Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Struggle of Tropical Commodities Producers

This weekend Linda Alepin, co-founder of the Global Women's Leadership Network, asked me to answer several questions with regard to the work I do. She is putting together a proposal for a PBS Special on Breaking the Chains of Poverty. Her intention is to feature Lydia Bakaki, a Ugandan attorney who raised the money for 30 destitute women with children to have their own acre of land. She is now working toward getting housing on the land for the women; Alma Cota de Yanez, who runs an NGO in Nogales and has made it possible for small business owners and NGOs in Northern Mexico to get the supplies and support they need; and me. Although I wrote way more than she needed, I did it as an exercise to get in touch again with what my intentions are in the work I do and where I am with this. As people often ask me what I do, I decided to post what I have written in my blog.


What is My Passion?
Most of my childhood and into my late teens I had chronic respiratory problems and was often quite ill with bronchial infections. As a result, one of my great passions was reading. I especially enjoyed biographies and was deeply moved by the stories and work of Albert Schweitzer, Pearl Buck, Helen Keller, Eleanor Roosevelt and other people who dedicated their lives to assisting others in need. I knew this was my life path from an early age, but didn't know how it would manifest.

In college I took a class in culture and personality and was hooked. I both majored and minored in anthropology. This training allowed for me to approach all aspects of my life with the curiosity of how our cultures affect our choices and how we live. I am intrigued by the potential we humans have for creating good. I am struck by how most people are inherently good and saddened by how circumstances can corrupt that goodness.

Through the circuitous path that most of us travel through life, I finally found my unique path as the voice for tropical commodities producers. The majority of men, women and children who live in developing countries and struggle to survive as farmers have been marginalized because of their race, tribal heritage, religious beliefs and lack of education. They have been subjugated through colonialism. They have lived under the tyranny of dictatorships. They have been uprooted through war and political unrest. The women and their children have faced gender inequality leading to physical and emotional abuse and extreme poverty.

Although I am not a farmer, I am passionate about working in the soil and I'm passionate about farming. I am passionate about the nourishing, nurturing and healing properties of food and the culture of food. I am passionately involved as a deep ecologist in the Third Revolution, also known as The Great Turning. The life as the planet as we know it depends on the success of this revolution. It is up to us for it to succeed.

I am passionate about writing, about using the written and spoken work to communicate, to educate, to motivate and to inspire people to move into possibility, to engage people to be passionate about affecting positive change. As a mother, a grandmother, a humanist and as a leader, I feel passionately about the need for everyone to be engaged in whatever capacity they are capable of to work toward the survival of Mother Earth and its inhabitants. The time is now.

The Status Quo of Tropical Farmers
Food and water are fundamental to our survival. Unfortunately, the cultivation, sale and distribution of food is more often than not politicized. This impacts everyone from farmer to consumer. While farmers everywhere are faced with issues outside of their control, and farming is not an easy way to make a living, the struggles of the tropical commodity producers are unprecedented. They have historically been the most exploited, the least represented and the most vulnerable of all farmers worldwide. Working in isolation, often uneducated, frequently speaking only their tribal languages and not the primary language of their country, they are caught in the crossfire of the industrialized countries who covet their crops and the corruption and political instability of their own countries.

In the United States, farmers have access to a number of resources to assist in their survival. Congress has established rules and regulations that mandate food boards, such as the Egg Board, Artichoke Board, Turkey Board, etc. or associations such as the Cattleman's Association. These boards and associations promote American grown or raised foods. Farmers pay a percentage of money based on the volume their farms produce in exchange for the promotion of their products. While not perfect, the boards and associations assist the farmers by educating the public on their crop or product's nutritional value, providing preparation tips and recipes and encouraging purchases. They also provide lobbies to fight for better legislation for farmers.

