The Free Press, Mankato, MN

August 27, 2013

Fair trade advocate returns with stories to share

If you want to learn more about a subject, it’s best to go straight to the source.

That’s why Jane Dow, a member of the Mankato Area Fair Trade Towns Initiative, traveled to Mexico in July to visit with farmers and artisans who are producing fair trade products, such as coffee and artisan crafts.

Her hope is that by learning first-hand of their situations and hearing their stories, she’ll able to be a better and more credible advocate in Mankato for fair trade. Her goal, and the goal of MAFTTI, has always been to raise awareness about fair trade and hopefully encourage more retailers to offer fair trade products.

Fair trade is a system of goods production where the actual farmers or artisans get a larger percentage of the profits of their work. This helps these producers — who often exist in countries with substantial poverty — earn a wage that supports them and their families.

Dow made the trip with 15 other fair trade enthusiasts from around the country, all of whom were either from towns with fair trade designations, such as Mankato, or from towns pursuing such designations. The trip was organized by Global Exchange and Fair Trade USA. Both groups covered meals and other costs.

They toured coffee co-ops and other fair trade organizations in the cities of Oaxaco and Chiapas, Mexico. Dow said their travels exposed them to extreme poverty, low literacy and poor infrastructure and education systems.

But even in the midst of such poverty, she said, it was easy to see the value of fair trade.
“They would not be able to continue to do this stuff were it not for fair trade,” Dow said of the wood carver, coffee growers, and other producers.

One of the more unique things about a fair trade co-op is the concept of social premium. A little bit is added on to the price of fair trade goods in Mexico and set aside to do things for the community. For example, they might build a school for their children, hire doctors for the community or install systems for safe drinking water.

They also use this money to train workers to create better products, or to hire people to teach them about erosion, or how to pick better seeds for coffee plants, how to pick the best shade trees, how to store seeds after harvest.

Dow met artisans who grind up insects to make dyes they use for the vibrantly colored rugs. She said that one group she met was on the verge of quitting until a businesswoman arrived to teach them how to better price their goods. The woman also helped them find microfinancing.

“They were able to continue,” Dow said. “Otherwise they would have stopped weaving. Credit is really important.”

Caring for the environment is also a key concern for fair trade producers.

When wood carvers cut a tree down for materials, they plant three more to take its place, many of which are shade trees, important for the sequestration of carbon dioxide. They also engage in composting.

The purpose of Dow’s trip was to be able to come back to Mankato and be better at convincing people that it’s a good idea to buy fair trade products.

“We’ll have a fundraiser in October,” Dow said. “I’ll have my slides, explain to people the benefits of fair trade. And anyone who wants me to come and talk to their group, I’m more than happy to do it.”

MAFTTI has made some progress recently. The group’s most visible victory has been in the area of bananas. Both Cub Foods stores now carry fair trade bananas. Hy-Vee stores carry a number of fair trade items in the health food section.

“Nobody was carrying fair trade bananas until (MAFTTI’s efforts),” she said.

One of their annual events is coming up Wednesday. They’ll be sponsoring a viewing of the documentary “Chocolate Country” at the Emy Frentz Arts Guild.