Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
July 13, 2009
Activists push to make Edmonton fair trade city
Third World farmers receive a just price for coffee, chocolate, fruit
WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ
Valantina Amalraj and Justin Kautz are organizing fair trade campus events.
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
EDMONTON - Canadians love their coffee but few of us realize many agriculture workers in the coffee industry often toil in less than fair conditions and for meagre wages. Many small coffee farmers receive prices for their coffee that are less than the cost of production, forcing them into a cycle of poverty and debt.
Valantina Amalraj, a University of Alberta student, says fair trade is a viable solution to this situation, assuring consumers the coffee they drink was purchased under fair conditions. The same would go for other fair trade products such as chocolate, tea and sugar.
That's why Amalraj, 21, is campaigning to making Edmonton one of a handful of fair trade cities in Canada.
Fair trade, she says, ensures that more of the money one spends on coffee and other products reaches the farmers who actually grow it.
To achieve fair trade city status, Edmonton would have to meet certain goals: city council would have to officially support fair trade and agree to use fair trade certified products for its own needs; the products are made available in shops and cafes; support is demonstrated by local workplaces, faith groups and schools; interest is demonstrated by the media and the general public; a steering committee is created and other ethical and sustainable consumption initiatives are promoted.
The strategic intent of the fair trade campaign is to help marginalized producers and workers move towards economic self-sufficiency and stability.
"But I don't think you are helping them in the sense of charity as much as you are ensuring that no one got exploited along the way," Amalraj said in an interview from Fort McMurray, where she was visiting family.
Amalraj, a Catholic, believes the fair trade movement fits in well with Christianity's focus on social responsibility.
"Christ's teachings stress taking action in the face of injustices," she said.
Garstang in the United Kingdom became the world's first fair trade town in 2000. Since then, hundreds of towns and cities across Europe and the United States have achieved certification.
Five communities in Canada have achieved fair trade status, including Wolfville, N.S., La Peche, Quebec, Port Colborne, Ont., Nakusp, B.C., and Golden, B.C.
The last three achieved their status in the last two months, "which means the movement is really picking up in Canada," noted Amalraj, who just graduated from engineering and will begin studying law in September.
"Eleven other cities, including Quebec City and Montreal are well on their way, and many others are starting to work towards this endeavour, just like us here in Edmonton."
TransFair Canada, an independent non-profit organization, is the only certifying body for fair trade products.
Fair trade certification ensures coffee farmers are paid a decent, living wage for their harvest; encourages democratically organized farming cooperatives; provides access to affordable credit, which help farmers stay out of debt; and promotes sustainable practices, such as organic farming.
But as Amalraj explained, the fair trade campaign is not about everything in Edmonton being fair trade certified.
"It's more about fair trade products being readily available for those people that do want to have access to those products," she said. "My primary motivation for doing this is that it will increase the availability and awareness of fair trade certified products."
The campaign focuses on coffee, chocolate, tea and sugar, which Amalraj says are the fair trade products more easily available in Edmonton.
In places like Ontario there is fair trade fruit and fair trade wine. Fair trade flowers are also showing up in some places. People can identify fair trade products by the Fair Trade logo and the certification seal.
"Fair trade certification gives consumers an opportunity to support a system that, although a part of the current system, challenges it."
Amalraj is the fair trade campaign coordinator for Make Poverty History, a student group based at the University of Alberta. She and fellow student Justin Kautz recently started the campaign by contacting faith groups and working with the university population - "two groups that have a greater than average density of people interested in pursuing social justice causes," Amalraj noted.
"Make Poverty History has already advocated successfully for the creation of a social justice committee within the University of Alberta Students' Union to promote ethical practices within the students' union, including selling fair trade certified products in their stores and using the products at meetings."
The group is also partnering with student groups, such as Engineers Without Borders to organize events on campus complete with free samples.
The response from faith groups has been generally positive. "Many churches are already meeting with us and some have committed to encouraging their churches to switching to fair trade certified products where possible," Amalraj said.
The group has also made initial contacts with school boards and other bodies to promote the idea.
Amalraj believes convincing businesses and restaurants will be more difficult, "as they do not have ethical obligations in some sense."
But she said many mainstream grocery stores have already begun to sell fair trade products on their own accord. "Hopefully if sales continue to increase, stores will bring in more of these products and other stores will see that selling these products is a smart business choice."
Her group hopes to produce a database about fair trade products availability in Edmonton by this summer.