Additionally, the government often subsidizes subsistence crops such as wheat, corn and soy. Farmers (usually family corporations or corporate farms run by families) are paid to produce an overabundance of crops that are earmarked for foreign aid or to be sold in other countries; conversely, farmers may be paid not to produce a crop in order to drive up the price. This is true as well for non-food agricultural commodities such as cotton and flax. While food boards and subsidies are created for the well being of the farmers, in reality, they usually benefit the large corporate farms far more than the small family farms. Fortunately, in the last ten years, we have seen a resurgence of the small family farm though their survival can be tenuous at best.

Foods that we cannot grow in the United States but that we depend upon – coffee, vanilla, chocolate, bananas, coconuts, palm oil etc. – are imported from developing countries closer to the Equator where the weather supports these crops and labor is cheap. Although these "luxury" foods are in great demand, the farmers who grow them rarely have assistance from their governments and are in no way supported by our government. Instead, their products are purchased either by large corporations who control a specific commodity (bananas, pineapple, etc.) or by commodities traders. Until recently, most commodities traders were multi-generation families who acquired wealth and power in the 1800s and early 1900s and have wielded enormous control over the foods they imported.

Although coffee and chocolate are traded on the market and have futures, this is not true for all tropical commodities. Prices are controlled by supply and demand, but the prices are usually established by the traders who have historically set the price or had influence in setting the prices. Until recently farmers rarely had any idea of what their product was worth. While there have been some changes the market is volatile and prices are fluid.

Tropical commodities are additionally vulnerable to devastating tropical storms, volcanoes and earthquakes in the "ring of fire" regions, and to political unrest. Most farmers have small plots of land and cannot afford chemical fertilizers and pesticides. While this is theoretically a selling point for them – fair trade and organic products command more money – a farmer with two hectares of land cannot afford the $5000 or more for an annual inspection and certified organic status.

During "good times" when prices are high and their product is in demand farmers often make enough money to purchase shoes for their children and send them to school. When prices collapse, many farmers tear up their crops and leave the countryside for cities or for industrialized countries, desperate for work.

The introduction of NAFTA and CAFTA in Mexico and Central America has further added to the struggles of tropical farmers. Subsidized corn grown in the US was exported to Mexico. Mexican farmers could not compete price-wise with the subsidized corn and their small businesses failed. Worse, they purchased the cheaper corn to use as seed stock. The US corn was genetically modified and cross-pollinated with the traditional native corn, destroying the centuries-old corn that is best adapted to the region.

There are now ghost towns throughout Mexico where only the elderly and the small children have remained. Parents risk coming to the United States uneducated, unskilled and sometimes not even speaking the primary language of their own countries, hopeful for work and desperate to support their families.

There are additional issues that undermine the lives of tropical producers. The American and European food industries are wealthy, conservative and, increasingly are consolidating into mega-corporations with enormous influence and lobbying power. Examples of how they manipulate two of our tropical favorites are as follows:

Chocolate, a hugely desirable product, has been regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as to what may or may not be labeled "chocolate." Currently, candy coatings used in confections such as malted balls, coated fruits and nuts and candy bars must contain chocolate liquor in order to be called chocolate. The American Candy Association is petitioning the FDA to allow them to substitute vegetable oil for chocolate liquor but still call it "chocolate."

In the case of vanilla, only 2% of foods, fragrances and pharmaceuticals use pure vanilla. Cheap synthetic substitutes are readily available, displacing this once valuable product. Even premium ice creams regularly contain imitation vanilla substituted by greedy corporations despite stringent FDA regulations. Using pure vanilla would not significantly impact the price of the ice cream; indeed, the prices remain high despite the synthetic "natural flavors." Corporations have begun lobbying efforts to change the laws controlling the use of pure vanilla. Not only are these practices fraudulent and misleading to consumers, they further undercut small farmers.

Because of the sheer volume of coffee and cacao beans needed to satisfy our cravings for a morning cup of java or an afternoon candy bar lift, there are a number of associations who represent these two industries. Nevertheless, there is little protection for the small farmers. A classic example in the coffee industry was played out over the last several years.

