Growing Pains: Keeping fair trade fair

Sojourners Magazine

by Patty Kupfer

Ask the nearly 600 members of the CIRSA coffee cooperative in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico, how things are going and they’ll tell you, “Little by little, we’re moving forward.” Considering that a couple of decades ago the parents of these indigenous farmers worked in slavery-like conditions on large coffee plantations in the region, and that their region has been ignored and marginalized throughout its history, their progress is tremendous.

The Indigenous Communities of the Simojovel de Allende Region (CIRSA in Spanish) shipped 235 tons of fair trade coffee last year to the United States and Europe. Through the fair trade certification system, the small farmers of CIRSA and similar cooperatives throughout Latin Ameri­ca are guaranteed a minimum price for their coffee. This provides stability to small farmers, who live in some of the world’s poor­est regions—and who are especially vulnerable to the volatile market that dictates world coffee prices. This is why, on our weekly trip to the grocery store, many of us fork over some extra change for fair trade coffee.

Twenty years after its birth, the fair trade movement is suffering some growing pains. No longer a fringe movement, fair trade boasted $2.2 billion dollars in global sales during 2006, and debates rage from within about whether rapid expansion may be compromising the movement’s core principles.

One key debate focuses on the difference between small farmer cooperatives and large plantations. Right now, plantations can’t participate in the fair trade coffee market, but recent proposals would change that. In products such as tea and bananas, most fair trade items already come from large plantations, which win certification by ensuring higher wages, increased worker protections and greater social investments than they would otherwise provide. So what’s the problem with plantations?

It’s important to see how fair trade certification fits into the bigger picture of farmers’ struggle for a decent livelihood. Take the example of CIRSA: The coffee farmers of Simojovel de Allende struggled for years to win the land reform that enabled them to become independent smallholders. The plantations where their families had worked were a legacy of the colonial era, when a small elite controlled most political and economic structures, allowing them to sustain miserable working conditions with miniscule chances for upward mobility.

Owning their own land gave the CIRSA farmers the footing to organize as a cooperative in 1992; the higher wage they earn from fair trade certified coffee, in turn, helps them to win the constant struggle to stay organized.

CIRSA’s treasurer, Juan L√≥pez, states it eloquently: “Alone, you can’t do anything. We’ve joined together to make a better life.” Phyllis Robinson, education and campaigns manager at fair trade vendor Equal Ex-change, agrees that getting organized is critical. “Small farmers in today’s agricultural markets are up against all odds. The higher, more stable price of fair trade helps keep farmers organized in co-ops, where they have an easier time accessing credit or technical capacity building.”

If the Fair Trade Labeling Organization (FLO) were to start certifying coffee plantations—an idea that has been defeated for now, but is sure to rise again—chains like Wal-Mart or Starbucks would likely make their fair trade purchases from the largest producers, to simplify their logistics. Small farmers worry this shift would take them down a slippery slope back to the dominance of the plantation model.

Another concern is whether fair trade is still providing a living wage. In 2007, FLO approved the first increase of its minimum coffee price in 18 years. The increase of five cents per pound of coffee brought the total price to $1.31 (the price for organic fair trade coffee went from $1.41 to $1.51 a pound). While higher market prices in recent years have forced fair trade buyers to pay above the minimum to guarantee their supplies, farmers pointed to increases in labor and transportation costs that still weren’t covered.

Despite the challenges, CIRSA is committed and hopeful about its future in fair trade. Last year the co-op met all its sales goals and had a surplus to sell to the Mexican market. They’ve purchased their own semitrailer for transport. Every year they pick up a dozen or so new members.

In 2004, CIRSA began receiving visits from groups of U.S. consumers. They welcomed the chance to deepen the commitment and awareness between coffee drinkers and producers, recognizing the importance of an international network of consumers who are paying attention. As Robinson points out, fair trade works best not as an end in itself, but as “a window to get you hooked in. It’s not the last thing you do.”

Growing Pains. by Patty Kupfer. Sojourners Magazine, September/October 2008 (Vol. 37, No. 9, pp. 8). Commentary.

