Can Fair Trade Movements Help Small Holders? – Anu Priya Babu*

The late 1990s witnessed severe distress in parts of agrarian Kerala due to a steep fall in commodity prices and crop failures leading to indebtedness. ‘There is no alternative but to sell cheaply’ was the slogan that echoed across countries in order to survive in a globalised world. Various organisations emerged to support farmers through protests against neoliberal policies of free trade, but that did not solve the dilemma. Free trade is still considered as a universal good though some refer to it as “socialism of the rich”.

Responsible consumers in search for innovative alternatives in post war USA and Europe concerned about their own health as also about farmer producers had begun working towards making trade relations fairer. Different strands of Fair Trade movement came together around the 1980s and the current form of the movement emerged. Consumers partaking in such movements were willing to pay fair prices to farmers if the products are safe to consume and sustainable in production practices, especially in nurturing biodiversity. This is a small note based on my experience with a grassroots organisation that explored this possibility – Fair Trade Alliance Kerala (FTAK). Established in 2005, FTAK is currently working with thousands of small farmers in the Malabar districts of Kerala, to address the adverse impact of fluctuating market prices.

Fair Trade Alliance Kerala (FTAK)

The working principle of FTAK is Fair Trade plus – Biodiversity, Food security and Gender Justice. The organisation promotes homestead farming as well as regenerative methods in order to ensure integrated development among farming communities. Various social, environmental or sustainability standards including organic certification have been adopted to enhance the intrinsic quality of the produce so as to meet the requirements of a wider set of consumers. The organic agricultural produce from certified farmer members of FTAK are procured at panchayat level and sold via its partner organisation (Elements Homestead Products Pvt Ltd) to exporters as well as local customers. A minimum price is assured to farmer members of the Alliance based on factors like average estimated labour wages, cost of inputs and prevailing market price.

While encouraging certified organic farming, FTAK was conscious of the prospect of indirectly driving monocropping of cash crops like coffee, cashew and spices. Considering this risk, FTAK regarded crop diversity and food crops as mandatory requirements for membership in the Alliance. Beyond improved incomes and nutritional security, farmer members of FTAK acknowledged intangible benefits like collective identity, work satisfaction, hope, confidence and reliability of farm income. Women’s participation, knowledge sharing, as also management of seed banks and procurement depos are ensured by SHGs organised by the Alliance at panchayat level.

“Men used to handle cash flows, selling output and buying inputs, while women did invisible agricultural activities. After joining FTAK, we got a chance to learn and experiment with activities usually handled by men. Group farming and running depots gave us confidence”. – Woman farmer, Wayanad

Amidst the pandemic of Covid19 and ensuing lockdown in 2020, FTAK members experienced high levels of insecurity due to disruptions in export of coffee, cashew and other cash crops to fair trade markets in Europe and other countries. During this period, even though FTAK could procure crops from farmers at reasonable prices, it faced immense difficulty in selling these produce abroad. Dependence on external markets appears tough to be sustained consistently in the long run. Nevertheless, the presence of FTAK was a great relief for farmers as FTAK identified local markets for both inputs and outputs. FTAK also facilitated weekly procurement of vegetables and connected farmers with urban consumers. Nearly 3500 farmers took part in a march organized by the Alliance in three Malabar districts for seed exchange. Alliance has started conducting meetings of district level executive committees through online platforms.

FTAK has been successful in helping small farmers receive ‘less unfair and more predictable prices’ for their produce compared to the prevailing market trend that is often influenced by volatile changes in weather and international trade. Reaching the next milestone of reliable markets that offer stable and fair prices would require moulding responsible customer communities who value the multi-functionality of small-scale regenerative agriculture. Removal of internal barriers, a watchdog to see that smallholder interests are not sacrificed in international agreements and transparency in price determination of agricultural produce are changes that can complement grassroots interventions like FTAK, in bringing systemic changes to small farmers’ plight.

*Anu Priya Babu is a student at Azim Premji University, Bangalore pursuing MA Development.