Feb 212010
Authors: Lincoln Greenhaw

CSU’s Center for Fair and Alternative Trade recently received funding for two new international programs to study what happens when companies give workers in a third-world country what is considered a fair day’s wage in the United States.

The two grants, from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development, are the latest of four that the center has received this year, solidifying its reputation as a distinguished force in the fair trade movement.

That movement, as most coffee drinkers know, is a group of organizations that give their seal of approval to companies who don’t exploit underprivileged farmers and craftsmen.

CSU Sociology professors Doug Murray and Laura Raynolds first got the idea for the center, after witnessing the effects of fair trade on coffee farmers while overseeing a study in 1999.

“People were using the markets around the world to pursue values, such as environmental protection, social justice and animal welfare … that’s a really broad thing that’s really taken off in the last three to four decades,” Murray said.

Jennifer Keahey, a student doing her graduate work for CFAT, will take off to South Africa in the coming days because of the new grant from the USID, to study and work with 500 families of rooibos tea farmers.

Keahey will instruct the farmers about the ins and outs of fair trade certification.

“By becoming fair trade members, for example, farmers can get secure long-term relationships with buyers,” Keahey said. “They can get higher prices for their crops and they can get funds for community development.”

The unofficial motto of the movement is “trade not aid,” an expression of the members’ commitment to helping poor communities prosper by encouraging local businesses to improve their practices rather than simply giving out aid money.

“People all around the world … their own subsistence is being tied increasingly to their ability to participate in markets, … not only to be able to produce something more than the corn or the rice that they survive on, but to market, in order to catch some of the opportunities and benefits that are out there,” Murray said.

Many rural communities throughout the third world are already learning the rules of globalization, and members of CFAT don’t see it as their job to force communities to conform to foreign methods.

Jennifer Loomis, another graduate student who works with CFAT, recently went to Huancayo, Peru, thanks to a previous grant, to study the workings of a local organic market.

“A lot of the organic farmers I talked to had been producing organically since their ancestors … and there’s a growing interest among the other farmers to try and eliminate pesticide use,” Loomis said.

Such local movements may be important to keep communities and families together as globalization moves industrial jobs from one country to another, Murray said.

“If you go, as I have, to southern Mexico,” he said, “you can see entire regions where there are no adult males left. It’s not that they just wanted to get out of town; their survival depended on them migrating north to be able to find some sort of livelihood to sustain their families. Markets are doing that. Markets have benefits, and markets have negative effects.”

But the researchers are still optimistic about the way that market benefits can transform local communities in the future.

“There’s one concept in economics, and that’s that people are rational and they make their decisions based on careful calculations of costs versus benefits … they’ll always go with the lowest price,” Lomis said. “But what we’re seeing now is that moral dimensions do play into their decision making, and that they might be willing to spend a little bit more money because fair trade reflects their social values — human values.”

Staff writer Lincoln Greenhaw can be reached at news@collegian.com

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