Coffee is the sixth largest exported food commodity in the world. There are two primary varieties of commercial coffee beans, arabica, originally from Ethiopia, and robusta, which probably originated in Uganda. Arabica is the finer quality bean; robusta is grown where the more delicate arabica can't survive and is far less valuable. Arabica coffee is grown in Hawaii, Africa, Central and South America and the Caribbean. While coffee growers don't make a lot of money, those who grow arabica coffee could expect to keep their children in school and food on the table.

However, USAID started a large project in Vietnam to assist local farmers. They planted an enormous amount of robusta coffee and sold it for a very low price. It benefited the Vietnamese whose cost of living was low. The large coffee companies in the US purchased this coffee and substituted it for the higher-priced arabica coffee. Suddenly thousands of coffee farmers, most especially in Central America, were looking at 40 cents a kilo for their premium-grade coffee, and were forced out of business. In the meantime, a cup of coffee, now made from cheap Vietnamese robusta coffee, was sold for as high as $3.40 a cup in restaurants.

While it's unlikely that USAID had any idea of the havoc they would create by starting the coffee project in Vietnam, this tragedy underlines the complicated and volatile world of tropical commodities. And, when tragedies of this magnitude occur we see fewer children in school, greater poverty and subsequent domestic violence, increased damage to the delicate tropical eco-system, increased poaching of endangered birds and animals and greater influxes of migration to industrialized countries. Even more horrifying, most of us have no idea of the dramas being played out over the foods we indulge in daily.

One of the goals when I launched my Web-based, socially conscious business, The Vanilla.COMpany, was to educate people in industrialized countries about the politics of the food products we use and the importance of knowing about - and respecting the needs of - the producers, most especially the tropical farmers. Another was to find a way to be of assistance to tropical farmers. As vanilla is the least represented of the three primary luxury crops (coffee, chocolate and vanilla) I have assumed the role as their international representative.

What Am I Actively Doing Now to Affect Change?
In the autumn of 2005 I created a Google Group with a core group of members who speak English and have access to the Internet. The core group began with about 40 members; we are now more than 90. We are known as the International Tropical Farmers Network (ITFN). The group largely consists of educated vanilla growers, agronomists, biologists and other scientists, social scientists, a web designer, a grant writer and others concerned about the welfare of tropical farmers. Many of the core members represent anywhere from a few to thousands of farmers. Most of the farmers in the group produce more than just vanilla.

Due to being in active treatment for a life-threatening illness, I was unable to do much more than to act as a moderator and focus leader of the Google Group until late 2006. We did, however, manage to put together and execute the first conference for the ITFN in Mexico in May of 2006. Over 2500 people attended the conference, which was held at the base of the Mesoamerican ruins where the first indigenous farmers domesticated vanilla.

We are currently planning a general meeting in Mexico in August of 2007. It is our hope that we can find the funding to pay airfare and lodging for representatives from each vanilla growing region to come to the conference. This includes Mariam Mukalazi, who would represent Uganda, and Abuna Andibo, a Kenyan living in the US who is a grant writer. Both women will hopefully be in attendance at the Women Leaders for the World Cohort in Santa Clara in late July of 2007.

The goals for the general meeting are several-fold. First, we need to identify and clarify what we, as a group, wish to do with the ITFN. One option is to become a non-profit organization so that we can apply for large grants in order to launch an international campaign for pure vanilla. By launching a campaign for pure vanilla, we can reach a large audience, which will hopefully drive the use of more pure vanilla. If we increase the world use of pure vanilla by 2%, we will have doubled the vanilla industry.

Another goal is to empower vanilla farmers through education and solidarity so that they have greater control over the buying and selling as well as setting the prices of pure vanilla. We would like to see poor farmers receive training in sustainable agriculture and to learn how to correctly cure and dry their vanilla rather than depending on middlemen to do this. This would make their vanilla more valuable. Many of these farmers continue to practice slash and burn farming. In a traditional culture with unlimited land availability, this was sustainable. However, it no longer serves the land when farmers are confined to working small plots of land.

