Tag Archives: sustainability

Coffee Rust: La Roya threatens coffee farmers in Latin America


The Coffee Rust fungus is devastating coffee production across Latin America. In many areas such as Peru, production is down by 75%. Climate change is a major contributor has been widely reported (Video).

As most coffee is grown on tiny family acreages this crisis is increasing poverty amongst those with least resilience.

Yet again, it is interesting how opinions become polarised once Fair Trade is mentioned as part of any sustainability solution once dialogue starts on forums. This is a shame as there is much practical experience to learn from all sides. In my experience there are farmers affected by La Roya supplying a bit of their coffee Fairtrade (FT) certified via coops and many many more unable to sell as the market is too small. The dominant tradition is Free Trade, not Fairtrade, nor Direct trade, nor any other cheaper certification. For those lucky enough to have a FT contract it does not offer a solution to La Roya any more than a Free Trade one. Premiums are just too small as it takes seasons to address the issue. 

That debate about effectiveness is therefore about one’s business philosophy. Whether one’s business is small, entrepreneurial, unprepared to have third party scrutiny and unaccountable or large and needing a cost effective CSR programme to field company ‘ethicality’ to shareholders. Either way the issue is systemic. Farmers are rarely powerful intermediaries in the coffee trade, an ocean of sharks few understand and even fewer have the skills and resources to influence, which is only too willing to exploit weaker players. Fairtrade, for all its faults at least gives consumers some insight and some control on the outcomes however imperfect and is at last redressing the balance. Small-scale coffee farmers begin to have a voice.

Most coops are unable to sell anything like enough certified FT to provide enough reinvestment to combat the fungus. Equally, so-called ‘direct’ trade offers such small purchase volumes to specific farms and does not get coverage nor offer down side security. Consumers have no idea who to trust and who is making it up as they go. The real issue for farmers is the trade itself, pushing prices lower for competitive advantage, whether for certified or uncertified coffee. This can happen in any coffee transaction.

FT has no power to adjudicate or influence the transaction when it is above the COP. It would be most interesting for consumers to have transparency on the price /quality/volume equation. A real choice could then be made.

Fairtrade International (who set global standards) remains the only third party certification system that farmers actually have an equal stake in governance, strategy and standards development. As such it can be promoted as part of coffee farmer’s strategy to secure more of the value chain.

Free Trade is in general unable to provide an element of price security that a well-functioning coop can offer when prices fall as supply increases. Unlike Fairtrade, it cannot offer finance for coops to make critical early harvest purchases, which makes farmers price setters. Fairtrade on the other hand can also provide many examples of coop good practice and re-investment. But as a third party certifier, it does not control the transaction between buyer and seller, only certify and there are good and bad coops just as there are good and bad farmers. Most small scale farmers therefore use coops/certification as a price risk strategy, exploiting any upside by selling outside it and utilising it more when there is a perceived downside.

No doubt some excellent coffee is shipped from a few family farms via so called ‘Direct’ trade businesses. Whilst certified Fairtrade was created over 25 years ago by companies doing ‘Direct’ trade, there is now a new wave that does not buy into the values of those pioneers. ‘Direct’ has become a marketing term meaning ‘fairer than fair’ to position the new wave within the customer base created by Fairtrade. However, ‘Direct’ trade by definition has no middle men when really ‘walking the talk’. Few individuals are prepared to finance all the value-chain steps to sustain this at scale though, cherry-picking a few bags of fine coffee and leaving the farmer to market the lower grades. Fewer still are owned (like coops) by the coffee farmers and able to offer a range of services. By definition, they are small businesses which see any additional cost, especially that of independent third party scrutiny as a burden to competing.

The scale challenge remains and investment is needed to create climate resilience for small scale coffee farmers. Once the ‘Direct’ traders can sell thousands of tonnes of Fairtrade coffee, like British companies cafedirect and Twin Trading who also have farmers on their Boards, consumers, perhaps sipping a fabulous ‘Geisha’ coffee can make their ethical choice accordingly, knowing that perhaps, they are creating resilience to coffee rust too!


Pumice and chips

Last June I spent some hours on the Sunshine Beach … here is the blog  I posted to my Facebook friends at the time. Yesterday’s beach walk inspired me to re-post it here.

I got back from the beach and spent a few hours looking into plastic pollution. I’d read about the Pacific, west of California, being turned into a giant garbage dump bigger than Texas but was astonished to spot large numbers of plastic chips amongst what looked like pumice pebbles right here on Sunshine Beach.

