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Lecture: Deborah James and Helen Ross

By David Iozzi

On Thursday, May 30, 2002 I attended a lecture by Deborah James of Global Exchange and Helen Ross of the Seattle Audubon Society. The lecture took place at the University of Washington's Bothell Campus and served as both an informational forum and an activist recruitment session. Bellow I have included the parts of the lecture that are relevant to my research, which aims to explore the internal links and relationships of the sustainable coffee activist network. Deborah James, the Fair Trade director at Global Exchange, is one of the movement's central individuals and is responsible for organizing many the campaigns more visible actions.

Thursday, May 30, 2002

Deborah James spoke first; here is a partial transcript:

"About half the population of the world is involved in some type of farming, and many of them, particularly people in poorer third world countries, are involved in producing cash crops for export. These are all products that we are very familiar with; we eat them every day, products like coffee cocoa, sugar bananas, and teas. These are all products that, basically, the system by which they are produced goes back to the time of colonialism. These are all products that, four hundred years ago, Europe did not have. They were discovered in the New World and brought into different areas. For example: the Dutch bringing coffee to Indonesia, the Portuguese bringing coffee to Brazil, the Spanish bringing it to all of Latin America, France and Portugal bringing it to various countries in Africa-coffee originated in Ethiopia-and setting up vast plantations. The [colonial powers] then imported slaves from Africa, enslaved indigenous peoples, and set up these plantations whereby the products would not be consumed locally, but shipped back to the originating colonial country for their consumption. These are systems of agriculture that were developed with that economic model in mind.

Unfortunately, as many of the countries involved in producing tropical colonial cash crops have gained their independence over the last hundred years or so, the economic model that we have today for producing these cash crops is not that different than [it was during] the time of colonialism. They may be politically independent but, economically, we still have a system where local people are involved in the production, be it on plantations or small farms-the majority of coffee is produced on small farms, about seventy percent worldwide-but where the majority of the profits actually rest in the hands of the importing and consuming countries. Right now, [the exporting countries], not even the farmers themselves, get about ten percent of the final retail price of a bag of coffee.

It is also important to look at the economic development model; to go back to the main ideology under which we instilled the idea that trade is beneficial for everybody. For anyone who has taken a basic economic development class, the basic model is 'terms of trade' or 'comparative advantage.' What that means is that different countries produce different things, and maybe I produce something more efficiently than you and you produce something more efficiently than someone else. So, if we all trade, then we will all be producing what we produce most efficiently and we will all benefit. That is a great model in theory. Unfortunately, what has happened over the last fifty or one hundred years is the countries that have been involved in agricultural production, whose comparative advantage rests on producing cash crops-coffee, sugar, cocoa, bananas, tea-the value of those products related to other products in the golbalizied economy, has plummeted.

For example, if you look at the international price of coffee, it is forty-three cents per pound. In no country that I am aware of, except for Vietnam, is the production cost anywhere near forty-three cents. Production costs around seventy or eighty cents per pound and they are getting less than forty-three cents per pound. That is the international market price. That is what it costs when it goes onto a boat; the farmer gets about half of that. They are getting about twenty or twenty-five cents a pound right now."

"People are able to travel around the world, around the universe. We are able to invent gadgets like cell phones, [perform] laser surgery, and create all kind of amazing innovations, and yet we cannot figure out a way to trade something like coffee so that it does not exploit and starve people. Is that really what we are okay with? Are we all okay that that is just the way it is? That it is just the invisible hand of the market? I get my coffee while you starve to death. The farmers do not get to feed their own children. Do you know what it is like for a parent to not be able to feed their own children because the international price of coffee is too low, because we are not willing to pay a fair price for it? …I am sorry, but it seems like someone is setting this system up in a way that is totally focused on profit while the human rights of the people producing the products they are making millions and millions of dollars on, are not being respected. Article twenty-five of the International Declaration of Human Rights is the right to an adequate standard of living."

"Our campus campaign: It stared with trying to build a network of schools; we have a network of about a hundred and thirty schools we work with at Global Exchange. We have an action packet to provide them with all the materials they need to do their local organizing. As I said, our goal is not to do the activism ourselves in our office in San Francisco, but to provide local people with a way to have a direct concrete impact on the global economy through local action in their community and to be able to see that link. So we have our action pack, we give you all the information, you can do a campaign on your campus, in your city-you can get your city council to switch over to Fair Trade certified coffee. We have a hundred and thirty local campaigns. Some of the results of those campaigns have been really extraordinary.

