BY SEAN HEALY
@box text intr = One group of small farmers has managed to escape the wreckage of the coffee price plunge and the "tyranny of the C market": those farmers organised in the global Fair Trade network.
To have their coffee certified as Fair Trade, importers must satisfy a strict set of criteria, the most important of which is that they pay a minimum price of US$1.26 per pound directly to organised farmer cooperatives, far higher than the current market price and cutting out the intermediaries.
Importers must also provide farmers with credit at fair terms and commit to long-term trade relationships, thereby providing some stability and chance for expansion.
The impact of such improved trade terms on the 500,000 farmers organised in 300 cooperatives in 20 countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa is tangible.
"If we couldn't sell our coffee through Fair Trade, we would be destroyed", a farmer at the 3 de Mayo cooperative in Guatemala told a visiting US journalist in May. "Now, we have a future."
The Fair Trade coffee movement grew out of the efforts of North American solidarity activists in the 1980s, who imported and sold coffee from Nicaragua and the liberated zones of El Salvador to support the revolutionary movements there.
Fair Trade coffee's market share is small (2% of global sales at most) but is growing steadily. The TransFair network, which certifies coffee as Fair Trade, now has 16 affiliated groups in Europe, North America, Japan and Australia and employs 50 inspectors to visit participating cooperatives to ensure that money is re-invested in farm improvements or community social projects.
Fair Trade coffee is better for the environment, too. Small farmers have traditionally employed more sustainable techniques than the giant plantations and, in any case, have lacked the finance to clear trees or purchase large quantities of fertiliser or pesticide. Eighty-five percent of Fair Trade coffee is shade grown and either passive or certified organic.
The distribution network for Fair Trade coffee is growing in Australia. While it is not yet sold in major supermarkets (or in Starbucks), many health food stores and small cafes have started to stock it.
Community Aid Abroad, for example, distributes a line of organic East Timorese coffee, paid for at a fair price and grown by cooperatives in the country's mountainous interior.