The aroma of a coffee plantation in full bloom is sweetly intoxicating. Jinaldo encouraged me to sniff the white flowers on the tall, delicate trees and compare their complex bouquets. “Vanilla, fruits, honey, perhaps chocolate?” I suggested. Good, he responds proudly. In 210 days, the red cherries will start to appear.
Blossom lasts only four days each spring, so my visit to Dois Córregos in Brazil was fortuitous. It’s one of several trips during my past six years as chair of Fairtrade Foundation, and each has given an amazing insight into the people who grow our food or cotton, or mine our gold or silver.
Just two generations ago, Jinaldo’s family were working as labourers on sugar plantations. As sugar became uneconomic, the owners moved out and the workers tried to subsist by growing coffee on small plots. But the low, volatile wholesale price made it hard to sustain a family.
“In 2006 the families of Dois Córregos decided to group into a co-operative and to join Fairtrade. This gave them a guarantee of a minimum price plus an extra premium”
Over a strongly brewed cup of the real stuff, Pedro, Jinaldo’s father, told me that he had feared all four of his sons would migrate to the slums of São Paulo in search of work.
In 2006 the families of Dois Córregos decided to group into a co-operative and to join Fairtrade. This gave them a guarantee of a minimum price plus an extra premium. Wisely the co-operative invested the premium in harvesting and grading equipment which enabled them to improve quality. Jinaldo could now afford to visit other Fairtrade growers to share best practices. Chemicals were mostly eliminated from the growing cycle, through use of complementary soil-improving crops.
Now their coffee wins prizes in the “Espaço Café Brasil” and is bought directly by international retailers and coffee chains. Rising quality and yield means Jinaldo’s income has more than doubled. His own young children can study at school rather than labour in the fields or think about leaving for the city.
The injustice of the global system often leads us to see the poor as helpless victims. But what these trips remind me is that smallholder famers are entrepreneurs who just need a fair start to improve their own livelihoods.
Worldwide, there are 25 million coffee-farming families. Brazil and Columbia, which together produce half of the world’s crop, recently put out a statement confirming that prices are now below production costs and that abusive practices such as payment terms of more than 200 days are causing severe hardship for grower communities.
“It is a paradox that no UK coffee drinker would insist on haggling the grower down to a dollar a day if he stood in front of them”
But we should be optimistic. Many retailers and brands are now following or even emulating Fairtrade’s lead. They’re becoming aware that trade which can’t sustain producer communities is not just immoral, it’s bad business. If the next generation doesn’t stay on the land or invest in resilience then supply security is at risk.
And the UK consumer is becoming more responsible and ethically aware. At a time when trust is falling generally, 83 per cent of people say they trust Fairtrade. Sales grew by 7 per cent last year. I think this is because through a simple act of reaching for a Fairtrade product, one person can choose in a tiny way to change the world.
It is a paradox that no UK coffee drinker would insist on haggling the grower down to a dollar a day if he stood in front of them. Even the supermarket buyer doesn’t intend this. But separated by distance and an opaque supply chain, this is what happens.
So as I hand over the chair position to Lord Mark Price, the former managing director of Waitrose and UK trade minister, I’ll continue to be a Fairtrade consumer and always try to remember the people behind the goods I buy.
This article appeared in Retail Week 9th November 2018