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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The real world beneficiaries of fair trade

By Vivian R. Underhill

In a world that’s becoming smaller and more interconnected, big corporations are increasing their power over the world’s resources, resulting in decreasing wages and living conditions.I live part of every year in Jalapa, Nicaragua, a rural agricultural area far in the mountains, and have seen first-hand the effects of both free and fair trade. The farmers there, working only their small plots of land, have no way of competing with the more powerful corporations of the United States that receive government subsidies, corporate welfare paid for by our tax dollars. With the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) now firmly in place and restructuring Central America’s economy, and the United States flooding the market with cheap products, prices of staple crops like beans or coffee are dropping to unprecedented lows, and the local farming communities are falling apart.

With no hope of making a profit, Jalapans are forced to move into the city, working for sweatshops or any other work they can find. Meanwhile, their lands are taken over by mostly Cuban-American corporations. The United States promised increased profits, jobs, and economic efficiency with free trade. But free trade’s results in Nicaragua have been nothing but increased poverty, mass migration, and consolidation of power to fewer and fewer people.

I go to Nicaragua to run a scholarship program for the children of those rural farmers in Jalapa. Most of their parents work in Cuban-owned (and firmly free trade) tobacco farms, for less than $2 a day, so the kids either stay home to watch their siblings or go to work in the farms themselves. When it’s not tobacco season, entire communities will be jobless for months at a time. I work in a community where they eat only bananas for months at a time, because that’s the only food they can get free from the forest.

But for me, the most tragic effect of free trade was one young girl named Diana Melba Gutierrez Inestroda. She was one of the best students I’ve ever worked with, only 13 years old, but firmly advancing in the local high school. With a quick smile and bushy head of hair flying everywhere, she would bike an hour each day just to get to school and make honor roll every year. Last year, though, her entire family picked up and moved to somewhere in Honduras, to look for work. Diana had to drop out of school, and none of us knows where she is now. Working with her family, it’s doubtful that she’ll be able to continue her education.

Fair trade is the most important and most feasible international solution to this problem, and one we can focus on. It protects small-scale farmers from the ravages of an unprotected and unfair global market and provides a livelihood for millions of people in developing nations. There exist a few fair-trade co-ops in the Jalapa region, but not nearly enough. These co-ops create a stable income for many families and act as a focal point for a growing sense of community. By selling their crops to fair trade partners, farmers can provide food for their families every day. The average fair-trade coffee farmer makes 25 percent more than the average non-fair trade farmer. It’s the children of these families who can come to school regularly and get basic medical care when they need it.

Fair trade farmers work organically, under good working conditions, and in accordance with social mores. By buying fair trade, we’re helping to promote these ideals. Also, the stability of fair trade allows farmers to work to enhance product quality, not just quantity; they’re not panicked to simply make a profit. This means that, contrary to popular belief, the products are actually usually higher quality when they reach consumers. All around, fair trade is the best solution in an international economy.

Living in our developed world, well-fed, well-educated and secure, it’s sometimes easy to forget what kind of world we live in. And yet, because of the very privileges we have, we have an imperative to work to create the same kind of conditions the world over. It’s the least we can do to support the livelihoods of farmers and artisans all over the world who want just what we do: a steady and sufficient income, independence and freedom, and social equality. Macalester has made a start by serving Peace Coffee, a local fair trade distributor, in Cafe Mac. But all of us, including Macalester College, can do more to utilize our purchasing power to help others around the world.

Vivian R. Underhill ’11 can be contacted at [email protected].

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