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ROANOKE STAR-SENTINEL: Fair trade makes good sense for co-op

November 12th, 2009

By Gene Marrano

The Roanoke Natural Foods Co-op welcomed a visitor from Nicaragua to its Grandin Village store earlier this week, who spoke about fair trade practices when it comes to coffee and other food products.

Clark Webb, the Virginia coordinator with Witness for Peace, said the organization calls itself a “Latin America solidarity group,” that educates the North American public about issues in Mexico, Central, and South America. Making sure that farmers there get a reasonable price for the coffee beans they grow is one small part of that effort.

It’s called Fair Trade, which came to life explained Webb, after NAFTA free trade legislation was passed in the ‘90’s, laws which hurt some Latin American businesses. Fair trade practices simply mean that businesses here agree to pay a fair price for goods produced south of the border, prices which allow those producers to make a decent living. The fair trade issue is “operating largely below the radar of our national government,” said Webb.

That includes the “shade grown” coffee of Nicaragua, which the Natural Foods Co-op sells under the Equal Exchange label. Via an interpreter, Gutierrez spoke first to employees and then to the public about fair trade practices.

“We don’t hear a lot about South America,” said Webb, who is based in Blacksburg and represents natural food producers for a living. “[It’s] largely unrepresented in our national media.” Gutierrez spoke in several places as part of a Witness for Peace tour.

He credited the cooperative movement in Nicaragua with helping to improve the lives of farmers that produce shade grown coffee – coffee bushes planted without clear cutting of trees. “This preserves the environment…plus it produces a quality coffee grown on rich, volcanic soil.”

“Roanoke Natural Foods Co-op is part of a movement that sells fair-traded coffee,” said Webb, “providing Latin American producers a much greater return for their investment of hard labor and capital input.”  That return can be 3-4 times what they might receive otherwise on the international market. Chocolate, honey and other products from South America are also fair traded items in the U.S.

“There’s certainly a social value [to Fair Trade] coffee,” said Webb, who noted that other countries promote the practice more than does the U.S. About 50 percent of the coffee in Great Britain is fair-traded, compared to less than five percent in this country. “We have a long way to go to educate the American public as to the advantages of the Fair Trade movement.”

To read the article in the Roanoke Star-Sentinel, click here.