Patty Kupfer worked in Mexico from 2003 to 2005 as an international team member for Witness for Peace. She organized for immigration reform when this article appeared.

Jubilee Activities, Books, and Fund Raisers

This edition of the blog is all ads, announcements, and fund raisers. Some will even cost you money. But quit complaining. You know you have to give back every now and then. Life is like that.

First, two ads for books.
My apologies that I wrote parts of both of them, but don't hold that against them.

AboveGroundPicFirst, is a new book by Harvard Square Editions, Above Ground: An Anthology of Living Fiction. It's a collection of short stories and novellas all by Harvard graduates. (I contributed a novella.) What makes it worthy of note is that all of the proceeds go to Doctors without Borders and Jubilee USA, which as you probably know I work closely with. In spite of my contribution, it's a good book and you should buy a copy. You can get one by clicking here.

JubileeBookCoverThe second is even more self serving. I've just singed a contact to do a new edition of my book, From Jubilee to the World Bank: Economic Globalization for People of Faith, but if you would like to purchase one of the old(er) versions, some are still available at the same old bloated price, and you can find copies here. (Incidentally, the new title will probably be shortened to just Economic Globalization for Faith-Based Activists). You can order a copy by clicking here.

Speaking of things that are good for you but which will cost you money, here is an event you really ought to go to as a favor to me. Please come if you can:

Wednesday, October 7
7PM – 9 PM
"Common Place"

141 Oxford Street
Cambridge, MA
Just south of Porter Square at the intersection of Oxford and Beacon.
Hosted by Stan Duncan and Devon Davidson

Learn about the critical issues of the debt cancellation work: the bills in congress, the campaigns for fair and just international financing, the dangers of "vulture funds" and how you can help.
Also learn about the coffee you drink from our friends at Equal Exchange:
Ever wonder about the difference between medium and high acidity? What is meant by full body? How can coffee have a citrus note?
Learn how you can be a part of the world's largest international, interfaith economic justice campaign, bringing about a more just and humane planet.

Many of the countries hardest hit by the international debt crisis also suffer from the collapse of coffee prices and free market policies of the 1990s. Our partners from Equal Exchange, the largest and oldest Fair Trade company in the US, will join us and lead a coffee tasting from beans grown in countries needing debt relief. (We’'ll have decaf, too!) Other refreshments will also represent countries whose debt you can help us work to cancel.
For more information (maps, directions, etc.), please contact Devon Davidson (617) 501-3230;
For more information about the Jubilee USA Network go to

Mission and Justice Sunday

October 18, 2009

This year (and this year only) October 18 is a day that we can celebrate Jubilee Sunday, Bread for the World Sunday, and Micah Sunday. More opportunities than ever in one pile to lift up mission and justice themes. The stars will not align like this again for the next three hundred years and you probably won't be around to see it.

Why not make this an opportunity to lift up a our Christian commitment to global Mission and Justice on a wide variety of levels? Hunger, poverty, community and justice, all a part of one Sunday celebration. You can weave elements from each of the themes into a consistent thread of the Christian faith and justice message.

Here are resources for all of them that you can use. Use them all and make this the biggest mission and justice day of the year.

(Finally, ripped off from the web page...)

Just PracticeJustPracticeLogo
A New England UCC Justice and Witness event on practicing justice in our lives, communities, and world

Friday, Nov. 6 (5 pm) to Saturday, Nov. 7 (4 pm)
United Congregational Church, UCC
6 Institute Road ~ Worcester, Mass.

So what is this "Just Practice?"
Jesus said "The reign of God is in your midst." (Luke 17:21) So maybe, just maybe, building God's beloved community "just" takes practice, persistent, prayerful - even playful - practice. And really, everything we do is "just practice." We may never get it exactly right, certainly not without the intervention of God's Holy Spirit. Nonetheless, we give it our best shot. We practice. Sometimes we stumble. But we get back up and try again. We pray for the Spirit's participation in our efforts. We keep practicing, together, just because God who loves us calls us to this sacred labor.

