity trade could not grow unabated, in fact, if it might need some stringent curtailing even as things stand now, where do we begin? We must begin I suppose with those products that have minimal or negative impact on our ‘optimal nutrition’, I suppose. And we must be comfortable in acknowledging the reality that the fairtrade product basket as it stands today has quite a few such products.
But with issues of health, food miles, food security and biodiversity, all coalescing in to that coffee bean, we tend to forget history. Coffee cultivation at the producing origins is unfortunately a colonial legacy, and characteristic of commodities with such legacy, a comparatively greater measure of injustice seems to have got embedded in the DNA of its global commerce. Fair Trade understandably did not mandate itself to trade in the feel good commodities of the environmentalists to start with, or even in commodities that contributed to optimal nutrition. It chose coffee where the injustice of trade was the highest.
So, paraphrasing for fair trade’s flagship product, how do we get rid of our caffeine addiction? The global caffeine de-addiction programme for the sake of the planet! There is no mistaking that prescription. It must necessarily start with the world drinking far greater amounts of fair trade coffee than it does presently. Getting all that unfair coffee out of the way is our only hope for producing origins trading their way out of poverty, in to food security, away from mono crop and in to sustainable farming and crop diversity situations. The world cannot but be producing and drinking far less coffee in the bargain.
The challenge cannot be overemphasized: We need to find ways to ensure food security for everybody in a global population that seems destined to push past the 9 billion mark in the foreseeable future. And we need to have the planet in one piece to hold that population. If single-minded focus on growth is an untenable proposition, then our world henceforth will undoubtedly be one that is called upon to do ‘more with less’. Distributive justice and sustainability will be critical elements of the commodity exchange of the future and Fair Trade is a small glimpse of what it might look like.

1 Mike Davis: Who will build the Ark New Left Review Jan Feb 2010 Issue no:61
2 UN Development Report 2007-08
3 See
4 Big ideas in development : Fair miles – recharting the food miles map IIED


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