Cooperative change – by Marianne Pemberton

While we tweet, share, and post on all things Fairtrade related during the Fairtrade Fortnight, we’re presented with a great opportunity to dig just ever-so-slightly deeper and talk about why Fairtrade is something worth tweeting, sharing, and posting about. For this blog, I’m going to focus on the organizational model that United Nations has rallied around for 2012, and a key characteristic in coffee, chocolate, and a number of other Fairtrade certified goods. You guess it! The cooperative.

Cooperatives present an alternative to the norm in terms of doing business. For example, cooperatives are owned and controlled by their members, which means that goals tend to balance between the pursuit of profit, and the interests of members and their communities.

For small farmers around the world, cooperatives have provided an opportunity to leverage their land, participate in democratically organized assemblies, and invest in their professional and personal communities. It’s this very part of Fairtrade that producers we’ve spoken with this year – like Esperanza of Pangoa and Baltazar of Asobagri – point to as key parts of Fairtrade. This is what you’re supporting when you buy Fairtrade.

Fairtrade and cooperatives

Okay – quickly to basics. As you likely know, Fairtrade certification guarantees a number of economic, labour, and environmental standards in producing countries. Most famous and most often discussed are the fair price and premium, but beyond this, it’s the cooperative organizing structure, which cannot be quantified in dollars, that has led to many positive changes in producing communities.

For example, when chatting with Esperanza last November (who I had the pleasure of seeing again at the SCAA this year) many of the Fairtrade benefits she identified were due to being part of the cooperative, democratic organization and the savings from the Fairtrade premium. These ranged from scholarships and health care services which benefit the community, to technical support, research, and infrastructure to improve the professional capacity of Pangoa members and producers in Peru.

For members of Pangoa, being part of the cooperative doesn’t just mean a fair price and improved market access, but also means inclusion in the decision-making process, benefits from community social services, and long-term improvements for the cooperative.

These sentiments were echoed during a recent conversation I had with Baltazar, the General Manager of Asobagri in Guatemala (more on this below).

Cooperative change

In both the global North and South, cooperatives have demonstrated clear benefits for their members and communities. For small farmers around the world who balance their plots of land among crops to consume and crops for export, being able to band together with a group of producers in the same situation is a powerful tool. Those who were once at the mercy of intermediaries now have the opportunity to pool their coffee into larger pools and gain market leverage. Those who lacked access to technical assistance, or even educational and health care services, through a cooperative are able fill these gaps.

To close, I have included some excerpts from my conversation with Baltazar and Carlos of the Asobagri cooperative during the SCAA in Portland last month. Thanks for taking the time to learn a bit more about a key part of Fairtrade coffee: the cooperative!


Chat with Baltazar from Asobagri (excerpts)

How many members in your cooperative?

1000 members, and we collaborate as workers in the cooperative office with about 21 people.

And is everyone close to each other, more or less? Or from all around?

The coffee growers are all over in various areas, sometimes four or five hours from the warehouse.

Do you have a coffee plot yourself?

Yes, that’s how I came to be a member of Asobagri.

The important thing is that when a producer know they have a future, and a secure market with an organization like Asobagri, they are happy. Because they know they won’t have to sell their coffee through intermediaries, they know that they’re going to have a better deal, a better price for their product, and services from the cooperative or a supporting organization. This is a big advantage for a small producer.

And we try, all of the workers, all the members of the cooperative know that the struggle for us is to ensure we have the highest possible quality of coffee for the market. This is something that each person, each producer, each picker, knows, that we are trying to collect the highest quality coffee possible, and the best possible product for our customers.

As organized producers, like as we are as Asobagri, we have this advantage and this secure market. And Fair Trade is definitely a support with its premium, and the funds that are going to help various programs like education, scholarships for members and the children of members, programs that can help when people are sick –

Available for all producers?
Yes, exactly. There’s credit to improve the harvest, to improve activities in the fields, because there is a phase when there is no money in the fields. This premium they’re able to use – all members are able to use them. A lot of the time, when there are no funds for this type of credit to improve the harvest, many times producers will sell their coffee through a coyote. He will give them money at that very moment.  Here’s the money, bring me your coffee. And the price? Well they just put what they want. So in this way Asobagri has been a big help for producers, to be able to give them advanced credit, and then that’s factored into the price they receive when they eventually bring in their coffee. So this work that we’ve been doing ever since Asobagri has been fairtrade.

The truth is that it has helped us a lot to strengthen our organization, and to improve the conditions in the fields as well. There are still some challenges and problems that still need to be resolved, but in the case of Asobagri we’re doing the best we possibly can for our producers. This is what we’re working on at the moment.



Thank you for reading and for your support during the Fairtrade Fortnight. Everyone at Ethical Bean hopes you’ll take a moment before May 15th to:

Vote for Canada’s Favourite Fairtrade Product; and

Take a Step for Fairtrade

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