Intrigued? Then join us!
Through creative worship, Bible study, shared learning, movement and group reflection, you'll be invited to deepen your own understanding of what "just practice" means to you and your faith community, and to share your insights with others. Together we'll explore what happens when we see, reflect and act on today's reality. We'll add tools for healing to help us live fully into God's call. And then, well, we'll just practice.

Learn more...
Download a flyer with agenda and mail-in registration form here (pdf)

Sponsored by the New England Conferences of the United Church of Christ endorsed by the Commission for Mission & Justice

The Palin Choice: The Reality of the Political Mind

George Lakoff argues that the Republican choice of Palin makes total sense if you truly understand the strategy of the Republicans in this election.
From Tikkun Magazine (
September 04 2008

by George Lakoff

This election matters because of realities-the realities of global warming, the economy, the Middle East, nuclear proliferation, civil liberties, species extinction, poverty here and around the world, and on and on. Such realities are what make this election so very crucial, and how to deal with them is the substance of the Democratic platform .

Election campaigns matter because who gets elected can change reality. But election campaigns are primarily about the realities of voters' minds, which depend on how the candidates and the external realities are cognitively framed. They can be framed honestly or deceptively, effectively or clumsily. And they are always framed from the perspective of a worldview.

The Obama campaign has learned this. The Republicans have long known it, and the choice of Sarah Palin as their Vice-Presidential candidate reflects their expert understanding of the political mind and political marketing. Democrats who simply belittle the Palin choice are courting disaster. It must be t aken with the utmost seriousness.

The Democratic responses so far reflect external realities: she is inexperienced, knowing little or nothing about foreign policy or national issues; she is really an anti-feminist, wanting the government to enter women's lives to block abortion, but not wanting the government to guarantee equal pay for equal work, or provide adequate child health coverage, or child care, or early childhood education; she shills for the oil and gas industry on drilling; she denies the scientific truths of global warming and evolution; she misuses her political authority; she opposes sex education and her daughter is pregnant; and, rather than being a maverick, she is on the whole a radical right-wing ideologue.

All true, so far as we can tell.

But such truths may nonetheless be largely irrelevant to this campaign. That is the lesson Democrats must learn. They must learn the reality of the political mind.

The Obama campaign has done this very well so far. The convention events and speeches were orchestrated both to cast light on external realities, traditional political themes, and to focus on values at once classically American and progressive: empathy, responsibility both for oneself and others, and aspiration to make things better both for oneself and the world. Obama did all this masterfully in his nomination speech, while replying to, and undercutting, the main Republican attacks.

But the Palin nomination changes the game. The initial response has been to try to keep the focus on external realities, the "issues," and differences on the issues. But the Palin nomination is not basically about external realities and what Democrats call "issues," but about the symbolic mechanisms of the political mind-the worldviews, frames, metaphors, cultural narratives, and stereotypes. The Republicans can't win on realities. Her job is to speak the language of conservatism, activate the conservative view of the world, and use the advantages that conservatives have in dominating political discourse.

Our national political dialogue is fundamentally metaphorical, with family values at the center of our discourse. There is a reason why Obama and Biden spoke so much about the family, the nurturant family, with caring fathers and the family values that Obama put front and center in his Father's day speech: empathy, responsibility and aspiration. Obama's reference in the nomination speech to "The American Family" was hardly accidental, nor were the references to the Obama and Biden families as living and fulfilling the American Dream. Real nurturance requires strength and toughness, which Obama displayed in body language and voice in his responses to McCain. The strength of the Obama campaign has been the seamless marriage of reality and symbolic thought.

The Republican strength has been mostly symbolic. The McCain campaign is well aware of how Reagan and W won-running on character: values, communicatio n, (apparent) authenticity, trust, and identity - not issues and policies. That is how campaigns work, and symbolism is central.

