Fair-trade coffee helps the poor more than free trade
Regarding Gene Callahan's Aug. 8 Opinion piece, "Fair-trade coffee: not worth a hill of beans": Having worked six years shoulder to shoulder with small-scale coffee farmers in southern Mexico and Central America to improve their organic production and to find more promising fair-trade markets, I have seen fair trade offer hope, structure, and justice to the lives of thousands of farmers!
If you ask the 500 coffee-growing families in and around the village of Acteal, Mexico about fair trade, you might hear a very different opinion from that of Mr. Callahan. Living as internal refugees in the aftermath of the Acteal Christmas massacre in 1997, these villagers had lost their homes, access to land, and any promise for a dignified life. But in 2000 they got together and organized the coffee-farmer cooperative Maya Vinic. Two years later they sold their first container of organic, high-quality coffee to Cooperative Coffees, a co-op of 24 independent and locally owned fair-trade coffee roasters.
The farmers eventually were able to recover their lands and continue to grow their coffee using sustainable, organic practices as their fathers and their grandfathers had done. Using smart terracing and a diversified canopy of shade trees, the soil stays healthy and the coffee yields and cup quality continue to improve.
Regarding the recent Opinion piece on fair trade: The real strength of fair trade is that it allows producers and consumers to see each other through economic transparency. Authentic fair-trade companies routinely bring growers to their cities and take customers to grower communities so that they might understand how their economic actions affect each others' lives.
When taken beyond its minimums, fair trade also allows growers to, as equals, negotiate better prices with roasters, appreciating the added market value of this model. This adds some badly needed fairness and democracy to traditional top-down "free trade."
In response to the recent piece on fair trade: Without a single shred of empirical evidence, Gene Callahan bases his argument exclusively upon the assumption of a purely idealized market, existing nowhere in this world. Never mind that the farmers whom the fair-trade movement aims to serve are operating in places where, at best, corporate agribusinesses enjoy monopsonistic conditions or, in worse cases, forcibly appropriate the farmers' land with the help of corrupt governments or even with their own paramilitary forces.
To pretend that these conditions bear any resemblance to the "perfect liberty" described by Adam Smith is ludicrous.
Of course, fair trade is no complete solution to the exploitation experienced by farmers in developing nations, but it has provided one alternative to the armed resistance to which so many such farmers have been pushed.
Mr. Callahan defines fair prices as market equilibrium prices, and thus it is sheer empty tautology then to assert, as he does, that prices determined in any way other than by the market will be less fair.
Giant agribusinesses in Sudan are exporting their crops, while millions of that country's own population starve because the latter cannot afford the prices being commanded on the world market. By what contorted definition of "fairness" can such conditions be deemed "fair"?
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