Receding king tides had left small drifts of pumice interspersed with tiny blue and green shards.

Pumice and plastic chips on Sunshine Beach

Pumice and plastic chips on Sunshine Beach

and nearby a bigger bank.

Having begun reading up about Capn Charles Moore’s sailings a few years ago to the N Pacific Gyre on the Alguita http://www.vice.com/toxic/toxic-garbage-island-1-of-3

I found more on volcanic eruptions in the nearby South Pacific.

There are no active volcanos in Australia! However, newspapers reported major pumice strandings along the Queensland Sunshine Coast in mid April 2013. The most likely source was recycling along coast from earlier arrivals that had first come ashore in 2007 from a Tongan eruption.

There was one in my collection from yesterday. About 3=4 mm in diameter.

Pumice from the Home Reef eruption that began early-to-mid August 2006 reached the eastern Australian coast in March 2007. A substantial stranding of the pumice in mid-April extended for more than 1,300 km along the Queensland and northern New South Wales coast. Pumice ‘clasts’ or stones ranged in size from 1-4 cm in diameter, with the largest ‘clasts’ up to 17 cm in diameter. A visit to Home Reef in February 2007 revealed a pumice mound barely visible over the waves.

Pumice raft

Research now shows that such eruptions can disperse marine life more effectively than ocean currents alone. Studies demonstrated that large rafts transported over 80 species collected on a +5000km journey from the eruption locality to the Barrier Reef over 8 months.


The same author reports a similar sequence of events in 2001-2 and other writers researching pumice layers from midden excavations on NSW coast suggest that it has been going on for thousands of years.

Whilst reports mention the marine hitch-hikers they say little about rafts picking up plastic waste too. I wondered how these became mixed with the pumice. Were they local waste, carried into the sea through storm drains and subsequently ground by beach action. I didn’t see much evidence of on-going waste deposit on the Beach so perhaps this was just a collection zone for the little bits floating out on the ocean?

This afternoon, curiosity got the better of me. Here is my collection (along with some pumice and shell) from a sparse 2 metre drift randomly chosen. The little round white one next to the coin is the raw material from which plastic objects are moulded. There were 17 different blues and greens and 2 reds, never mind the black and whites. I imagined quite a heap just from my little area. I imagined a large heap of plastic objects from all over the pacific of which these shards were a small percentage, and now distributed along countless beaches and sea floors.

Fair Trade Alliance Kerala inaugurates new office

Late May is hot in Kerala. This year hotter and dryer than usual, reports not of hunger in this the homestead state, but drought in villages near Calicut http://s.coop/1p1nk

Elsewhere, it’s still dry but a green countryside… coconut palms, rubber trees and smallholder farms known as Homesteads where 10 different tropical products from coffee and cashew to cinnamon cloves and vanilla are Fairtrade certified, many all on the same few acre farm.

Welcome pre-monsoon storms

Welcome pre-monsoon storms

We’d met women farmers and tribal communities, all members of Fairtrade Alliance Kerala (FTAK) as part of a field visit to celebrate partnership and the inauguration of their office building in Thadikkadavu village in northern Kerala.

The gleaming white building shone in the eerie evening glow as clouds descended and the heavens opened. Perhaps it was only fitting that the first heavy pre-monsoon shower should christen this brand new building, the new home for FTAK, Kerala’s largest and most successful Fairtrade small-farmer association.



The deluge

The deluge

As thunder and lightning crashed and flashed, excitement over the refreshing rains turned to concerns as chairman and organisers stripped to their dhotis to dig channels to clear the deluge away from the venue.




Symbolic candles lit at FTAK office inauguration

Symbolic candles lit at FTAK office inauguration

Next day we shared a platform with local politicians, the FTAK Board, Abishek the new CEO of Fair Trade India and senior staff from FTFUK. Tim Gutteridge Chief Operating Officer of Fairtrade Foundation choose to light the symbolic candle with Theamma from the Pulpally women’s group and pronounced the office open and fitting gesture of partnership to begin the day

 Speakers focused on the continued passion to improve livelihoods on journeys shared since 2005 by nearly 10000 member farmers across this State. Mention was made of those 100% Fairtrade partners such as Equal Exchange, Twin and Pakka and Liberation CIC, http://s.coop/1p1ph  a Fairtrade Nut company co-owned by FTAK and other farmer groups across India, Africa and South America.

