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Doing Our Part

Fair trade program in Colombia directly supports local community

By Donald Nordeng

Sitting in my comfortable office in Meguro, Tokyo, it is easy to forget how lucky I am to live here.

In a visit to Santa Marta, Colombia, in June, I had the opportunity to meet with some of the families who have been helped by the fair trade banana programs we have developed with U CO-OP (a retail cooperative organization in Kanagawa, Shizuoka, and Yamanashi prefectures) and Nisseikyo (the Japanese Consumer Co-operative), in partnership with Flotraban (Banana Workers Association), a worker cooperative in Colombia.

Yoshimitsu Ishikawa, the inspector and person in charge from Nisseikyo, accompanied me on the trip. We were auditing the impact of the fair trade banana program that U CO-OP and Nisseikyo established in 2009. Since then, over $300,000 has been transferred directly to Flotraban from purchases of fair trade organic bananas in Japan.

In turn, Flotraban has implemented programs to help internally displaced victims of the 50-plus-year civil war in Colombia. At our table, in a building near La Samaria’s Bonanza Farm, sat five leaders of the local labor organization, all of them elected by their peers.

One woman, who I will call Carmen to protect her identity, spoke. “I can’t tell you how much this organization has meant to me and my family. When I was in a panic because my daughter was ill, I contacted Patricia at Flotraban. She listened to me, and was able to help us. If it wasn’t for her, I don’t know where I would have turned.”

The organization had set aside $2,000 for annual emergencies such as Carmen’s. Many times things such as crutches or bandages are not available, or people cannot afford them. Flotraban buys the products needed after interviewing the member in need.

In addition, the organization functions as a kind of counseling service, helping members work through day-to-day issues that can become critical for those without resources.

The fair trade project is verified by a Colombian certification organization that has ISO 17065 accreditation for fair trade and ethical trade standards. This means that workers are treated fairly, and that the premium paid for produce in a target market, in this case Japan, goes directly to an organization managed solely by the workers.

U CO-OP and Nisseikyo, as well as Aeon’s Green Label, are three of the main buyers of Colombian fair trade bananas. This project has resulted in the school you see in the picture accompanying this article getting windows, fans, and an upgrade to its electrical system.

Schools in this part of Colombia are still insufficient, and children are bused to classes over distances of over 25 kilometers. Recently, a fire killed a bus full of students taking a ride after church. Many of this same type of bus are used to transport children to schools each day.

School buildings are used in shifts, with some children joining in the morning and others in the afternoon. This, to me, seems like an elegant solution to school utilization that could be implemented elsewhere.

In Colombia, like other places, getting clean, potable water in homes is a real challenge. Flotraban has purchased filtration kits, and organizes training for people who will receive them. The organization’s members come together to assemble the kits, as a community effort.

The first lesson I learned when visiting Colombia is, “Everyone does his or her part. You are not more important than anyone else.”

Nothing drives that message home more than sitting in a fair trade meeting, or visiting the homes of people who work hard to meet our rigorous quality standards here in Japan. I am forever grateful for this opportunity to serve.