From Abroad: Fair Trade Hits Home

By Emily Goodman

I can’t tell you anything about fair trade that you can’t find on the Internet. I won’t purport to know more than people who study it intellectually or who advocate it in non-governmental organizations (NGOs). But I can write to you, my fellow consumer, as an ambassador to the producers whose products make up your lives.

Unlike most consumers, I am a Chicagoland Area native attending Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. I am spending the semester abroad with Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE): Thailand at Khon Kaen University. Like even fewer consumers, on January 27, 2007 I traveled around the Isaan (Northeastern) province of Thailand in a van with two of the Thai staff and another American twenty-something (Priya Lift, of Drew University). We stopped to talk to two fair trade rice farmers and an NGO along the way. One farmer told us, “farmers are not educated; they say their feelings and what they learn from nature.” Regarding fair trade, I am like them: I am not educated in it, but I have seen some things and those I’ll pass on to you.

Suda Talad, the head of an NGO promoting fair trade, helped to provide some context. Free trade is the mainstream type of trade, a tool of capitalism. Fair trade, on the other hand, is an alternative to free trade. Its objective is to ensure that small-scale farmers get their share of the profit from their organic and chemical-free produce. While fair trade is a process of marketing, organic farming is a process of production where no chemicals of any kind are used.

Man Samsee switched to chemical farming about 47 years ago, during the Green Revolution. The Thai government advertised for chemical farming, using their own chemical companies to lure farmers with promises of riches. It all made sense; chemical fertilizers produced bumper crops. Higher yields certainly would mean more money.
Man Samsee, however, pointed out that farmers are not particularly good at math. Higher yields could not offset the high cost of fertilizer and farmers went into debt.
Furthermore, as the years passed, the land required more and more of this expensive fertilizer because it had become so depleted. Man Samsee then noticed that there were no longer frogs, fish, and vegetables in his fields. His land was dying. And when his land became sick, he did too. Among various dramatic health problems, he had his stomach removed because of cancer. But, since they began organic farming in the early 1990s, his health has improved, and he’ll “never go back.”
This story, possibly existing amorphously in the backs of consumers’ minds, once given human form, as I have just done, might prompt you to buy organic, even if it costs you a little extra. At least for a little while. At the very least to save your stomach.
But why would anyone pay more for fair trade? While fair trade is not synonymous with organic, its standards ensure that the process of production doesn’t harm the environment. Moreover, by giving small-scale farmers fair wages, they will not be compelled to use chemical farming methods, which clearly are not sustainable for the ecosystem. Or for the people.
Samrat Thong-iam, another fair trade rice farmer, explains: “we are quite poor, so that the value of fair trade can help develop a country and make us sustainable.” Unlike Man Samsee, Samarat Thong-iam left farming to be a laborer in Bangkok and was effectively forced to return to farming after the Asian market crash in 1997. But just like Man Samsee, Samrat Thong-iam saw that chemical farming just wasn’t working. He foresees doing organic fair-trade farming forever, but he worries about the rest of his community.
Indeed, that is the crux of fair-trade. It hinges on our ability as people to resist the quick-fix and the instantly gratifying, and instead to take a moment to consider the “greater good.”
While I can understand fair trade on a local level, and really don’t mind paying more at farmer’s markets and the like, and even nationally can see fair trade practices working, I pressed Samrat Thong-iam about fair trade on a global scale. He had spent emphatic minutes on the importance of transparency in fair trade. “There shall be no advantage taken,” he said. We are buying from each other, from a very transparent method.” He spoke of how fair trade meant that producers and consumers could get together and set prices; of how consumers could know just where their products were coming from; of how consumers could know that they were getting safe and healthy food.
But transparency clearly becomes more difficult on a greater scale. How am I supposed to trust this faceless farmer half-way around the world and see him as a real person, needing my specific patronage of his jasmine rice? In our current system, there is no link between producer and consumer.

So, with a heavy dose of skepticism, believing I had found an insurmountable flaw in fair trade, I nailed Samrat Thong-iam: “but, Samrat Thong-iam,” I asked, “how would fair trade work on a global scale?”

“That,” he said, “is your job.”