Strength in numbers: Cooperatives making a difference

A farmer in Colombia rolls a single coffee bean in the palm of her hand. She’s surrounded by steep, volcanic hillsides carpeted with coffee trees. Between the time that coffee bean leaves the farmer and is used to make your morning cup of joe, it could change hands 150 times.

The coffee farmer lives in a world where the only thing more uncertain than the changing climate is the changing price of coffee, which once again is too low for many farmers to make ends meet. Facing these global forces beyond their control, coffee farmers can feel as powerless and as insignificant as a lone coffee bean in a global market of 20 billion pounds of coffee.

One way that many small-scale farmers, across commodities such as bananas, cocoa, and coffee, have worked to combat these challenges is through unification and organization via the cooperative structure. For decades, smallholder coffee farmers (those who farm just a few acres of land) have harnessed the power of cooperatives to gain a foothold in the marketplace, and to access networks of knowledge, training and funding.

In an agricultural setting, cooperatives link the economic, cultural, and social needs of farmers together. Each member is an owner of the cooperative, which is democratically controlled. Equality, democracy, equity, and solidarity unite farmers to compete in a global market.

Each year the United Nations recognizes the power of cooperatives during International Day of Cooperatives. In 2016, the theme was focusing on “the power to act for a sustainable future”, which was a fitting theme for the many small-scale farmers involved in Fair Trade, who are all working together—with businesses and consumers—to build a brighter, more sustainable tomorrow.

Cooperatives and Fair Trade

Since the beginning of the Fair Trade movement and of Fair Trade USA, cooperatives have played a key role. Paul Rice, our President & CEO, helped organize Nicaraguan coffee farmers in the 90s prior to opening the organization’s headquarters (then a one-room office in Oakland, California). After four years, the cooperative had reached thousands of farmers. They benefitted from sharing technical assistance, taking their products to market at the same time, and leveraging their collective purchasing and selling power to better the lives of each other. It was a perfect place for Fair Trade to take root.

Today 97% of all Fair Trade Certified coffee is produced by cooperatives. Fair Trade USA also works with many other types of farm structures, including independent smallholders and farm workers, as well as factory workers and groups of small-scale fishermen. Of course, the ability to extend the benefits of Fair Trade over time to a broader spectrum of labor would not have been possible without the foundation built by Fair Trade cooperatives in the beginning, and those that continue to champion Fair Trade today.

Fair Trade cooperatives in action

All farm structures benefit from Fair Trade via the standards, the Community Development Fund, more direct buyer relationships, and Fair Trade’s unique approach to democratic processes and empowerment. In the cooperative setting, the Fair Trade model is leveraged to help the producer organization become even more efficient, business savvy, responsible, and productive. In some cases additional income from Fair Trade is used to supplement projects already underway or in the planning phases, to help the organization achieve maximum impact.

Take FEDECOCAGUA, a Fair Trade coffee cooperative in Guatemala. They used their Community Development Funds to combat the devastating effects of leaf rust, a fungus that continues to wipe out coffee farms across Latin America. A portion of the cooperative’s fund went to the purchase of motorized sprayers to fight leaf rust, and the formation of their anti-rust brigade program. This work has reached more than 20,000 farmers with critical trainings and resources to help keep their farms afloat in the face of devastation.  

Other cooperatives have funded education programs with their Community Development Funds. The CONACADO cocoa cooperative in the Dominican Republic used theirs to build a new school, fund school repairs in five regions, and fund scholarships and school supplies for low-income students.

Then there is GRAPOS, one of our cooperative partners in Chiapas. In 2013 when coffee prices dropped below the minimum, GRAPOS reported a 24% increase in membership as more farmers sought access of both the benefits of the cooperative and Fair Trade. In coffee, Fair Trade sets a minimum price to protect farmers from falling market prices. Think of it as a safety net. In May of 2016 the global coffee price fell below $1.20 per pound, but Fair Trade farmers earned at least $1.40 per pound, plus an additional $0.20 per pound as part of the Community Development Fund (AND another $0.30 if the coffee is also organic). 

Moving forward together

According to the World Bank, nearly 80% of the world’s poor are farmers. It’s a reality that many of the people who produce our food go hungry themselves, and that each year mounting economic and environmental forces are pushing farmers from their fields to the city. But when producers join together to tackle the challenges of farming in the 21st century, agriculture can be a path to education, healthy lives, environmental sustainability, and prosperity.

A coffee farmer in Colombia may roll a lone bean in her hand, but when she adds that bean to a pile of beans, nurtured and harvested by the hands of her neighbors, she joins a movement that is changing the lives of farmers around the world.

We hope you'll join us in celebrating the power of cooperatives by taking the time to learn more about those we work with, and by looking for the Fair Trade seal when you purchase your next bag of coffee, to support the many hardworking farmers and workers that make our favorite products possible.