This article is reproduced from Ethical Consumer magazine Issue 123, February/March 2010
The fair trade movement has, by paying just prices for export crops like coffee, fruit and cotton, improved the lives of some of the world’s poorest farmers. But recently – as much by accident as design – several new Fairtrade certifications and fair trade projects have tried to bring these benefits to producers in confict zones. Sarah Irving finds out about the challenges they face.
According to the World Bank, one-third of the 1.4 billion people living below the poverty line around the world live in ‘fragile’ countries. UNICEF says that half of the children who die before their fifth birthday also lives in conflict-affected countries and ‘failed states,’ as do half of all young children not in primary school.
Tackling poverty in conflict-affected areas is a terrific challenge. Such countries are often driven by corruption and mistrust, as well as the obvious dangers to people trying to live and work in them. But, say an increasing number of fair trade pioneers, the just economic model used in more peaceful countries can also help to alleviate the problems of conflict zones.
Offering people decent prices for their produce can help to support jobs, improving living conditions for producers, their families and the local businesses they buy from, and diverting young men especially, away from involvement in militias. Developing trust-based structures such as co-operatives can help to restore social stability, and selling fairly traded products in the UK can help to raise awareness of conflict situations overseas.
Adam Brett is one such pioneer. In the late 1980s he and fellow Tropical Wholefoods founder Kate Sebag started importing fairly traded dried fruits from Uganda – at the time an area coming out of years of conflict. Now Brett is a regular visitor to the Shomali Plains, north of Kabul, where Tropical Wholefoods is working with US NGO MercyCorps to set up the structures to import fairly traded raisins.
“It feels like a very challenging place to work, but in a good way,” says Adam Brett. “There are still some nasty things happening in and around that region which are more down to generalised low levels of governance and policing than anything, but it means that people are very unused to working together and co-operating. For me, it means that the potential gains, if we can get them to do that, are really vast. Trade is re-establishing itself there, but people are incredibly distrustful of each other, but at the same time they really want to do something positive to improve their lives.“
This led to some very funny discussions about raisins being delivered to the four collection points which MercyCorps has set up in the region,” Brett continues. “They tended to be along the lines of, ‘What, you mean you’re going to let HIM take my raisins? I’m going to have to supply a guard if the raisins are going to be moved by HIM.’ So we had to think about how to work that through and put in place proper auditing systems for the purchasing and handling process, so that it’s absolutely clear to the farmers that simple corruption just can’t happen. And once their fair trade premiums come through, these co-operatives are going to have to trust each other enough to decide collectively what to do with money that could be used to build schools and clinics.”
A productive history
As Kate Sebag points out, until the Soviet invasion in 1979, Afghanistan was one of
the world’s biggest raisin exporting nations, and had a reputation for some of the highest quality produce. “Some of the older people in the UK dried fruit business we’ve spoken to have been really excited about seeing Afghan raisins come back,” she says.
And, Adam Brett points out, unlike many fair trade dried fruits, like mango and figs, raisins are a ubiquitous ingredient in hundreds of recipes, either at home or for store-bought products. That means that the potential market for Fairtrade certified raisins would be huge.
But here the challenges of working in a conflict zone rear their ugly heads. Afghanistan is simply deemed to be too dangerous to send inspectors for the fair trade labelling organisations who have to certify that standards are being met.
“We’re bringing maybe 70 tonnes of raisins to Britain this spring,” says Adam Brett, “but if we can find a way to get them properly Fairtrade labelled then that could be a thousand tonnes a year.
The market for raisins is very large. The UK alone currently uses more than 100,000 tonnes of raisins annually, and the EU more than 600,000 tonnes annually. We know big food manufacturers use thousands of tonnes a year in single product lines. With the volumes that Afghanistan could produce, we could see whole communities self-sufficient in terms of building schools and rebuilding infrastructure.”
One conflict zone product which succeeded in gaining Fairtrade certification in 2009 was Palestinian olive oil. It took several years for Zaytoun and Equal Exchange to overcome the challenges of getting olive products from the West Bank certified, but the premiums that Fairtrade status brings have been worth it, paying for olive groves destroyed by the Israeli army and settlers to be replanted, funding educational scholarships for farmers’ children and supporting the development of women’s co-operatives which produce other fairly traded products.
