Last week 12 Fair Trade Towns  representatives from across the United States gathered together for a 7 day learning tour of Fair Trade farms in the Dominican Republic. Visiting cocoa, banana, and coffee cooperatives, along with a sweat-free apparel factory, organizers left the DR with a renewed sense of understanding of and commitment to the people who sew and grow the products we love. This blog comes to us from Fair Trade USA’s Jenna Larson, who joined the delegates on their week-long journey to experience Fair Trade firsthand.
It’s easy to become disconnected—from the people who grow our food, from the workers who sew our clothes, from their children who either go to school (or not) depending on the daily purchasing choices of individuals thousands of miles away. It’s easy to forget that we are all intrinsically connected through the things we buy. In my work at Fair Trade USA, I spend my days telling the Fair Trade story-- educating U.S. consumers about the benefits of buying Fair Trade Certified products so they are empowered to make the best purchasing decisions possible. While I have always believed whole-heartedly in the power of this model, it wasn’t until I made my first trip to origin with 12 incredible Fair Trade advocates that I recognized the true necessity of comercio justo.
Day 1&2: CONACADO, cocoa cooperative
We began our journey in the land of cacao. CONACADO  is a large cooperative made up of around 10,000 small-scale cacao farmers spread across the island. In the region we visited, Hato Mayor, around 2,000 farmers each live on and work between 2-2.5 hectares of land. The cooperative was founded in 1998 in order to prevent exploitation by local traders. "Before we were organized, the price per pound was set by local intermediaries,” said Hector Romero, General Manager of CONACADO. “Now we are organized and can negotiate based on market price and product quality. Now our cocoa is bought on our terms.” With the help of Fair Trade Community Development Premiums, the co-op has also invested in quality control, health, education, sanitation and new roads.
During our two nights in Hato Mayor, our group broke into pairs, each staying with a different farming family on their small plot of land. Paola Castellanos, a fellow Fair Trade USA employee, and I had the great honor of staying with Elba Vilorio Ramierez and her family. With Fair Trade, Doña Elba (pictured right) was recently able to buy a new house, one much closer to the CONACADO headquarters, making it easier to bring her prized cacao to market. If I had to create a definition of empowered woman in the dictionary, there would be a beautiful photo of Elba, beaming from ear to ear with a basket of freshly harvested cocoa pods.
On our last day in Hato Mayor we spent a truly memorable evening at the local women’s association, where 52 female farmers, including Doña Elba, have developed a small business making chocolate wine, jam, and bon bons. After a long night of dancing, feasting on traditional Dominican sancocho (a local stew in which I may have come across multiple chicken feet), we walked home through the cacao trees, fireflies lighting the path back to Doña Elba's. The next morning we headed out for another Fair Trade adventure, waving goodbye to the beautiful people I will always think of as mi familia Dominicana.
Day 3: Alta Gracia, sweat-free apparel
While not a Fair Trade Certified organization, our visit to the Alta Gracia  sweat-free apparel factory made me painstakingly aware of the need to grow Fair Trade apparel as a category. After touring the facilities, our group met with several worker representatives who so generously shared stories about what it's like to work for a company that genuinely cares about the health and well-being of its employees.
During our conversation I learned that Alta Gracia is the exception in the DR; most apparel workers here are not so lucky. One female worker told us that in her previous job the supervisors would make bets on who would be fired that day. They worked 12 hours straight without food, water, or even a bathroom break, in 90 degree sweltering heat. In addition to sexual abuse by management, all female workers are given regular pregnancy tests. If you’re pregnant, there's no chance you'll be hired. If you get pregnant while on the job, it's likely you'll be immediately fired (maternity leave is unheard of).
Then came Alta Gracia. Earning over 3 times as much as she did at the factory down the road, Clari told us that she now owns her own home, she can feed her kids, and everyone is in school. Just think—if we cared more about the people that make our clothes—cotton farmers and factory workers around the world would be able to afford the same basic things (clothes, food, housing) that we so often take for granted here in the United States. Choosing Fair Trade makes that possible.
Day 4&5: FEDECARES, coffee cooperative
There is nothing like a fresh cup of coffee straight from the source, nor is there anything like the experience of listening to Fair Trade farmers discuss how their Community Development Premiums were spent over the past few months (Fair Trade nerd-alert). In speaking with Juan Arias, President of La Esperanza (one of the satellite associations of FEDECARES), he told me that “if it wasn’t for Fair Trade, we would probably not exist. With coffee prices so volatile, we would not be able to remain coffee growers, working the land we love.” María Isabel Balbuena (below), FEDECARES employee and leader of the Fair Trade women's grower association, Café Feminino, added that “Fair Trade has allowed us to afford being a coffee farmer.”
FEDECARES  was established as a Fair Trade Certified coffee cooperative in 1979 in response to two giant hurricanes that destroyed their community infrastructure. “We organized to carry on,” noted Arias. A 100% organic certified cooperative, its humble 24 founding members have grown to nearly 7,500. The organization has used its Fair Trade premiums for things like community healthcare, sanitation and trash control education, waste disposal, organic certification management, and roads. FEDECARES has also used additional money from Fair Trade to send 25 young people abroad for college, nearly all of whom have returned to the DR and now work for the cooperative.
As a final note about FEDECARES and Fair Trade coffee--one of the cooperative leaders left us with an important call to action. “While our whole community has benefited from Fair Trade, I want people to know the true story. Many of our farms are beautiful, but many are still so poor. I ask you to continue your efforts, so together we can help lift them out of poverty.”
Day 6: COOPPROBOTA, bananas
Established in 1994, COOPPROBATA  is a 100% organic Fair Trade Certified cooperative made up of 223 members (and around 80 hired employees). Unfortunately, this cooperative currently only exports to the UK. “Right now we can’t sell to the U.S., there is not enough demand, and people don’t really understand Fair Trade,” said COOPPROBOTA’s General Manager Yoel Tejeda. He hopes that one day all Americans will demand Fair Trade bananas, so that they can continue to invest in healthcare, college scholarships, physical and gender equality education, literacy, environmental conservation, bio diversity and reforestation.
In visiting the farm itself and the processing facility, I also became aware of COOPPROBATA’s extreme commitment to worker health and safety. Not only do all workers receive intensive safety trainings, but everywhere you look there are signs about proper waste disposal, sanitation, machinery use, and even instructions on how to prevent a number of communicable diseases.
After touring the grounds our group was given a heartfelt adios by COOPPROBOTA’s young production manager, Luis de la Cruz. Luis told us how proud he was of his bananas, and emphasized just how much they want the world to know about them. Then he asked for our help—to go back home and tell the U.S. about COOPPROBATA, and encourage them to learn more about Fair Trade and their small community of banana growers nestled deep in Dominican’s beautiful Azua region.
Day 7: Goodbyes
To the incredible Fair Trade Towns  organizers I met on this trip--I feel so incredibly honored to have shared this experience with all of you. I am inspired by your dedication to Fair Trade, and to promoting a system that genuinely supports the farmers we have come to know and love.
I think we have all come to realize that if you can’t buy a Fair Trade chocolate bar, banana, or cup of coffee, you shouldn’t buy at all. For me, not buying Fair Trade is no longer an option. It’s not just about the product anymore—it’s about Doña Elba and her family, it’s Hector Romero, Maria Isabel Balbuena, Juan Arias, Luis de la Cruz and the others who have opened my eyes to the inner workings of a model that benefits farmers, consumers, businesses and the earth. I feel an incredible responsibility to these people; to tell the world their stories and to bring American consumers closer to the people and places that grow our food. I hope you will join me.