In The News
January 12th, 2010 marks the day that a 7.0 magnitude quake killed or injured thousands of Haitian people and left nearly two million people homeless. It was the day the earth shook, the day that changed everything in the small, colorful Caribbean nation of Haiti. Amidst chaos and devastation, the people have held strong, and are working to rebuild their lives a little bit each day.
This article is from Ben Schmerler, Coffee Category and Producer Services Manager at Fair Trade USA, who visited the Hatian mango farms in September and December 2010. His story speaks to the perseverance of the farmers in the wake of devastation, and the power of Fair Trade to help them rebuild.
In late September 2010, I received a late night email from a colleague who told me that she really needed me to help her with our Fair Trade Certified mango program. Obviously, I was filled with excitement, mixed with trepidation about this opportunity. One week later, I was on an airplane descending into Port-au-Prince gawking through my jet-lag haze at the ramshackle, makeshift tents crowding the airport from every angle. Welcome to Haiti and to the most unforgettable experience and people of my life.
I initially came to Haiti to provide institutional support to the umbrella organization FENAPCOM, the only Fair Trade Certified mango cooperative in Haiti, and to visit FENAPCOM’s 10 member associations located from the Central Plateau to the northern mountains of Gros Morne and back to the river valleys of the Artibonite. My mission was clear; help these groups regain their Fair Trade certification. How I was going to accomplish this was to be ironed out while driving Haiti’s bumpy back roads, but the importance of my mission was already evident. In the 2010 harvest season, mango growers selling on Fair Trade terms were earning nearly double what the local market traders were paying for the same quantity of mangos. Each farmer I spoke to glinted with joy when they explained the importance of the “second payment” they received from the Fair Trade premium they earned in December, long after the end of the harvest. This was the exact moment that their families needed it the most.
Building A Democracy
I spent the better part of two weeks in the mountainous interior with the farmers, board members and the hired staff of the 10 organizations. I conducted trainings in simple democracy- how to make group decisions and properly document them. I worked with these organizations on their skill building to create environmental plans and needs assessments. Together we read their organizational statutes to ensure that all conventions for upholding the integrity of their organizations were being followed. We discussed challenging topics like child labor, discrimination, and the usage of chemical fertilizers and environmental degradation. I traversed dry river beds that suddenly turned flooded with water and rain while listening to harrowing stories of survival, subsistence living, and the constant struggle of providing for their families under the pressure of consistently bringing good quality mangos to market while overcoming the barriers of poor or failed infrastructure. I was taught new lessons in what was possible through training on old lessons in supply chain management. Every day that I stood in the fields with mango farmers, listening and responding to their needs, I was re-energized by the cause of ensuring that farmers receive proper, or Fair, pay for their incredibly, hard work.
Hope Rises From the Rubble
What I found from this Fair Trade mission, and a second one that I completed in December, was that something very profound is happening in Haiti. The destruction from the Earthquake is still palpable; we all know the statistics. The threat of an even more widespread cholera outbreak is knocking on the door. The political instability threatens to drive the country into further despair and uncertainty. But through it all, the potential and the hope resonating within this small population of Fair Trade mango farmers, roughly 2,000 of them, is incredibly uplifting and inspiring. For me, from 3,000 miles away, sitting at my desk in Oakland, I still am overcome by what I saw there. But for the farmers and the people living it, the Fair Trade program and the actual increase in revenues that they see from participating—in addition to the important structure that the Fair Trade standards instill like democracy, participation, transparency, empowerment, environmental protection, and equal opportunity for all—is providing each farmer an avenue to rebuild their own future by themselves.
Fair Trade: Not A Project, But An Opportunity
I told every farmer that I met that “I am not a project; I will not leave you in 1-3 years. Instead, I am an opportunity. I am an opportunity for you to tell your story to the consumers in North America. I am your agent in the market. I am here to help you tell your story. I am here to give you the tools to have access to better markets, greater opportunity, and you have the keys…”
Fair Trade Certified is an opportunity for the mango growers of Haiti to lift themselves out of poverty a dozen mangos at a time. It’s both my mission and the mission of Fair Trade USA to support and promote these courageous growers in their pursuit of improving their lives with sustainable and lasting solutions to poverty alleviation.
I am pleased to tell you that the mangos of FENAPCOM will be available at select Whole Foods Market locations this spring. Look for them and ask for them. Buy Fair Trade Certified products, it truly makes a difference.