The fifth National Fair Trade Conference took place in Halifax at the end of February and was not short on inspiring speakers, as well as appreciation for the work done by Manitobans to support producers in the world’s poorest countries. Last year, hundreds gathered in Winnipeg for the fourth big fair trade event and this time it was Halifax’s turn, just dug out in timely fashion from the mega-snowstorm that struck that city not long ago.
A highlight for the dozen Manitobans who travelled east for the conference was Fairtrade Canada’s national awards event (not quite the Oscars, but at least the correct winners were announced!), where Brandon was named Fair Trade Town of the Year for the third consecutive time. Brandon’s Grace Mennonite Church took the inaugural Fair Trade Faith Group Award while the City of Selkirk’s Civic Centre was named the Fair Trade Workplace of the Year.
Certified fair trade is a system whereby agricultural producers in the Global South form themselves into co-operatives, are paid a fair price for their efforts, work together to access Northern markets, and don’t allow any child labour in the production process. A fair trade premium is paid to co-operatives to be used for such advances as building local schools and clinics, acquiring new agricultural equipment and training, and doing research and extension work to mitigate the effects of climate change.
To qualify, as Brandon has, to be a Fair Trade Town, Council passes a resolution in favour of fair trade, a certain number of local businesses need to sell or serve fair trade products (the number is based on population), educational activities about fair trade need to happen regularly in the community, and a local fair trade committee needs to be in operation to overseas the process. Brandon was named a Fair Trade Town, Canada’s 19th, in May 2014.
Across the province, there are numerous towns, schools, campuses, faith groups and workplaces looking at meeting the criteria for fair trade status. The City of Selkirk will soon put in its application. Fort Whyte Alive, Winnipeg’s environmental education centre, just received Fair Trade Workplace designation. There are more to come as World Fair Trade Month approaches in May.
The most inspiring speakers at a conference such as the fair trade one are the producers themselves, having come from the Developing World to tell their stories. This was proven true again. James Mwai, Fair Trade Africa’s research and advocacy officer based in Nairobi, Kenya, left not one dry eye in the room with his discussion of the powerlessness and lack of dignity that results from poverty and economic oppression. By supporting fair trade through our purchases and our community efforts, he said, we are saving lives otherwise lost to hunger, disease and conflict.
Andres Gonzales, a farmer from Paraguay in South America, meanwhile told the inspiring story of his community, once poor and divided. It is situated in a sugar-growing region and lived in abject poverty, held down by the poor prices offered by local business people who didn’t identify with the peasant population. After educational and organizing efforts were made to bring the farm families together to press for a better deal, hundreds of families formed a co-operative and not only won better prices, but ultimately were able to build their own mill, set up their own product transportation and take on the entire production and marketing process themselves, improving everyone’s lives. He thanked the Canadian and European fair trade businesses who were their first customers and ensured that their early efforts would be successful.
A third keynote speaker, Gavin Fridell, a Nova Scotia professor originally from Manitoba who has written extensively on fair trade, challenged his audience by pointing out that global poverty is still very much a reality, and while fair trade has brought about some change, there is still much to be done. For us here in Canada, we need to make more people aware of fair trade benefits because the demand for these products is still much less than the supply available. Some producers will be forced to sell into the conventional low-price market until more of their supply is bought by consumers in the rich world.
It is ironic that the countries that supply us with the foods we love — coffee, tea, chocolate, sugar — are also the poorest on the planet. And the farmers who grow those crops for us make up the vast majority of the world’s poor people. It not only seems wrong, but is wrong. Thanks to fair trade, improvements are taking place. And thanks to efforts like those of Brandon and Selkirk, Manitobans are being recognized as leaders in the fair trade movement.
» Zack Gross is former executive director of Brandon’s Marquis Project and current co-ordinator of Fair Trade Manitoba.