What Fair Trade Means for Alejandro and Elida Maldonado
This summer I had the honor and the privilege to live for several days with Alejandro and Élida Maldonado, who own a small coffee farm in northern Peru. I saw first hand how fair trade is improving their lives, and those of 25 other families in the tiny village of Santa Rosa.
We climbed through the desert up to Santa Rosa on potholed dirt roads in a rickety van sponsored by Equal Exchange, the fair trade import cooperative. (Here, finally, was a place that could use SUVs, and of course they have none.) The farmers and their families greeted us like brothers and sisters and spoke from the heart about their difficulties and their dreams for their children. They apologized for the simplicity of their hospitality, while we, embarrassed, spoke of the richness of their lives well spent, and what we have lost in Western consumer culture. One of the dignified farmers inexplicably broke down and cried, overwhelmed by the magnitude of this visit from the Norte Americanos who bought and financed his coffee crop. It was a powerful emotional experience for all involved. More than anything, we wanted to show the farmers our respect for their work, and our commitment to them as human beings connected to us through a long and complex global food chain.
We awoke in their dirt-floor house at six to a cacophony of donkeys, dogs and roosters. I hiked up with Alejandro to his small plot. The steep, shaded terrain and high altitude necessary for quality coffee precludes mass production. In Peru alone there are 150,000 coffee farming families with an average plot size of only five acres. Woven bags slung over our shoulders, we searched for coffee plants with ripe “cherries.” After a morning of picking we shelled and washed the raw beans, setting them out to dry and cure in the warm sun.
Just a dozen years ago Alejandro and his colleagues were selling their raw beans into the local market at low and volatile prices. Representatives from the newly formed export cooperative Cepicafe convinced the farmers of Santa Rosa to join them, and since then their quality of life has progressed significantly. Cepicafe sells 70% of its coffee into the fair trade market, and commercio justo (“just commerce”) has made all the difference. Cepicafe provides higher, more stable revenues, since fair trade prices don’t fluctuate with the underlying coffee market. It also provides access to credit, so farmers are not forced to sell at rock-bottom prices to generate income, and has been crucial in providing agronomists and other technical support to the farmers of Santa Rosa.
Beyond pricing and productivity, the greatest impact of Cepicafe and fair trade has been on social development. A small percentage of fair trade revenue is captured as a “social premium,” which the farmers invest as they see fit. Higher prices and the social premium have financed better health care and education. Alejandro and Élida’s oldest son works as a chef, their daughter is studying technology and another son is exploring opportunities in tourism.
There is plenty of additional potential supply for fair trade. If we simply create the demand, one day all trade can be commercio justo.