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.

2 thoughts on “Can Fair Trade Movements Help Small Holders? – Anu Priya Babu*

  1. Really interesting article. Do organizations that ensure the implementation of fair trade practices only sell products abroad or to niche markets within India? I’m curious about your take on how fair trade practises such as the ones listed in this article can be implemented at a national level (within India) while still competing with commercial entities on pricing.

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    • Thanks for your comment and glad to know you found the article interesting. Here is the response – The certified fair trade products of FTAK are mainly sold to its partner company- Elements Homesteads Products Pvt Limited, and its major market continues to be the niche markets abroad. However, there have been increased attempts to sell products in domestic markets for the last few years. Apart from FTAK, there are also other entities that rely on the principle of fair trade and sell their products abroad and in Indian markets. Anyhow it’s important to note that this together only covers a small portion of the mainstream Indian markets.
      One of the important prerequisites to implement fair trade practices in India would be the strict implementation of a fair minimum price by the government. Any purchase or procurement from farmers by any entity below the statutory minimum support price must be made illegal. Moreover, a national consensus must be built on the determination of fair price and its provision to the farmers, acknowledging their right to food as well as their right to produce food. Also, a significant affordable segment of the Indian middle-class population must be conscious of what they are consuming and become ready to pay their dues to farmers. Presence of independent local organisations functioning on the basis of participatory approach and democratic governance to enhance mobilization of farmers and to ensure collective bargaining, along with the presence of promoter organizations spreading fair trade principles among middle-class consumers, civil society bodies, schools and other educational institutes can be helpful in mainstreaming fair trade principle in a long run.

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