We would like to launch a web site dedicated to all producers of vanilla, with education, pricing information and options for secondary crops to sustain them in times when vanilla prices are low. My personal vision is to shepherd the ITFN into a position of being a model for tropical farmers' programs worldwide.

Finally, we will plan the agenda for our second ITFN conference to be held in Java, Indonesia in 2008.

What Are the Obstacles and Roadblocks That We Face?
Certainly having a life-threatening illness has been a major obstacle for me. I have not had the stamina to maintain my own business effectively until very recently. My business supports my staff but does not provide me with a salary. My personal medical expenses have been overwhelming. My personal financial survival has been severely taxed. This has slowed my ability to move the ITFN forward as well. The ITFN needs funds to become a non-profit organization. We need volunteer assistance for fundraising and putting together a web site. We need funds for our general meeting in August and for the 2008 conference.

The ITFN members are enthusiastic about our program and have assisted one another substantially with information on vanilla growing as well as on other cash crops. As most of us have never met in person, we are very excited about having a general meeting and working together face-to-face. This will stimulate further cooperation among members and the desire to move our program forward.

The other major obstacle is that we are up against is the traditional, old-guard way of trading tropical commodities. Old ways don't change easily. The food industry is powerful. However, if we remain in possibility I do believe that we can affect positive change. As our planet moves closer to disaster old ways must give way to a more cooperative manner of doing things if we are to survive. Our world is on the brink of destruction; it is also on the brink of a greener, healthier world. Vanilla farmers are part of the solution. To effectively grow vanilla trees are needed to protect the vanilla vines. The goal of vanilla growers is to keep the tropics healthy.

How Does Activism Affect My Life?
Activism is my life. I am a single woman and grandmother and no longer have the responsibilities of a wife and mother. Now the world is my family and I am an elder, a crone. It is my time as a deep ecologist, an anthropologist, a writer and an activist, to speak my truth as clearly and as fully as possible. I have dedicated the rest of my life in service with the goal of bringing greater health to our planet.

I am only one person. But as one person I can hopefully inspire and encourage others to also dedicate a portion of their lives to the service of our planet. I believe that I can be the change that I wish to see. And so can the rest of us be the change we wish to see.

What Does the Future Hold? What Will My Current Work Allow For?
This is difficult to predict as I am firmly rooted in the present. It is my fervent hope that we can bring positive change to the tropical regions of our planet. The tropics produce much of the water and oxygen that sustains our Mother Earth. If the tropics go, we go too. This is, in part, why I am so focused on bringing greater health in the tropic regions worldwide.

I am currently peripherally involved with a project to bring jatropha plantations to Mexico and Central America. Jatropha is a tree indigenous to Mexico and the Caribbean that produces seeds that are the cleanest-burning biofuel in the world. Managed properly, large plantations of jatropha will provide more oxygen and pull carbon dioxide from the air, will provide work for hundreds, if not thousands, of people in need of gainful employment, and it will provide a healthy alternative fuel.

Whether or not I become more involved in the jatropha project I would like to start a parallel project of vermiculture (worm cultivation) for rural Mexican women. The goals of the vermiculture project would be to create healthy compost and to sell it to agricultural projects and to the government to use in the reforestation of land that has been over-grazed.

Concurrently, I am seeking viable ways for rural women to have their own independent revenue streams. In many developing countries, if we want to see something get done, we call on the women. Women are emotionally strong and are determined to see that their children survive and have greater opportunities. We can count on them to follow through. If tropical families have greater employment opportunities in sound environmental projects we will begin to heal the tropics and the people who live there. This will, in turn, help to heal our planet.

There are times when I feel discouraged and I don't know if what I am doing will actually make a difference in either the short- or long- term. That said, I feel I must not simply speak out; I must act on what I believe. It is my fervent hope that I will be able to inspire others in joining me, whether with funds, with physical assistance, with whatever each individual has to offer. My hope is that each and every one of us will find something we truly believe in that is more than just our own material comfort. That each of us will find a way to make a difference, however, small. As the great Taoist scholar Lao Tsu said so eloquently approximately 2500 years ago, The Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins With the First Step.

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