This past June, Fair Trade USA’s produce  & floral  team traveled to the central and northeast regions of Costa Rica to visit Fair Trade Certified pineapple farms. After meeting the farm workers, hearing their stories, and seeing firsthand the difference Fair Trade has made in their communities, the group returned home-- inspired and excited about all they had learned. This guest blog post comes to us from our very own Alexandria Coari, who works hard every day to help transform the lives of the farmers and workers on Fair Trade produce & floral farms around the world.
Before this trip, I had only heard and read about the power of Fair Trade  and the social, environmental, and economic impact it can have for millions of farmers and workers around the world – those who work tirelessly day after day making the products we often buy without much contemplation about the person on the other side of the supply chain.
On a previous trip to Costa Rica, I witnessed the level of poverty that exists in some of the more rural regions of the country. Insufficient job opportunities, inadequate wages, low levels of education, and a lack of social/labor protections and health benefits were just a few of the unfortunate realities these communities deal with daily. Could Fair Trade really be a sustainable solution for these farmers and workers to lift themselves out of poverty, while also benefiting consumers and the environment? After this recent trip to Costa Rica where I had the opportunity to hear and witness the inspiring stories from Fair Trade Certified pineapple workers, I know the answer is undoubtedly: “Yes!”
Empowering Communities through Fair Trade
One farm that exemplified the transformative power of Fair Trade is Finca Corsicana . The farm is a pioneer in organic and sustainable pineapple production and is located in the valley of the Mount Poas volcano, in the Sarapiqui region of Costa Rica. Finca Corsicana became Fair Trade Certified in 2009 to address the needs of its expanding workforce in this remote area, some of which include low levels of education, and a lack of childcare and health care options.
One memorable part of our visit was the day spent with Finca Corsicana’s Fair Trade Committee (pictured on left), the group responsible for listening to the needs of the workers, democratically deciding how to invest their Fair Trade community development premiums, and implementing each project. During our meeting, we learned about an unfortunate reality for many workers from Isabel Fonseca and her husband (photo below on right). Her family cannot afford childcare for their four children, so the kids spend two hours a day without adult supervision when their parents’ schedules overlap at work. One day, Isabel came home to find that her four-year old son had burned himself with an iron and had no one to go to for help.
Franciny Bonilla Vidaurre, another worker at Finca Corsicana, bravely told us about the high cost of living in the area, making it difficult to finish school or simply get by with her three children at home.
These stories, amongst many others, convinced the workers to invest their community development premiums in the construction of an affordable childcare facility and a learning center to teach English lessons and computer skills. The daycare center will help give peace of mind to mothers like Isabel and Franciny, who will now know their children are safe while they work to provide for their families.
“I have two young daughters. My wife and I were not able to finish our academics, but thanks to the new daycare, our daughters will be able to stay in a safe place while we receive training in the learning center.” -- Wagner Loria Valerio , Finca Corsicana farm worker
In the photo on the left, you can see some of the progress that Finca Corsicana has made in the construction of their Fair Trade premium funded project. The daycare and learning center are highly anticipated not only by the workers and their surrounding communities, but also by the Ministry of Education, who is also backing this project. As we said our goodbyes, we promised to share their stories with you, helping you realize the positive impact made possible when you choose Fair Trade Certified products at the store.
Pineapples for the Planet
Fair Trade Environmental Standards in Action
While visiting these pineapple farms, I was able to see firsthand the power of Fair Trade certification for both organic and conventional (non-organic) fruit – not only for consumer health but also for the health and safety of farm workers. Fair Trade environmental standards  are some of the strictest in the industry. They encourage farmers to better protect local and delicate ecosystems, reduce the use of harmful agrochemicals, prohibit the use of GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms), and develop proper waste management. What I found most impactful though was how the adherence to and understanding of these environmental standards often results in other positive outcomes such as environmental conservation, improved soil quality, biodiversity, and reforestation.
We witnessed these strides in environmental sustainability on both Fair Trade Certified organic and conventional pineapple farms. One group of farm workers elected to use natural barriers and protections to prevent soil erosion or maintain existing biodiversity. At another small producer’s pineapple farm, we learned how he decided to plant around the naturally growing and prospering banana trees on his land instead of clear-cutting. A third farm we visited was working to conserve a thriving rainforest and native wildlife located in the middle of its crop rows.
Becoming Better Stewards of the Land
The most interesting lesson I learned on this trip relates to the power of Fair Trade certification for conventional produce (versus organic). While Fair Trade certification does not require organic certification, it does support organic farming with training for producers and a higher price incentive for organic products. In fact, an estimated 30% of producer organizations invest a portion of their Fair Trade premiums in environmental initiatives for community development. Specifically, many producers invest their Fair Trade premium funds in organic certification, which has led to outstanding results -- in 2011 alone, 59% of Fair Trade Certified produce  imported into the US was organic.
In Costa Rica, I came to appreciate how Fair Trade certification has enabled conventional pineapple producers to become better stewards of the land, as this is where significant changes in farming and agrochemical practices need to occur. Organic certified farms have typically already implemented many of the environmental standards requirements to become Fair Trade Certified, whereas conventional farms must take greater strides as they work to earn certification (for example: develop environmental plans that outline concrete action items and timelines to reduce pesticide use, prevent soil erosion, protect local flora and fauna, and minimize water use).
Ultimately, achieving these Fair Trade environmental standards encourages the production of goods that benefit you, farming communities, and the earth-- everyone wins!
Coming to a Store Near You
After this eye-opening trip, I returned home with an array of stories and lessons to share from the farmers and workers we visited. I’m grateful and honored to have had this experience and am all the more committed to helping consumers better understand where their food comes from, how it is grown, and whose hands cared for it during its journey to our shopping carts. It is evident to me that Fair Trade can empower workers to lift themselves out of poverty, invest in their farms and communities, protect the environment, and develop the skills necessary to thrive as international businesspeople.
And I’m even more excited because Whole Foods Market , who for years has offered Fair Trade Certified organic pineapples and other Fair Trade products such as bananas, roses, mangoes and more under their Whole Trade Program, has now expanded their Fair Trade produce offerings to become the first national grocer to offer Fair Trade Certified conventional pineapples! These pineapples will be available in select Whole Foods Markets around the country, helping nearly 1,000 additional workers and their communities in Costa Rica.
Next time you’re at your local grocery store, I hope you think about the farmers around the world who worked so hard to grow your food, especially those on these Costa Rican pineapple farms. It’s empowering to know that our every day purchases of Fair Trade Certified products are better for the earth and can have a direct and tangible impact on the men and women who produce them!