Fair trade is improving coffee farmers’ lives

By Matthew Burrows

March 1, 2007

French president Jacques Chirac has already pronounced him a Knight of the French Legion of Honour.

Dutch-born Catholic priest Francisco VanderHoff has worked for 27 years promoting fair trade as a tool of “empowerment” for the indigenous coffee farmers of his adopted Oaxaca state in southern Mexico. And in 2005, while receiving his award from Chirac in Paris, the ebullient Vander?Hoff came close to convincing British prime minister Tony Blair to make his home “totally fair trade”.

“Chirac I would call a courageous politician,” VanderHoff told the Georgia Straight over espresso in a Kitsilano coffee shop. “He has ways of adopting his more left-wing beliefs into his right-wing framework. He said fair trade was ‘urgent and necessary’ in front of [then–UN secretary general] Kofi Annan. Tony Blair is more tricky, very tricky. I asked when he will make 10 Downing Street fair trade and he smiled and said, ‘It’s very complicated.’?”

VanderHoff, 67, was only in Vancouver for 24 hours following a stint as keynote speaker at the Ethical Purchasing Forum at the University of Victoria on February 23 and 24. According to B.C. Co-operative Association spokesperson Michael Zelmer, who accompanied him on the trip, he can pass on a lot of wisdom with little fanfare.

“He’s not formal at all, but he’s very sharp,” Zelmer told the Straight by phone. “I just found out he’s writing a book with Nobel Prize winners and economists Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz. I’m quite impressed with how plainspoken and grounded he is, all things considered.”

In Oaxaca, VanderHoff participated in the 1983 official launch of UCIRI (Unión de Comunidades Indígenas de la Región del Istmo), a coffee producer cooperative created to pool resources and to bypass traders—often called “coyotes” or “intermediaries” by VanderHoff. (He is also responsible for launching the first fair-trade label, Max Havelaar, in collaboration with Dutch advocate Nico Roozen.)

“I don’t feel miserable but feel instead very free and very happy,” VanderHoff explained. “Fair trade gives you a different perception of what an economy is all about. When I started this, our farmers were living off US$1 a day, and that is truly miserable. But now they are at US$2 a day, while the state minimum is US$4, so that is still poverty. But it is a 100-percent increase.”

VanderHoff also claims the cooperative model he has developed has enabled his community to sustain itself while developing health care, a guaranteed food and water supply, and education. He said he still lives on US$2 a day.

In 2003, North Shore resident Lloyd Bernhardt cofounded the Vancouver-based Ethical Bean Coffee Company with his wife, Kim Schachte. He told the Straight he spent some time talking to VanderHoff and felt it was important for local coffee connoisseurs to start making the connection to the farmers.

“What fair trade essentially does is get rid of a lot of people who don’t supply value,” Bernhardt said. “It’s tough work [for the farmers], who are typically in a co-op, each member with his own family farm of one to two hectares, while a group will get together and share a mill where they do the harvesting [from November to March]. It’s lots of work and it encourages cooperation because individual farmers cannot afford their own mills.”

Bernhardt said he was in the software business but spent four months in Guatemala when he and his wife adopted their seven-year-old daughter from that country. He began to make “instant connections” in his head while observing the Guatemalan coffee farmers.

“There are approximately 25 $4 double espressos in a pound of coffee,” he said. “That’s $100 of product. As a wholesaler paying $40 a pound, that looks pretty good. It also looks good to a roaster.”

Until a few years ago, the farmer’s share of that pound of coffee was US60 cents, Bernhardt said. Since that time, a minimum of US$1.46 has been installed to help the farmers avoid the vagaries of price fluctuations and to get them a fair price. It also proves that, as Zelmer and VanderHoff believe, there is flexibility along the chain to help farmers at no extra cost to the consumer.

“Of the local coffee sold in Vancouver and Canada as a whole, we’re probably talking about one to two percent being fair trade,” Bernhardt said. “Look at Starbucks and the institutional side; most of that is not fair trade. Starbucks has one product line, and another that is organic. Otherwise, they sell all that [non-fair-trade] coffee, so that’s not a whole lot. But we are growing and we have to make sure that we do it in a way that is sustainable.”

Originally published in The Georgia Straight Vancouver Ontario, Canada. March 1, 2007.