Some of the main problems faced by the Fairtrade olive oil producers in the West Bank have been logistical says Zaytoun’s Heather Masoud. Checkpoints in the area where the oil is produced are often closed, forcing long, indirect trips to the port of Haifa. And restrictions on Palestinians entering Israel make checking the conditions under which the oil is being shipped difficult.
“The frustrating thing for us and the producers is that we can’t hammer the shipping companies the way you would in a proper commercial relationship,” says Masoud. “We’re stuck using the same guys again and again and we need to keep relations calm and passive to have a hope of getting the next container out.”
Sometimes, of course, conflict situations simply become too hazardous or constraining for trade to function. The Israeli blockade, for example, has spelled an end to British fair trade retailers like Olive Co-operative and Hadeel’s sale of craft goods from Atfaluna, a deaf people’s charity in Gaza. And, describes Richard Friend, a colleague of Adam Brett from Fullwell Mills, his first visits to Afghanistan were actually to look at the possibility of buying raisins from Kandahar.
“On my first visits, in 2006, we actually identified groups of farmers to work with and two or three processing sites and we even got as far as experimentally processing ten tonnes of raisins from Kandahar,” he says. “Even then the security situation was tense: we weren’t allowed to do things that locals didn’t do – like wear sunglasses or seat-belts in the car. There were no big NGO 4×4 vehicles, and there was a sandbagged basement in the MercyCorps compound we stayed in.”
“There’s a big document that you get sent when you become a ‘temporary employee’ of an NGO by going in-country with them,” continues Friend. “Normally nobody sits down and makes you go through it in detail, but they certainly did when we went to Kandahar.”
Having to withdraw from Kandahar was, says Friend, deeply frustrating. “We hadn’t made promises, but we had met with the farmers and even made contingency plans like finding places where we could process outside the area if the security situation got too bad. But it got even worse than expected, so we couldn’t even do that. And Kandahar is a poppy-growing area and this could have been a really significant alternative to that, so yes, it was frustrating, because it could have been a real move away from opium production.”
Confict zone fair trade around the world
The first batches of fairly traded raisins from the Shomali Plains, north of Kabul, have been imported this spring. “But getting Fairtrade certification will be critical to building vol-ume sales and so is a key goal for us” says Tropical Wholefoods’ Kate Sebag.
Fairtrade certified roses. “These don’t come from the conflict regions themselves, but some of the farms we buy from house and employ refugees,” says Paul Thomlinson, of JE Page Distributors.
Gourmet coffee, sold in Sainsburys, is now being sourced from war-torn regions on the border with Rwanda where until now most coffee has been smuggled across Lake Kuvu, resulting in up to a thousand deaths a year.
Tropical Wholefoods sells Fairtrade certified dried apricots and roasted kernels from the precarious North. Apricot kernel shells and oil also appear in Boots Fairtrade and Neal’s Yard beauty products.
Palestine (West Bank):
Olive oil and olives were first imported by Zaytoun in 2004 and sold through solidarity groups and churches. Now they have Fairtrade certification and can be found in selected branches of the Co-op and Sainsburys, as well as independent food shops nationwide, and in Visionary Soap Company soaps and body butters.
Several importers are working on organic and fair trade standards with semi-nomadic communities where women supplement family incomes by collecting frankincense resin from desert trees. “Frankincense and myrrh represent one of the greatest challenges in our supply chain as this is not an easy place to visit,” says Louise Green of Neal’s Yard, which is taking a keen interest.
• www.hadeel.org – 0131 225 1922
•www.olivecoop.com – 01706 815 490
• www.holylandhandicrafts.org – 00972 2277 3087/9
• www.zaytoun.org – 0845 345 4887
• www.atfaluna.net – 0072 8 2828 495
• www.tropicalwholefoods.co.uk – 0845 258 2781
•www.jepage.com – 0208 561 0005
•www.nealsyardremedies.com – 0845 262 3145
•www.visionarysoap.co.uk – 01424 460 022
With thanks to Ethical Consumer Research Association