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TRADE, NOT AID: Churches, agencies take part in fair trade Bill Fentum, Jan 16, 2009
PHOTO COURTESY OF EQUAL EXCHANGE
Farmers in northeastern Peru harvest coffee to sell worldwide through fair-trade cooperatives.
By Bill Fentum Staff Writer
If buying a bag of coffee or a chocolate bar can help fight poverty around the world, it only makes sense that United Methodists would want to get involved.
So in 2002, the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) launched sales of coffee, tea, chocolate and snacks in partnership with distributor Equal Exchange, a leader in the fair-trade movement.
And even in today’s harder economic times, church leaders say most United Methodists in the U.S. can still afford to treat those less fortunate with compassion and justice—even if buying fair-trade goods costs a few pennies more than a cut-rate product.
“No matter how difficult times may be, we in this country need to remember that we are truly blessed,” said June Kim, executive director of UMCOR’s World Hunger program. “Responsibility comes with those blessings, and the buying choices we make have a huge impact overseas.”
The concept behind fair trade is simple: Equal Exchange buys produce directly from small farm co-ops in 18 countries. Consumers then enjoy quality products certified by TransFair USA—the country’s official fair-trade labeler—while the co-ops earn a price at least as high as the market average. Corporate middlemen are bypassed entirely, which helps farmers to lift their families out of poverty.
Some 600 United Methodist congregations, she said, order coffee in bulk from Equal Exchange, then serve it during fellowship hours and sell more bags at cost to church members. For every pound sold, Equal Exchange gives back 15 cents to support farmers through UMCOR’s Sustainable Agriculture and Development Program.
The relief agency set a goal last spring of selling a record 100 tons of products by May 9, 2009, World Fair Trade Day. In November, totals had reached two-thirds of the goal.
The denomination’s General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) also joined the push in 2008, co-sponsoring two holiday campaigns. During Halloween, postcards about fair trade were distributed with Equal Exchange chocolate bars; at Christmas, door-to-door carolers urged their neighbors to buy fair-trade in the new year.
“It’s a way to advocate for the poor, besides lobbying Congress,” said Susan Burton, a GBCS executive who helped plan the campaigns. “The biggest challenge to overcoming injustice is when people of privilege wallow in their guilt and end up doing nothing. Fair trade gives us a concrete, accessible set of tools.”
The Lenten season offers another way to help. U.S. congregations spend about $28 million a year on palms for Palm Sunday. Farmers in Central American rainforests are typically paid by volume, and up to half of the branches they cut are later discarded.
But a fair-trade program called Eco-Palms at the University of Minnesota offers a higher price for cutting fewer palms, and churches like Beach Lake UMC in northeastern Pennsylvania are willing to pay more to support that idea. Beach Lake’s pastor, the Rev Mark Terwilliger, heard about Eco-Palms in 2007—chamaedorea palm fronds harvested through sustainable agriculture and sold to churches for Palm Sunday.
“It’s a little more expensive, but easily within our budget,” Mr. Terwilliger said. After Beach Lake signed on he told Ms. Kim about the program, and UMCOR joined Lutheran, Catholic and Presbyterian relief agencies to promote Eco-Palms.
Fair trade started in 1946, when the Mennonite nonprofit group Ten Thousand Villages helped artisans in developing nations find markets for handcrafted goods. The movement picked up a slogan in Europe—“Trade, not aid”—and in the 1980s several alternative trading organizations (ATOs) began selling agricultural products as well.
Equal Exchange was founded in 1986 to help farm co-ops in war-torn Nicaragua export their coffee. In the 1990s partnerships were added in Latin America, Asia and Africa. Now the company also sells organic cranberries, almonds and pecans harvested by farmers in the U.S.
“We help real people with real problems,” said Hope Kolly, an Equal Exchange staffer who promotes fair trade at churches and workshops across the country. “If folks have trouble seeing the need, I talk about our own farming history in the United States, and someone—especially in rural areas—will always remember a friend who had to shut down the family farm, and how heartbreaking that was. It helps them connect emotionally.”
In some nations, she added, the crisis runs much deeper.
In West Africa, poor families send children and youths to cocoa farms where they work 12 hours a day for little or no money. Left without opportunities for education, they never escape the cycle of poverty.
Fair-trade overseers monitor farm co-ops to prevent child-labor abuses, but they only control a small share of the worldwide cocoa market.
“It’s hard to say if we’re making any progress,” Ms. Kolly said. “As soon as child labor gets better in one region, it migrates somewhere else.
“In countries that are stricken by AIDS, when kids are orphaned and no one looks out for them, they’re even more vulnerable.”
Besides Equal Exchange items, First United Methodist Church in Santa Rosa, Calif., sells coffee each Sunday from Seeds of Learning, a nonprofit group that builds and equips schools in Central America, and olive oil from Sindyanna of Galilee, an Israeli co-op that ensures a fair price for small farmers in the Palestinian territories.
Sales were modest at first, says member Bill Dornbush, who oversees the program with his wife, Jennifer. Things changed when the couple was asked to lead the children’s time in worship one Sunday.
“We decided to teach a lesson on fair trade,” Mr. Dornbush said. “We had the kids passing around nickels so they could understand the concept of a middleman. The adults listened, too, and that started us on an upward path. Now we average $285 a month.”
Manchester UMC in Manchester, Mo., hosts a four-day Fair Trade Market each November, selling fair-trade products from more than 50 countries. Shoppers buy food, jewelry, furniture and handcrafted toys, while live entertainment gives them a taste of other cultures.
“We started six years ago with five merchant tables,” said Manchester member Kellee Sikes, the market’s founder and co-chair. “It was so well-received by the congregation and friends and neighbors that we sold $10,000 in goods. Now we sell about $85,000, and we’re working on a DVD and how-to guide to help more churches do it.”
Ms. Sikes, a technologies consultant, has lived in five countries and traveled on business to 22 others. “I’ve seen the riches of the world—and the slums,” she said. “In some cases like Marrakesh or Morocco, you see them literally side-by-side. It leads you to make comparisons and wonder why some people succeed so easily but others struggle their whole lives.
“Before people can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, they need a way to get some boots. And that really comes down to fair trade, where mercy and justice come together.”