Tuesday, January 16, 2007

inspections... and monkeys!!!

Hi everybody,

This last week the cooperative I work with had a visit from the fair
trade inspector. As part of my research, I followed this inspector
around to nearly everything she did, taking notes on her interactions
and her attitudes, and also on other people's reactions to her. This
is actually the fourth time I have observed an inspection visit—twice
I watched the organic inspector, and twice I watched this same fair
trade inspector.

You may wonder "what is a fair trade inspector?" She is an employee
of the international fair trade certifying agency, FLO. This is the
agency that licenses companies to put the familiar little sticker on
your coffee, tea or chocolate (or if you are in europe, your sugar,
bananas, oranges, honey, wine, and even soccer balls.) Her job is to
make sure the cooperative complies with the FLO requirements. The
organic inspector goes around doing the same thing for the organic

These inspection visits are, for me, a really interesting interaction
in the commodity chain connecting consumers (those of us who drink the
coffee) and producers. I read an article before starting this
research which described organic inspectors in Mexico as mediators
between two very different sets of (cultural) expectations (reference
available upon request), and I have found that this is also true here.
On the one hand, there are the certifying agencies—FLO is located in
Germany, and the organic certifying agency, located in Peru, has to
take into consideration the different requirements written into the
laws of the European Union, the United States, and other rich-country
governments. For the curious, the European Union has more strict
requirements about the actual farming done—the coffee can't be organic
if corn is grown on the same farm using chemical fertilizers, for
example. But the United States requires more paperwork documenting
the techniques used. And on the other hand, there are the world-views
and expectations of farmers. Quite often, too, there are the
contrasting worlds of the city-based cooperative employees, which in
many details are different from those of the farmers.

Both certifiers require all farmers to keep a log of the work they do
on the farm. If the farmers are highly literate, this is not
generally a big burden. However, for those who are illiterate or only
semi-literate, this can be a high enough wall to prevent them from
joining a cooperative which is certified. It isn't always, though.
Some swallow their pride and seek help from literate children or
neighbors. And some actually request accomodations from their
cooperatives—these may come in the form of fill-in-the-blank logbooks
with pictograms where the farmer can make an X to indicate the work
done, for example, or it can mean the employees of the cooperative
help to fill out the books. Among the farmers I work with, the books
are usually seen as a significant burden. During an inspection last
year, one farmer complained to the organic inspector about these
expectations, asking "do they want our coffee, or do they just want
this paperwork?"

Both of these inspectors do not limit themselves to asking questions,
making observations, and filling out their checklists. Instead,
during their inspection visits they often come across as a combination
of cheerleader and social worker. They give compliments. They
encourage people to participate more and to take pride in what they
are doing. They give suggestions and advice—on how to accomplish the
requirements of the certification, on how to strengthen the
organization, on how to find markets now that they have the
certifications. The organic inspector told me that this is the
official policy of his certifying agency, Bio Latina. There are
actually a number of organic certifiers, and he said Bio Latina's
policy of hiring local inspectors and giving advice and suggestions
during the inspection means that they have a more realistic system.
On the other hand, the FLO inspector told me that she has been
reprimanded for all the advice she gives. Her agency tells her she
should limit herself to "taking the snapshot" of the cooperative when
she visits—of filling out her checklist. She never does, though,
although sometimes she has had to specify that she is giving advice
not as the representative of FLO but just as a private person.

Although the FLO inspector, like the organic inspector, is concerned
about ecological practices, she has a couple of other concerns, too.
First, she needs to make sure that the cooperative is "democratically
operated". This means that it needs to show evidence of significant
participation in decision-making by people other than the leaders,
that all the members need to understand the pricing structure, and
that the committees are operating, especially the committee called the
"Vigilance Committee" (is there a better translation for that?). The
Vigilance Committee is essentially an auditing committee, whose job it
is to poke around in the books and ask questions, to prevent both
corruption and authoritarianism. Next, she has to make sure that the
financial accounts are in order and that the labor practices in the
cooperative meet a certain standard.

About labor practices: everybody around here recognizes that children
work. School vacation is during December and January (rather than
July and August, like in the U.S.) in order that the children can help
with the coffee harvest, and this is normal and not frowned-upon.
However, a lack of government services, or laws about school
enrollment, mean that orphans and children of very poor families often
quit school (or never begin school) and may start working by the age
of 7, and this is seen as a sad fact of life. On the other hand, for
people who have a little land, farmers like the members of
cooperatives, who are able to look ahead a little further than the
next meal, education for their children is almost always a big
priority. Education implies a significant cost and difficulty for
parents—finishing elementary school through sixth grade in the
community where I work means the children have to have shoes,
notebooks and pens. But in order to attend secondary school, the
children have to leave the community and either live with a relative
or friend, or rent a room somewhere. Sometimes there is tuition.
Some people get small partial scholarships for this, but not always.
However, if a child makes it through secondary school, it seems there
are more scholarships available to go to the university for those who
get accepted. And one of the first laws passed by the new Sandinista
government has outlawed schools from collecting enrollment fees and

Oh, but I was talking about the FLO inspector. Well, to wrap it up
here, one of the things she was encouraging the cooperative to do was
to very seriously look for foreign coffee buyers, and not to use
intermediaries in Nicaragua, like they have been doing until now.
This is where I can help the cooperative. I made a contact with the
buyer for Green Mountain coffees, and they are sending along a sample
of their coffee. We'll see how that turns out… wish us luck? Anyone
else know any fair trade coffee buyers, especially who are looking to
buy coffee this year? Please let us know!

I also made a website: http://cecosemac.googlepages.com. This is
still a work in progress, but I'm thrilled that some cooperative
members are excited about helping me to put together more details.
I'd love any comments or suggestions, and thank you very much to those
of you who have already helped me with it! Yesterday, I accepted the
invitation of the president of one of the base cooperatives to go to
take pictures of howler monkeys on a cooperative member's farm. (YAY
monkeys!!!) These monkeys disappeared from the area for a while, due
to deforestation. But they have returned as farmers began to take
more responsibility for their environment, planting trees, conserving
the soil, protecting the sources of water. So I'll leave you with a
couple of not-exactly-National-Geographic-quality photos that I took


1 comment:

Scott James said...


Just a quick note that FLO-certified sports balls are now in the US, as well. We just launched our line fo Fair Trade soccer balls, volleyballs, rugby balls, and more.

-Scott James
Fair Trade Sports