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Fair Trade USA Sponsored Series

The Future of Fair Trade

Fair Trade Changes Lives - Can it Preserve Culture?

This is the fifth article in a series on "The Future of Fair Trade," written in collaboration with Fair Trade USA. A 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization, Fair Trade USA is the leading third-party certifier of Fair Trade products in the United States. To follow along with the rest of the series, click here.

Over the past year, author Kelsey Timmerman has traveled around the world meeting the people who catch, pick, and grow our food while conducting research for his upcoming book, WHERE AM I EATING? AN ADVENTURE THROUGH THE GLOBAL FOOD ECONOMY. During his travels, Kelsey met farmers whose lives have been deeply impacted by Fair Trade.

Today, to celebrate Fair Trade Month, he shares a story about an extraordinary culture in Northern Colombia that Fair Trade is actually helping to preserve.

“This is where the sun was born,” Migoel says of his home, Nabusimake. “If anything happened here, the world would end. This place isn't just land; it’s spiritual. Can you feel it?”

The setting sun reflects off the clouds, washing the mountains to the east in a perfect pink light that photographers would wait for all day to capture. Migoel -- a proud member of the Arhuaco, a group of indigenous people who live in the Sierra Madre Mountains in Northern Colombia -- stops to let us “feel” the place.

What do I feel?

I feel like I’ve been sitting in a LandCruiser all day that bumped, slid, and nearly rolled a few times on the worst “roads” I’ve ever experienced. When Migoel rattles off the name of every mountain surrounding us, I feel that I can’t see this world like he does. I feel like I’m missing something.

Eager to please, I nod that I feel the place and we continue our walk to the village center, the heart of the heart of the world.

Migoel bounds over the stone wall surrounding the village, and approaches a collection of white robed men, women, and children standing outside of a grass-roofed house facing the entrance.

He begins speaking with an older man with jet black, straw-like hair sticking out of a white cap. Migoel reaches into a satchel hanging from his neck and the two exchange coca leaves. The man is a conduit to the gods – a Mamo. The Mamo doesn’t smile. He peers in our direction, his cheeks full of leaves.

I’m standing with Katie, the senior communications manager at Fair Trade USA, and her boyfriend Bobby.  Katie is here to ensure that her efforts really are working for coffee farmers and to learn how her organization can be even more effective. Bobby wants to meet the people behind the Fair Trade Certified coffee that Katie makes him buy. We’re doing our best not to look like culture-killing westerners. I have the urge to whistle innocently.

When our host and community leader, Aurora María Izquierda, first approached the Mamos with the idea of selling coffee to the world, they were worried that people like us would come.

The Mamos have plenty of reasons to be skeptical of outsiders. Spanish friars tried to convert the Arhuaco. They made them speak Spanish, pray to a different God, and cut their hair. They told them how to live.

The Mamo reluctantly agreed to go along with Aurora’s plan, and the Café Anei cooperative, which grows Fair Trade and organic coffee, was formed. Café Anei partnered with westernized Colombian farmers, campesinos, to grow and transport coffee to faraway places like New Zealand and the United States.

Bobby, Katie, and I shift from side-to-side uncomfortably as Aurora explained the purpose of our visit. The only thing I can compare the Mamo’s visual examination with was a time in the Florida Keys where I was in the shallows with beached pilot whales. You could feel the whale’s sonar passing through you. It’s like the Mamo is looking inside of us to our intentions, our hearts.

I wonder what he sees.

Their lives are organic and Fair Trade, so an official Fair Trade certification wasn’t too hard to come by. The certification has social and environmental requirements, sets a minimum-buying price, and with every purchase a consumer makes, a premium goes directly back to the association for community-elected projects like medical clinics and school libraries.

The campesinos want to grow and grow and use the money to improve the roads to make getting the coffee to market easier. But that would make it easier for the outside world to come here.

The Arhuaco are content. They have enough. Selling organic coffee and earning the Fair Trade premium allow them to send their kids to school and to buy medicine. They don’t want to grow and expand; they want to preserve and sustain.

The Arhuaco know what we have done to our world. They pray for us. They believe that their prayers and their stewardship of the heart of the world is the only thing standing between us and the end of the world.

Fair Trade has helped us organize ourselves. After some time being autonomous, it is strengthening us as a community and organization, primarily because it supports our members and the general community in improving their quality of life.

-- Aurora María Izquierdo Torres, president of Café ANEI

Too often when we try to help people through aid, we think we know what’s best for them. The Arhuaco know that we don’t even know what’s best for ourselves. The Fair Trade premium allows cooperatives and cultures to make their own decisions about what’s important.  To the members of Café ANEI, this meant financing a crop diversification and food security program to alleviate child hunger.  It also meant creating a Harvest Fund to grant loans to members who bear added costs during harvest season (like transporting the coffee on those awful roads we traveled).

Migoel runs back and motions us over the wall.

For a century the Arhuaco have fought to preserve their language and traditions, despite others telling them how to develop. We are here to listen and learn about their way of life and their connection with the land. Ultimately, they hope we will share their story and their message with the world.

Migoel says something as we enter the village center that sticks with me long after I’ve returned home.  He meant the words to describe the valley and his village, but I think about them every time I enter a grocery store.

“This is where every man comes to make decisions. Spiritual ones, and ones about the land.”

This month as I decide to sip Fair Trade Certified coffee, I toast the Arhuaco coffee farmers and their way of life. I hope you will, too.

I feel that it’s the least we could do.  They are praying for us.


Kelsey Timmerman is a proud supporter of Fair Trade and the author of WHERE AM I WEARING? His next book WHERE AM I EATING? AN ADVENTURE THROUGH THE GLOBAL FOOD ECONOMY will be published in May 2013. You can follow Kelsey’s adventures at www.kelseytimmerman.com and join him celebrating Fair Trade month - here.


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Fair Trade USA is a nonprofit organization that is the leading third-party certifier of Fair Trade products in the United States. Fair Trade USA audits and certifies transactions between U.S. companies and their international suppliers to guarantee that the farmers and workers producing Fair Trade Certified goods were paid fair prices and wages, work in safe conditions, protect the environment, and receive community development funds to empower and uplift their communities. 

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