We had, for example, a group of about five students at UCLA we worked with last spring who did a campaign for a semester to try to get Fair Trade coffee served on their campus. Their university grilled them; they did not want to do it. Their coffee supplier was Sara Lee, which you think of as a pastry company, they are actually the third largest coffee company in the country and they did not want to switch to Fair Trade. They liked things the way they were, but those students persisted. These were five students, five kids out there doing this. They brought a Fair Trade farmer up from Nicaragua to speak. They wrote a research paper about Trans Fair and where their money comes from and all these kinds of things, and they convinced their Associated Students to switch over to Fair Trade.

So Sara Lee had a choice: they could either get off the campus, or they adopt Fair Trade principles and start buying Fair Trade coffee. They made the later choice. The result was that Sara Lee now has to buy quite a bit of Fair Trade coffee. Not just for UCLA, but they have a minimum target they have to meet to sign a contract with Trans Fair. If you go to a Boarders Books now-their coffee is supplied by Sara Lee-you will see Fair Trade coffee there, at two hundred and fifty cafes across the country because of what five UCLA students did over a semester. That is global impact from local action."

"We have been trying to get Starbucks, as the specialty [coffee] industry leader, to sign on to Fair Trade. We have been kind of nudging them for a while. We did some demonstrations up here in Seattle during the time of the WTO [meeting]. We have been targeting at their shareholder meeting. They had a meeting with us and said, 'no, we are not going to do this'-that was in February. We said, 'are you sure? We are going to have to go on a campaign.' We decided to start the campaign on April 13 and they signed on April 10, obviously because they did not want to see a bunch of demonstrations happen. How many people does it take to organize a demonstration, two or three? If you figure about thirty demonstrations across the country, you are talking about a couple hundred people targeting a major multi-national company that, [in the end], had to completely change some of its purchasing techniques."

"Last year, the three hundred Fair Trade coffee cooperatives worldwide produced about 165 million pounds of coffee. Unfortunately, only thirty million pounds were sold at Fair Trade prices. The gap between what is being produced and what is available, and what is actually being sold is quite big. The strategy is not to organize more coops. The strategy needs to be to organize the consumer, and I really believe that with most people, if you tell them the compelling story of what is really happening to farmer and that all they have to do is make the switch, I think people would do that."

"Most companies are not going to switch to Fair Trade coffee unless they have to. So what does 'have to' mean? A number of companies are selling Fair Trade certified coffee because they thought it was a good thing to do. There are some great people in the coffee industry, people who really believe in this, but it is a very small number of people. [The people and companies who are not selling fair trade certified coffee] need to take responsibility for the working conditions of the people who are producing the goods that are making them billions of dollars. We need to force those companies to do that. They are not going to come willingly. They are not going to come without a fight, but if we all work together, we can actually make it happen as we have seen from a number of victories against abusive corporate behavior, of campaigns that have been won by people coming together, and struggling, and forcing these companies [to reform]."

"We can have a large impact by working in our local communities..."

"It is not going to happen unless we ask. We need to make sure it is the company's responsibility and not the consumer's. That is the problem with Starbucks. We are very happy that we have had a successful campaign. They have introduced fair trade certified coffee at 25,000 stores across the country. They are now selling it in Europe-in the UK. They just introduced it in Canada this month; but they are still expecting the individual consumer to make the different purchasing decision. It is a flavor to them. It is not a way of doing business. We need to get out of that model. It is not a flavor. It is the individual consumer's responsibility but, you cannot expect every individual consumer to always be educated enough to make that choice. The company ultimately needs to take that responsibility"

"We can decide what kind of world we want to live in. If we do nothing, they will have won because the status quo right now is that there is a very small number of incredibly rich, mostly white, mostly men, mostly heads of corporations writing the rules that the entire rest of the civilian population of the Earth is forced to live under. We can choose the model that uproots the trees, that destroys animal habitat, that poisons our rivers and streams, that [keeps] farmers in a stranglehold of poverty and dept, that keeps kids out of the school and in the fields, that keeps people illiterate, that keeps countries on a debt-treadmill and in an endless cycle of poverty. Or, we can choose the kind of world that protects our shared environment, protects the natural resources that the entire world has been endowed with, that preserves the trees, the shade and all of the birds and animals that live in it, that keeps rivers and waterways clean, that allows children to go to school instead of working in the fields, that allows farmers the dignity of being able to provide food for their children, and gives some hope for the future. We have that choice."

…Deborah's lecture ended and she fielded a few questions. Here are some excerpts:

"I have heard that some of the coffee sold here is actually organic but that it is too expensive for the farmers to have it certified as so. Could you talk about that?"

"Yes, organic certification is very important. It is important for us to know that when a company charges more and markets coffee as organic, that it really is so, and the certification mechanisms, I believe, are very trustworthy. Unfortunately, it costs a lot of money. The Fair Trade system is set up to be free for farmers. We do not want to charge farmers for earning a living wage. The costs are born by the roasters. In the Fair Trade model the roasters have to pay a fee. Unfortunately, for organic [certified coffee], all the different steps of production need to be certified so it does cost farmers a lot of money, but in the long run, if they are in a coop, the majority of the time it is worth it to get certified."

