Letters to the Editor
Reflections on Certification from the South
The following excerpt is from an English translation of an interview with Santiago Paz. This interview first appeared on Progreso Network on June 21, 2011. CEPICAFE is a Peruvian Cooperative with about 8000 members. They exported about 200,000 pounds of green beans in 2011.
Coffee has been, and continues to be, the leading Fair Trade product and whatever happens with coffee will mark the future of Fair Trade. And we are very concerned about what is happening currently.
In the 1990s, around the world and especially in Peru, a process was undertaken to reactivate co-operatives and producer organizations. Fair Trade provided us with an advantage; it allowed us to be more competitive, and this, in turn, enabled us to develop our organizations. We have seen significant coffee sales and we have been able to diversify … with regards to the financial market and with regards to the local market.
The first phase of Fair Trade was motivated by the solidarity of consumers that purchased coffee because of their social commitment. Then we moved into the second phase, which required another level of professionalism. This was an important step forward in which Fair Trade products became synonymous with quality—superior to the coffee offered by the conventional market. That is when Fair Trade became a reality.
But now, FLO’s [Fair Trade Labeling Organization’s] incentives and promotion is creating a vision, which only considers the importance of gaining market share. The hypothesis is that if we lower prices, and if we lower the standards, we can gain a greater share of the market. I think that this optimism and this vision that is limited to gaining additional market shares have brought us into a new phase that presents a serious threat to our organizations.
On the consumer end, transnational companies are now included in Fair Trade. And for [producers] as well, there are also large companies participating. We will probably not be able to compete with these companies, so I think that now is the time to define the path. If Fair Trade continues to follow a vision exclusively tied to growth, sales and the marketplace, we believe that this is the wrong way to go. The impact and advances that have been achieved are at stake.
Unfortunately, these decisions are not currently being made in the best interest of the producers; they are taking into account the interests of large companies. We propose a return to our origins and suggest that the producer organizations should be the focal point.
We also think that Fair Trade in and of itself is not the end goal. We [producers] believe that in addition to operating companies that buy and sell in a professional and efficient manner and compete in the international market, we should also act as organizations. Examples [of these producer organizations] include CEPICAFE, COCLA, and ESCOBAZA. We have become protagonists and politicians; we play an important role in the economy; and we believe that Fair Trade should use its influence to impact regional decisions made by other institutions, by international aid, and by local, regional and national government. I think that this is the role that we play currently and that this is what Fair Trade should be supporting.
Santiago Paz, Co-Manager of CEPICAFE in Peru
In the early 1990’s, I was fortunate enough to work alongside local NGOs in Latin America, farmers and scientists in creating the first standard for sustainable coffee farming. The Sustainable Agriculture Network – a coalition of NGOs – manages the standard that leads to Rainforest Alliance certification. In 1994, the coalition certified the first coffee farm, in Guatemala. Since then, the program has grown dramatically. Now, more than 1.1 million hectares of farmland are certified as sustainably managed, including 400,000 farms growing a basket of crops in 35 countries. More than 3,000 businesses are participating, and hundreds of products carrying the Rainforest Alliance Certified™ seal are flourishing in the market.
The program has been especially attractive to coffee farmers and companies. By following the guidelines, farmers learn to conserve natural resources, provide proper rights and benefits to workers, protect the environment, control inputs and costs, increase yields, improve quality, negotiate better prices and make nature an ally in developing a healthy, attractive, productive farm that ensures a better quality of life for them and their children.
In those early days, as the certification program was getting under way, some of us made the pilgrimage from Central America to Vashon Island to meet the coffee guru Jim Stewart. He was supportive, helpful, and even enthusiastic as he was also learning first-hand about the challenges that farmers faced then. We agreed that coffee roasters and marketing companies – all companies, really – should move beyond the neo-colonialist mode of philanthropy that was common then. At the time, companies thought that they could mitigate their moral obligation to the poor people in developing countries who supplied their raw ingredients – and at the same time give themselves a nice marketing story – by building a school or drilling a well.
Those of us promoting sustainability insisted that companies should move beyond projects to long-term engagement with farming communities. Stewart did this through a foundation and by buying directly from farmers. All large coffee companies and many small roasters and retailers now support their suppliers through certification programs. It is a new era. Certification programs give farmers guidance, technical assistance, access to resources, market connections, motivation, pride and incentives. The programs give companies a way to take credit for their investments in farming communities while holding them accountable. Certification forces companies to back up their claims, preventing them from taking a lifetime of credit for once having helped build a school.
Chief of Sustainable Agriculture
The Rainforest Alliance