22 September 2008

Fair Trade - Human Connection

Staring mindlessly at a world politics book, I am easily distracted by the clanking of coffee cups and the gentle patter of the rain. During a minor lapse in focus, I look up at the vibrant photographs of Columbian women laboring over fair trade coffee beans that have somehow made their way into my cup. In a trendy cafe in downtown Boulder, Colorado, the words “fair trade” grace my lips for a quick moment before I return to the manic life of a college student during finals week.

It is near midnight, and I am up late researching in the student activity room in Khon Kaen, Thailand. I recently signed up to interview a leader of an NGO in Surin Province, and I need to understand the nature of fair trade rice. While I can barely keep my eyes open, really want to ask somewhat informed questions, so I press on while I still have Internet access. We will leave for Surin in the morning.

I am excited and curious as I sit in my chair, pen set to take copious notes. Thanya Sangubon, also known as P’Nok, looks earnestly at our group of 25 CIEE students. She is the leader of Surin Farmer Support (SFS), an NGO that works to encourage local farmers to develop and maintain sustainable, organic, integrated farms.

Passionate and convicted, she explains that most farmers in Thailand send their rice to big mills, where they sell their rice for a low price, and then they return home without knowledge of whose mouths they are feeding. After the rice is packaged, the rice is distributed around the country, and mill receives the money. When the farmers sell the rice during harvest season, jasmine rice floods the market, so the farmers only get a maximum of 14 baht/kilo. Large corporate mills like CP give the farmers even less if the rice isn’t of premium quality.

Through the year, the global market fluctuates. During harvest season in November, the price of rice is low, since rice is abundant in Thailand. However, through the year, the price of rice rises steadily, and when farmers run out of their personal stock, they are forced to purchase rice for as much as 25 baht/kilo. This sends farmers, who already spend exorbitant amounts of money on inputs like chemical fertilizers and pesticides, further into debt.

Surin has a very different process of producing rice. The local, organic farmers own shares in Rice Fund, the local cooperative mill. As prices rise and fall through the year, the farmers directly profit from purchases. Rice Fund has importers all over Europe and in San Francisco, which makes rice farming profitable for traditional Thai farmers. SFS supports members of rice fund, encouraging farmers to grow other vegetables and sell locally to make other sources of income. With the organic model of rice farming, the farmers don’t spend very much money on inputs, since they have cows to make fertilizer and the integrated method of farming deters pests and produces excess food.

Fair trade rice production supports farmers who want to maintain their traditional livelihood and practices as farmers. In the rice market, it promotes sustainable, organic agriculture, while promoting awareness of the farmer’s movement. It also brings consumers and producers together, eliminating the middleman as much as possible. It “creates a relationship between people, to create peace in society,” P’Nok further explains. Fair trade helps people understand the issues others are facing around the world.

Back in my apartment in Khon Kaen, I appreciate the fruits my life has offered me. Contrary to the actual act of fair trade, I am neither buying fair trade rice nor eating the delicious organic produce that I ate in Surin last week. However, I do feel empowered. I know that I can be more aware of where my food comes from and help create a process that encourages better standards of food production and helps people. For me, fair trade isn’t a kind of purchase you can make, it is an understanding of how fellow human beings want to live, and supporting them.
Lyndia McGauhey - University of Colorado at Boulder

1 comment:

Suzanne said...

Fair trade is a trendy term often used, but not often fully understood. In the US, having fair trade coffee is common, popular, and perhaps allows you to sip with less weight on your conscious, yet there is much to be said about thinking a bit further. Seeing the farmers in Surin and knowing that we students were helping them harvest rice that others would be eating maybe in our village, or in Surin city, or Northeastern region of Thailand, or abroad is something intangible. The integrated crops we all walked through, the organic food we sold at the Surin Green Market, the freshest smells I’ve ever inhaled, are all future products for countries and families in Thailand and abroad. It is only after touching the rice, seeing it’s scraps become the chicken feed, and packing it into large five kilo bags that I could ever again understand what fair trade is and how deeps its roots are planted. Like Lyndia, I frequently enjoy my fresh, fair trade coffee in the states. After a week in Surin, I am sure that the next time I read fair trade it will take me back to Surin, allowing me to get lost in the sights and smells of what it means to have a fair trade product.