"I have heard that Starbucks, outside of the fair trade structure, actually guarantees farmers a minimum of $1.20 per pound."

"That is actually not true. They have published that they pay an average of a $1.20 per pound but they have not said whether that is to a farmer or an importer, and it is my hunch, because they do not specify that, that it may be the average price they pay to importers. They also have not subjected that to independent monitoring and they refuse to do so. So I do not have any way of saying they are lying but we have documentation of companies who claim to be paying a fair wage and are absolutely lying. You may remember a case where Nike tried to say it was their first amendment right to lie to the public about whether they were paying living wages, and they lost, fortunately. They have said that for a while now, $1.20 average price but I would like to see it monitored."

…Deborah concluded her question-answer session and Helen Ross began to speak. Her lecture was heavily weighted towards songbirds and deforestation (as would be expected). She spent the majority of her talk showing slides of various songbirds while detailing the hardships they and other animals now face with the proliferation of technified coffee…

…After Helen finished speaking, Deborah returned to answer a few more questions. Here are some excerpts:

"A few days ago I was on the Oxfam site and I saw that they are doing a global Fair Trade campaign. How do these things go global? How do you create networks of organizations? How do you connect with other [groups]?"

"The Fair Trade movement, as far as coffee certification, started in Holland in 1988-they set up Fair Trade certification. Then, a couple of years later, Germany adopted the same principles, and then England. Now there is a network of seventeen different importing countries that participate and they are all part of the same organization called the Fair Trade Labeling Organization International. They are part of that network and to be part of that network you have to abide by the same criteria. Each of those agencies, these nonprofit bodies from different countries, monitors the roasters. They sign contracts with roasters and importers and then they actually work with a network of three hundred cooperatives that FLO, the Fair Trade Labeling Organization, maintains. So the producers all work with the same network. You do not have to have a producer sign up to sell to Germany, sign up to sell to England, and all these different countries. They work with the same registry and the coops apply to be on that registry. It is this globally organized network of seventeen different importing countries and, in Europe, I know, they have about 35,000 retail outlets. We have about 7,000 retail outlets now that are selling Fair Trade to 140 companies and it is all connected through this network of 300 coops in twenty different countries. One exciting development is that Mexico is now developing Fair Trade certification for domestic consumption which will make them the first producing country to be involved in the network."

"Why not just have one certification label for coffee that is environmentally sustainable, socially sustainable, and organic so that there is no confusion and the grocery store does not have some people asking for organic, some asking for shade, and some asking for Fair Trade? Why multiple labels?"

"There are multiple labels partly because of the history of how they developed. The International Federation for Organic Agriculture developed in a different structure than the Fair Trade Labeling Organization. They have different goals, they have different missions. Also, the monitoring is very different. You need to have someone who knows a lot about agricultural production to know whether or not pesticides are used on a farm. They have to be a scientist who is very trained in biology plant sciences to be able to go out there and do that. You have to really have a labor expert go out and monitor whether a not a farm is Fair Trade. They have to monitor the accounting. They have to be able to monitor whether it is democratic. That is a trained skill. What they have found, is that there is not too much overlap between those two things. There is actually effort to work together, to harmonize some of those costs, and bring costs down for consumers and producers, but that will take a long time to develop because these systems a relatively new."

Helen Ross:

"Shade certification is just now starting to come online and there is some hope that we would be able to include that with organic certification but you would have to train the organic certifier to go out and actually do that and it can be fairly complicated. How many trees do you need to be shade certified?"

Deborah James:

"The other issue is that there is coffee that is one and not the other. The are a lot of farmers who deserve a living wage who do not have organic certification yet and at the same time there are farmers who are organic but are not in a coop, it is still good that they are not using pesticides."

"I was just wondering if there was any effort to work towards a universal label."

"There is, definitely."

Deborah on globalization:

"…For me to say that we are against globalization. I am not against working with people from Costa Rica, I am not against people in Mexico having jobs, and I am not against development in Africa or even people in Vietnam producing coffee. What I am against is a system that is out to make sure that whatever rules we have to govern trade, benefit corporations; that corporations have a right to profit but people do not have a right to a living wage or the protection of their environment. We have a system now where the body governing human rights, the United Nations, and the body governing labor, the International Labor Organization, do not have the power to sanction; but the World Trade Organization, that governs tariffs and taxes, has the power to impose sanctions. I am not against globalization; I am against global corporatization."

…The final question-answer session ended and the lecture hall emptied. On my way out I picked up some pamphlets and chatted briefly with Deborah.