FTAK Fairtrade cashew products

FTAK Fairtrade cashew products

Several hundred proud farmers shared lunch with us and renewed dreams before their annual AGM later in the afternoon. The new office was a fitting stepping stone to even greater innovation lead through the ‘Fairtrade plus 3’ programme begun last year focusing on Gender Justice, Biodiversity and Food Security.

I left reflecting that a rarely publicised component of the Fairtrade value chain is their association or coop. It is a critical step in scaling up the individual family efforts, so that collectively, they have power and can gain market access. Here was an fine example of where the bar should be set.

A year’s progress for the women of Pulpally in Kerala

Pulpally women's group describe their loan project

Pulpally women’s group describe their loan project

In April 2012 I visited Wayanad in Kerala and meet the Pulpally women’s group and learnt about FTAK’s ‘Fairtrade plus 3’ policy, in particular to distribute Fairtrade premiums as loans for livelihood development through women’s projects . See  https://www.facebook.com/notes/equal-exchange-uk/gender-justice-at-fairtrade%20-alliance-kerala-ftak/10150672014243344 and similar for reports.

The ladies were thrilled with their success then and now I wanted to hear how their work was progressing a year later.

Our party (Tim and Martin from Fairtrade Foundation) myself, Tomy Mathew, and Paul (the FTAK district officer ) met them again . All smiles as we started the meeting. There was an air of excitement presenting to visitors again.

Philomena began by reporting on the previous meeting, describing loans repaid, decisions made and noting that they had to decide who was going to the FTAK office inauguration the next day.  Apparaently there were only 6 places for the members and they all wanted to go.

The group had applied for a loan from the Fairtrade premium fund via the local panchayat board of FTAK, this had been approved at district and then centrally. This year 20 women had taken loans all now managed by the group. 10 had bought cows (Rp150,000), 5 goats and 5 for collective vegetable growing. In total Rp325000. After 8 months Rp90,000 had been repaid. All households plant tapioca root as a household staple and grow yams for mainly for sale if the price was good or storage/later use if not.

Loans for cows are popular with Pulpally women's group

Loans for cows are popular with Pulpally women’s group

Cows were seen as a long term investment, providing cow-dung for their organic farms, milk for immediate income via the local coop and the occasional sale. Goats, as we were to learn later were ready for sale in 6 months and also a popular income generator.

What was the impact of your work this year?

‘We have only been doing this for two years so don’t expect so much quickly!.  We know how to handle money though. Now we can say we have done this. ‘

‘Last year we made a profit and repaid the loan. This year we used the profit to plant again, but we didn’t give any yam money to the house (the husband).  The rain was poor and we didn’t grow many (yield) and the price was bad. We will have to keep asking for money this year.’

One of the big changes reported by the district officer was attitude to travel. Their eyes had been opened and had a real appetite for travel for leaving the household chores.  Molly spoke of how , following an FTAK policy statement of support for anti-nuclear action in Tamil Nadu, 5 women had been to a demonstration at Kundankulan. For years it was their menfolk who made decisions and travelled now it was their turn and the enthusiasm for new experiences was very evident.

‘We are no longer stuck in the kitchen, we meet often and always go the AGM. Don’t send us on these local trips… we want a big one with all of us’

'We'll take 8 to the AGM. We can fit 8 on the 6 seats allocated!'

‘We’ll take 8 to the AGM. We can fit 8 on the 6 seats allocated!’

Last year, FTAK piloted cashew collection stations run by women managers. It was a success. This year the Wayanad group ran the first coffee collection depot. Theamma was the manager with Celin’s help.

Molly described how they had planned their farm work together.

‘We decided three of us would work together picking coffee on our farms for 3 days. We had to get all our jobs finished by 10 o’clock to start work. Finish the cooking and get children to school. At the end we only needed men to lift the bags’

The group had collected over 40 tonnes of coffee.

‘This year we (the group supporting the collection depot), collected nearly 25,000 kg of organic coffee and 18,000kg non organic coffee. We received 75Rp/kg for organic. Farmers received 68 with 7 later as a bonus. The group took a 0.75RP (75 piasa) commission to support our work. In total , over the season, we handled 25 lakh rupees cash (25,00,000Rp) and distributed 2 lakh bonus.’

Conversation wandered to the future. Labour shortages are hitting farms across India. Families worry about the future as children head for city lights, call centres and IT jobs.

Do you think your children will want to continue farming?

‘The older children are being trained on the farm, others will not want to farm but the land is theirs so how can they not farm it? ‘

I left wondering if this old and deeply felt connection with the land and the new-found aspirations of these women will secure a future for the Kerala homestead farmers despite the uncertainties in modern India.