They joined the CFTN for their yearly Trip to Origin, where participants get to visit farms and co-ops to learn more about fair trade, right on the ground. In 2017, I had my own chance to participate in a Trip to Origin in Ecuador, which had a significant impact not only on my life but on the work I do as Fairtrade Canada’s Communications Specialist. Seeing how Fairtrade works in the real world, and meeting the people I work for everyday was so impactful. I was curious to know what Elysha and Vanessa took away from their experience, and what they planned to do with the knowledge they acquired in Peru.
Elysha was in her second semester at SFU when she joined the Trip to Origin. She described herself as a passive supporter of fair trade, and only had minimal knowledge of the movement. Vanessa brought with her a background in Economics and International Studies. She moved from Brazil in 2010 and has since pursued her studies in the USA and Canada.
Here is an excerpt of our chat.
Gabriela Warrior Renaud, Fairtrade Canada (GWR): You got to see a lot of different issues, right on the ground, like gender equality and climate change. Did you feel that the Fairtrade system was well equipped to help people deal with these issues?
Elysha Fong, SFU (EF): When we heard about challenges or issues there was always some solution that was in the works, like with the European laws that are going into effect regarding cadmium in the soil. They were already trying experiments on the soil to see how they could pull the cadmium out because it's seriously going to affect them. But they're already working on ways that they could mitigate that and they explained that it was super helpful being a part of a co-op because every farmer didn't have to do that on their own. So if one person found something that works, they can share that knowledge with other people.
Vanessa Milost Gonzalez (VMG): I noticed the adaptation to change, like doing research on how to combat climate change. Coffee, for instance, is now grown at a different altitude than before. Once the farmers understand that, they are going to move up production if they can. I would say that Fairtrade definitely provides a structure for them to understand what's going on, like, “okay, there is something happening with the climate” or “there's a need to treat women and men equally” and they can change their practices. Something that we heard at APPBOSA was that historically, women don't inherit lands. They started with 100% male farmers and now they have over 10% women. Part of what they do is run workshops to discuss gender equality but they also promote the idea that if a farmer has a daughter, she too can inherit that land. Slowly, they can make those changes in the mindset so that more women own land. By having a structure, having the ability to organize, coordinate and having knowledge they can definitely make a difference.
GWR: You touched on this a little, Elysha, talking about the importance of farmers and cooperatives, cooperating and working together, do you see that as an important part of growing the movement of sustainable agriculture?
EF: Yeah, definitely. I think that the knowledge sharing is a huge piece. They even mentioned, I believe it was at the Panela farm visit, that before they had switched to sugar cane and organized into an association, it was really unclear when they were going to get paid or how much money they were going to make. It's more stressful and harder to make conscious lifestyle choices. So, once there was a structure there, they felt like they had agency. They knew they were going to get paid every two weeks, so they were able to make choices and feel secure for themselves and their family.
GWR: And were most of the co-ops that you visited doing organic production as well as fair trade?
VMG: We visited some that were transitioning. They were either fully organic or they were transitioning. Actually, that piece was interesting because it’s a big challenge to get the folks that produce [conventional, non-Fairtrade] rice, who are earning no money and are applying pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides on their crops, to transition. For them to be able to make that change definitely seems to be a big challenge whereas the co-ops have been able to address [the transition] pretty well by offering support so that the farmers can go through that period of a year, a year and a half, two years, of growing their new crops.
GWR: Did you get a sense of why these co-ops wanted to go the fair trade route and why that was important to them?
VMG: It seems to be a movement, like some kind of mobilization going on where they hear about these other farmers that joined a co-op, and now they're able to make more and they are communicating amongst themselves. One of the Cocoa farmers, Don German, said that when he grew rice, he felt something was wrong. “I'm not making money, I feel sick. This is not life.” Then it was through people in the community talking about this alternative of going fair trade that he became interested and joined. It seems to be that a lot of times they know they have to change, switch gears in some way, but it is through community that they realize what's available to them.
EF: A big thing for me was hearing people talk about how much it's affected them, like putting their five kids through university because of fair trade and then having two of their kids come back to help. So I think it's slowly growing, hopefully passing from neighbour to neighbour, generation to generation.
GWR: You've shared a few stories that have marked you on the way. Is there one particular story that you keep coming back to when you think about your time in Peru?
VMG: Well, to me, it was a conversation I had with Don Isidro, a coffee producer. Coming from a background of not knowing fair trade and knowing a bit about development, I wondered: is this development work in some way? Is this about philanthropy? But once you get there, you realize: we are consumers, they are producers; this is a business. The word is not “help”, we're not “helping”, we're doing business around something that is a good quality product. That was a good shift in mindset and knowing that, I started relating to these producers as entrepreneurs and business people.
EF: During our visit to APPBOSA, we sat down with some of the executives from the association and one of the women was saying that she had previously worked for bigger companies, I believe for a palm oil company. She was saying that she was making more money than she would ever see her lifetime, but she couldn't stay there and left to start working with APPBOSA. She had been looking at her previous job that was just destroying the environment and then she saw fair trade as an alternative; how could she not support it? She was passing on the message that it was totally worth it, that she actually felt like she was making a difference.
GWR: I feel like we've lost a lot of that connection to our food and to the things that we consume every day and it's really special to see that you've been able to make these in-person connections. Have you taken anything back with you that you are really grateful for from this trip?
EF: That feeling of connectedness. Before I went on the trip, I had minimal knowledge of fair trade. But what I did know, or if I was to explain it, I would have said: “Oh, you know, producers and farmers get paid a fair amount.” Sure, that's a piece of it. But I think the biggest thing that I picked up was that it's a lot more than that. You're investing in people and in a quality product. And you're investing in women and youth and the environment. You're also investing in the Canadian community and in our ability to make a difference by making more sustainable choices
VMG: Having grown up in the city, I was always very disconnected from farming. I'm extremely grateful for what I've learned about the actual techniques of farming but also for the sense of connection to the Earth. I love chocolate, I literally have coffee every day, and bananas; these are all things that are part of my life. And I didn't even know what they looked like in their original form and what it takes, as far as effort, time, resources for those things to come to my hand in that nice presentable form. I'm thankful for having that awareness.
*Photos courtesy of Elysha Fong and Vanessa Milost Gonzalez