Three staff from Fairtrade Canada recently spent a fascinating week in Ecuador visiting a number of fair trade producers.
John Marron (Director of Commercial Relations and Marketing), Gabriela Warrior Renaud (Communications Specialist) and myself, Ian Brown (Digital Manager) travelled with six other fair trade supporters on a CFTN origin trip to learn about fair trade products including sugar, flowers, quinoa, chocolate and bananas.
We spent many hours on a bus travelling through the country’s spectacular and varied scenery – from the mountains, volcanoes and valleys of the Andes to the flatlands of the south; and from a series of modern highways to dizzying, narrow and potholed backroads heading for farms and processing plants.
Day 1 – Panela
Panela is unrefined cane sugar produced in many Central and Latin American countries. We visited the processing facilities and sugar cane fields of Flor de Cana, a couple of hours south-west of the country’s capital, Quito. There we were shown the entire process of producing Fairtrade panela, including the harvesting of sugar cane, extraction and boiling of cane juice, and the almost-magical transformation from a thick syrup to sugar crystals. We drank fresh cane juice, tried pulling taffy, and were treated to a highland delicacy – blocks of cheese served in hot cane syrup straight from the heating tanks! Over lunch with the president of the cooperative we learned some of the successes and challenges facing the organization.
Day 2 – Flowers
Travelling south from Quito we visited the Fairtrade certified rose-growing greenhouses of AGROCOEX and Nevado Roses. Countless beautiful blooms were growing, being harvested and packaged for retail markets in many countries including Canada. Significant numbers of the plants were being pruned in a carefully-timed process of getting ready for the massive demand of Valentine’s Day. AGROCOEX in particular is a great example of the benefits Fairtrade workers can receive, with a laundry, dental clinic and even a brand-new housing development provided for the workers through democratically-decided use of the Fairtrade Premium. As we were told, the secret to their business of being a highly successful exporter of roses while caring about their workers is a combination of “altitude, latitude and attitude!”
Day 3 – Quinoa
Heading west from Riobamba towards Guaranda, we stopped at the fair trade quinoa processing facilities of Maquita and COPROBICH, then took a memorable visit to meet two local women farmers in their quinoa field. Standing on a steep hillside in a gentle rain while thunder rumbled around the mountains, we learned about how they grow and harvest their grain. At 3500m, the walk back up the hill to the bus was challenging for all of us! We followed this with a brief visit to the village of Salinas which has numerous fair trade cooperatives including one specializing in handicrafts made from llama wool, and one making chocolate.
Day 4 – Cocoa
After an unexpectedly extended journey (the road we were on was blocked by a landslide so we had to double-back and take a different route) we travelled south-west, dropping out of the highlands and into the low plains where cocoa and bananas dominate the agricultural landscape. Our first visit was to APOVINCES, a small-scale producer of Fairtrade certified cocoa. After sampling some of their very tasty locally-manufactured chocolate we saw their fermenting and drying facilities and learned how this process works. We also visited the warehouse and quality-control facilities of UNOCACE, as well as a pilot project farm where we saw how cocoa pods are harvested.
Day 5 – Bananas
On our last day we headed further south to the town of El Guabo where we visited two Fairtrade certified banana organizations – ASOGUABO and Cerro Azul. From ASOGUABO’s impressive facilities we visited a community farm where we saw how bananas are harvested, processed and packed for export. We also learned the importance of land and plant care for organic production – the area being visibly healthier than the miles of non-organic plantations we drove by the same day.
What we learned
For Gabriela, the realities of international trade of products we consume regularly were really brought to light: “As a consumer, just getting to understand the intensity of the labour behind most of the commodities I take for granted was eye-opening. Walking through fields of sugar cane in the steep hills of the Andes makes you realise that most of the food you consume is planted, harvested and processed simply by hand. I am also grateful to have been able to see the strengths and weaknesses of the system. With so many steps and people involved before reaching my shopping cart, it’s no surprise that this system is as holistic as it is and it takes transparency, honesty and collaboration to make it work. “
For John, this visit to Ecuador came after three years of working at Fairtrade Canada. “Learning about Fairtrade’s work and regularly buying Fairtrade products as a consumer, I certainly felt I knew how the system worked. Getting to see Fairtrade in action on the ground has really helped me to deepen my understanding. What was clearly evident was the passion and pride in the producers’ work, as well as the considerable challenges that they face on a daily basis. We were able to see that Fairtrade is having a real impact, however there is still a lot more to do to increase the benefits for many more producers. This was a fantastic opportunity to visit producers, and to hear about their realities, their challenges and their hopes for the future. From my perspective, this visit was a truly transformative experience for me. “
For me, seeing the real benefits that can come to producers who are part of Fairtrade was inspiring after seven years of working with Fairtrade Canada. Even something relatively simple such as the use of Fairtrade Premiums to create a laundry facility (something many of us take for granted in our homes) makes a huge difference in the lives of many producers and their families. Seeing an organization like AGROCOEX supporting a much larger-scale project – a housing development – really highlighted the importance of doing research into the companies behind the products we buy and making the best purchasing decisions possible.
More information about these producer visits will be presented on our website in the coming months.
If you are interested in participating in future trips to fair trade producers, sign up for the newsletters of CFTN (bottom of the page) and Fairtrade Canada to receive information.