When it comes to Fair Trade, Fair Trade coffee is a most important item because in some developing countries it is by large their first source of income. Also, in some rural areas it is almost the only crop which is possible to grow due to poor soil, altitude, slope, etc. In some african countries, coffee exportation accounts for more than 50% of their foreign currency income. You may imagine how dependant they are.
Globally, some 20 million farmers in 50 countries make a living by cultivating coffee, and that number grows up to 100 million if we take into account their families, roasters, packagers, etc. In large-scale, conventional trade, the main producers are Brazil, Vietnam and Colombia, which account for more than 50% of all coffee sold over the world.
|Click to see how Fair Trade coffee is harvested|
Huge transnational companies set coffee prices based on New York or London stock exchanges, in the form of futures (i.e. bulk commodities bought or sold at an agreed price for delivery at a specified future date).
40% of world trade is handled by just four corporations (I bet you may name them...) which trade mainly "on paper", and later buy the real coffee beans at the price they want.
Usually, large companies buy their coffee beans in large estates, where they may use chemicals forbidden in developed nations and employ lots of people on a meager wage, with almost no labor rights.
From 1970 to now, coffee price has gone down by about 4% year to year, throwing ever more farmers into desperate poverty. Only a tiny fraction of the final price is received by coffee growers, who often are deeply indebted and poorly informed.
They are most needing cash just before harvest is ripe, and then prices are the lowest; they can be even lower than production costs. It is in this situation when they are most vulnerable to prey middlemen, who offer them a high interest rate financing and a low price for their produce.
In sharp contrast with this gloomy picture, Fair Trade coffee guarantees that producers receive decent salaries, use no risky chemicals, there is no labor exploitation, etc (i.e. Fair Trade criteria are met). FLO certification for coffee is available only for small-scale producers, and not for plantations.
However, receiving an amount of money enough to make a living is not the only benefit of Fair Trade: Alternative Trade NGOs offer farmers pre-harvest financing and they commit to purchase coffee in the frame of a long-term relationship, providing stability to farmers' income. BTW, minimum prices have been raised in June 2008, tough not as much as growers had requested.
|picking Fair Trade coffee beans. Photo from CRS|
Also, they assist co-operatives in setting and pursuing the social development goals that are asked for by Fairtrade labelling standards. On top of that, producers are encouraged to diversify their crops to grow self-support foods and reduce usage of chemicals, going organic when possible, which in turn makes their coffee beans more valuable.
Personally, I am no connoisseur of specialty coffees; I always buy Fair Trade coffee because it tastes good (sorry, I can't be more specific than that ) and, above all, because I am sure that I am collaborating to cement social justice. Besides this, I enjoy talking to similar-minded people when I walk into a World Shop, feeling that we, individuals, still can make a difference on world trade.
I have read that by October 2008 Fair Trade coffee mounted up to a 3,5% of the total spanish cofee market. We are still far from the leading countries, but figures are increasing at a good pace.
However, there are different points of view about it.
You can find more details and information in some of these Fair Trade references.