London, 9 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Nearly all major British supermarket chains are currently conducting major promotions of so-called Fairtrade products. Towns and cities across the country, as well as many universities and organizations, are declaring themselves to be Fairtrade friendly. What's being called Fairtrade Fortnight (1-14 March) is in full swing, with some 6,000 events taking place across Britain.
What is it all about?
Charitable groups have long tried to improve the plight of small farmers in developing countries. The problem is that prices of commodities such as cocoa, coffee, and tea, or bananas and other tropical fruit have not risen in real terms over the past decade, while the costs of fertilizers, pesticides and farm machinery has.
Small farmers are thus forced out of business.
Eileen Maybin is the spokesperson for the Fairtrade Foundation, the organization behind the Fairtrade Fortnight.
"The world market price for coffee last year was 65 cents for a kilo of green coffee beans. At that price, farmers can't even cover the costs of production. Fairtrade guarantees a minimum price of 1 dollar 21 cents, [which includes a] premium for business or social developments," Maybin said.
She explains how this minimum price guarantee works.
"The companies who have the Fairtrade mark on their coffee, tea, bananas, snack bars [and] sugar pay that guaranteed minimum price in recognition of the fact that that's the minimum that it can cost the farmer to actually produce the product and to have a decent minimum standard of living, enabling them to send their kids to school, and for food and health care -- the very lowest level [of living]," Maybin said.
Maybin tells RFE/RL that the Fairtrade Foundation was originally established by organizations and development agencies such as Oxfam and the World Development Movement in response to falling commodity prices. She says the first product featuring the Fairtrade label appeared on supermarket shelves in the United Kingdom in 1994.
"Ten years later, we have 250 products on supermarket shelves, so we are very excited about that. This is the 10th birthday of the Fairtrade mark, and we are very pleased with how the market has grown," Maybin said.
She says consumers in Britain spent $200 million on Fairtrade products in 2003 -- a 46 percent rise from 2002. She says British shoppers now spend some $5 million a week on Fairtrade products.
Thirty-year-old Noreen Turner tasted some Fairtrade chocolate for the first time at a supermarket promotion kiosk this week.
"It's absolutely delicious -- something I would definitely consider buying. The taste is so good. It tastes like real nice chocolate. If it helps anybody, especially the farmers in the Third World, then I'm definitely for it, of course, I was going buy it. I must have some more," Turner said.
"The world market price for coffee last year was 65 cents for a kilo of green coffee beans. At that price, farmers can't even cover the costs of production."
The Fairtrade approach seems to be working. Maybin recalls the case of coffee farmers in Nicaragua and Ghana, whom she visited last year.
"Because most coffee around the world is still produced by small holders, they were having to sell to the first broker who came through the gate," she says. "They were really very despondent because they could not make ends meet."
She contrasts their plight with that of their neighbors, who are participating in the Fairtrade scheme.
"The farmers who were actually supplying the Fairtrade market were able to stay on their farms, send their kids to school, make small improvements on their houses and still save a little bit in the cooperative for some business developments -- for a laboratory so they were able to do quality-control tests and try and develop specialty coffee blends, all at a very small scale. I have also seen that in Ghana, where I went to visit some cocoa farmers," Maybin said.
Maybin says she is open to the idea of "new possibilities of collaboration" with, for example, small farmers in Central Asia or other, poorer nations of the former Soviet Union. But she says Fairtrade usually waits until such groups contact them.
"Our register is open to democratically organized organizations applying to be listed on our register. We wait for people to approach us. People know about the Fairtrade market, and we are open to people contacting us,"
Looking to the future, Maybin says: "We're hoping that more and more people will start buying Fairtrade products, and that there will be more interest in other countries, and that farmers around the world will receive better prices for their commodities so that they can stay on their land and look after their families and look after their communities."