Conservative family values are strict and apply via metaphorical thought to the nation: good vs. evil, authority, the use of force, toughness and discipline, individual (versus social) responsibility, and tough love. Hence, social programs are immoral because they violate discipline and individual responsibility. Guns and the military show force and discipline. Man is above nature; hence no serious environmentalism. The market is the ultimate financial authority, requiring market discipline. In foreign policy, strength is use of the force. In fundamentalist religion, the Bible is the ultimate authority; hence no gay marriage. Such values are at the heart of radical conservatism. This is how John McCain was raised and how he plans to govern. And it is what he shares with Sarah Palin.

Palin is the mom in the strict father family, upholding conservative values. Palin is tough: she shoots, skins, and eats caribou. She is disciplined: raising five kids with a major career. She lives her values: she has a Downs-syndrome baby that she refused to abort. She has the image of the ideal conservative mom: pretty, perky, feminine, Bible-toting, and fitting into the ideal conservative family. And she fits the stereotype of America as small-town America. It is Reagan's morning-in-America image. Where Obama thought of capturing the West, she is running for Sweetheart of the West.

And Palin, a member of Feminists For Life, is at the heart of the conservative feminist movement, which Ronee Schreiber has written about in her recent book, Righting Feminism. It is a powerful and growing movement that Democrats have barely paid attention to.
At the same time, Palin is masterful at the Republican game of taking the Democrats' language and reframing it-putting conservative frames to progressive words: Reform, prosperity, peace. She is also masterful at using the progressive narratives: she's from the working class, working her way up from hockey mom and the PTA to Mayor, Governor, and VP candidate. Her husband is a union member. She can say to the conservative populists that she is one of them-all the things that Obama and Biden have been saying. Bottom-up, not top-down.

Yes, the McCain-Palin ticket is weak on the major realities. But it is strong on the symbolic dimension of politics that Republicans are so good at marketing. Just arguing the realities, the issues, the hard truths should be enough in times this bad, but the political mind and its response to symbolism cannot be ignored. The initial Democratic response to Palin - the response based on realities alone - indicates that many Democrats have not learned the lessons of the Reagan and Bush years.

They have not learned the nature of conservative populism. A great many working-class folks are what I call "bi-conceptual," that is, they are split between conservative and progressive modes of thought. Conservative on patriotism and certain social and family issues, which they have been led to see as "moral", progressive in loving the land, living in communities of care, and practical kitchen table issues like mortgages, health care, wages, retirement, and so on.
Conservative theorists won them over in two ways: Inventing and promulgating the idea of "liberal elite" and focusing campaigns on social and family issues. They have been doing this for many years and have changed a lot of brains through repetition. Palin will appeal strongly to conservative populists, attacking Obama and Biden as pointy-headed, tax-and-spend, latte liberals. The tactic is to divert attention from difficult realities to powerful symbolism.

What Democrats have shied away from is a frontal attack on radical conservatism itself as an un-American and harmful ideology. I think Obama is right when he says that America is based on people caring about each other and working together for a better future-empathy, responsibility (both personal and social), and aspiration. These lead to a concept of government based on protection (environmental, consumer, worker, health care, and retirement protection) and empowerment (through infrastructure, public education, the banking system, the stock market, and the courts). Nobody can achieve the American Dream or live an American lifestyle without protection and empowerment by the government.20The alternative, as Obama said in his nomination speech, is being on your own, with no one caring for anybody else, with force as a first resort in foreign affairs, with threatened civil liberties and a right-wing government making your most important decisions for you. That is not what American democracy has ever been about.

What is at stake in this election are our ideals and our view of the future, as well as current realities. The Palin choice brings both front and center. Democrats, being Democrats, will mostly talk about the realities nonstop without paying attention to the dimensions of values and symbolism. Democrats, in addition, need to call an extremist an extremist: to shine a light on the shared anti-democratic ideology of McCain and Palin, the same ideology shared by Bush and Cheney. They share values antithetical to our democracy. That needs to be said loud and clear, if not by the Obama campaign itself, then by the rest of us who share democratic American values.

Our job is to bring external realities together with the reality of the political mind. Don't ignore the cognitive dimension. It is through cultural narratives, metaphors, and frames that we understand and express our ideals.

George Lakoff is the author of The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 20th Century Politics With an 18th Century Brain