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A Tour of a Colombian Fair Trade Banana Farm

by Megan Minnick, Purchasing Director

In late March, I had the opportunity of a lifetime to be part of an expedition to Colombia to tour Fair Trade banana farms, and to view first-hand the impact that the Fair Trade model has on banana-producing communities. The trip was led by staff from Fairtrade America, and I was joined by produce managers from two other grocery co-ops as well as a few staff from the national organization for grocery co-ops, National Co-op Grocers (NCG). 

The intent of this trip was to learn first-hand how Fair Trade works and the impact it has on farming communities. We visited multiple Fairtrade America-certified banana farms, including plantations and small producer co-ops, as well as community and infrastructure projects that the workers and producers were able to fund using the Fairtrade America premium (more on that later). 

The organic bananas you will find at all three of our stores are nearly always Fairtrade America-certified.

Though I have been overseeing our produce program for quite some time, and I had some idea of the importance of Fair Trade, I was not prepared for how powerful this on-the-ground experience would be. Many times during the trip, I found myself wishing that I could somehow have taken all of you, our 35,000 Owners, with me so that we could experience together the importance of our decisions to purchase Fair Trade products. By choosing Fair Trade bananas (and other Fair Trade products), we are having a real world impact and empowering farmers and laborers to lift up themselves, their communities, and (most powerfully for me as a mother of two small kids) the children in those communities.

What is Fair Trade? 

Fair Trade certifications allow consumers like you and me to know that the farmers and workers who grow our food are getting a fair deal, are treated in a dignified way, and that they are farming in a way that is not detrimental to natural ecosystems. In addition, it empowers them to improve the quality of life and future prospects for not only themselves, but their entire communities. 

The detailed standards (pages and pages of them!) for the International Fairtrade system are carefully researched and developed by Fairtrade International, headquartered in Bonn, Germany. Producers and farm workers from around the globe represent 50% of Fairtrade International’s system and play a strong role in deciding what the standards will be. Fairtrade International has chapters in countries around the world—Fairtrade America is the U.S. chapter. It should be noted that there are other Fair Trade labels that are not associated with Fairtrade International, such as Fair Trade USA, which is a separate entity and does not follow the international standards. 

Fairtrade Premium 

In addition to the minimum price requirement, each box of Fairtrade bananas generates a Fairtrade premium, which is money entrusted to the farmers and workers with the stipulation that it must be spent on farm infrastructure (in the case of small producers) or the welfare of the workers, their families, or their community. The Fairtrade International premium for bananas in Latin America is $1/box, which is one reason that we prefer purchasing the Fairtrade International certified bananas as opposed to Fair Trade USA, which pays less.

Seeing the Fairtrade premium in action was by far the most impactful part of my experience in Colombia. These funds are democratically controlled by small producers, or in the case of plantations, farm workers; and their use is carefully audited by the Fairtrade certifying agency. Premium dollars represent real change and empowerment in the lives of people who would otherwise have very few ways to tangibly uplift themselves and their communities. Because the funds are democratically controlled, the farmers and workers we talked with view them not as a hand out, but as a responsibility entrusted to them to manage wisely and use in a way that is most beneficial to their communities. The pride and heartfelt gratitude they feel to be part of the Fairtrade system was a message we heard over and over again. 

During our trip, each one of us was moved to tears by the projects we witnessed. We visited several schools that were built using premium money, serving kids who otherwise may not have had any chance at an education and could have easily been sucked into the drug trafficking activities that are still pervasive in Colombia. We visited a center for people with developmental disabilities who would otherwise have no place to go, and we danced to a band of incredibly talented kids who were only able to access their instruments and music instruction through the Fairtrade premium. We spoke with a coach who runs a sports program that trains kids who could otherwise not afford shoes to be Olympic level athletes, and we learned of a large climate change initiative focused on educating and motivating children. In the majority of the cases, the focus of the premium dollars was on kids and families, and on building communities for the future. None of these programs are limited to the kids of the farmers and workers, but open to anyone in the community who is interested. I came away humbled and inspired by what these banana farmers and workers have accomplished, and what they hope to accomplish in the future—and it was all made possible by a simple $1 premium on every case of certified Fairtrade bananas. 

The Fair Trade bananas you purchase at Willy Street Co-op do not come from Colombia. They come from Ecuador and Peru, but they are held to the same Fairtrade International standards outlined here. In the last year, our three stores purchased 7,756 cases of Fairtrade bananas, which means that collectively, we gave $7,756 back to communities in the form of a Fairtrade premium. 

How do we expand our Fair Trade impact? 

It’s easy—buy more bananas! One thing was clear to me during my trip - farmers and even plantation owners are eager to produce more Fair Trade bananas, but they need buyers who want to purchase them. If we demand cheap bananas, producers will be forced to produce cheap bananas, but if we demand Fair Trade we will be giving them the opportunity to have dignity in their work and empowerment to give back to their communities, and we’ll get some incredibly tasty bananas in the process! 

If you would like to learn more about my trip, the Fair Trade standards, and the bananas we sell, I’ll be hosting a series of workshops for Owners on May 14 at Willy East and May 22 and Willy West. Check the class schedule in this newsletter or our website for more details.

What are the Fairtrade International Standards?

The standards laid out by Fairtrade International are specific to each commodity and growing method (coffee vs bananas - plantations vs small producers), and they are incredibly well researched and documented with the help of various stakeholders, most importantly, producers. You can find all of them at the Fairtrade America website www.fairtradeamerica.org. They include:

Minimum Price. For each commodity (including bananas), Fairtrade International publishes a minimum price that must be paid to the producer. This price varies by country, and is essentially meant as a safety net to ensure that the producer is not paid less than their cost of production.

Environmental Standards. There is a rigorous environmental / sustainability component to the Fairtrade International certification. This includes mandating that farmers preserve and nurture their soils and natural ecosystems, that they reduce their use of greenhouse gases, and that they refrain from using certain toxic chemicals. 

      Because our Fair Trade bananas are also USDA Certified Organic, some of these standards are somewhat redundant; however, I was struck by the importance that the farms we visited place on soil health for the long term sustainability of their farms and also the quality of their bananas. This goes beyond the baseline USDA Organic standard, and leaves me wondering if this care on the part of Fair Trade farmers is what leads to the common customer comment I hear that our Fair Trade organic bananas taste better than other organic bananas. Healthy soil means healthy plants, which means better-tasting bananas! When I mentioned to several banana farmers that our customers believe that Fair Trade tastes better, they didn’t seem surprised at all—this is their experience as well and they are proud of the quality of the fruit they grow! 

Working Conditions. Another important part of the Fairtrade International standards regards working conditions. This includes a prohibition on child labor and forced labor, an emphasis on gender equality, the right of workers to associate, and occupational health and safety requirements such as adequate toilet facilities, access to clean drinking water, and protective gear for staff doing hazardous work.