Archive for Fair Trade/ Comercio Justo

Blogging on MIT site

I’m currently pursuing an MBA at MIT with a focus in sustainability and agriculture.  For Mama Shayna’s latest musings, please check out:


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55,000 Strong for Fair Trade

Friends ~ It’s been too long.  I’ve been busy organizing for World Fair Trade Day, 2009 … which is just 5 days away.  So, it’s time to join us.  Check out this quick video and then join the movement.  55,000 for Fair Trade  – visit

And please pass this on to 5 friends.  I’m no mathematician, but I know that eventually  5+5+5+5+…. = 55,000 for Fair Trade.

Because that’s how movements are born.  Cheers!

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MamaShayna’s Musings is often a mish-mash of information, inspiration, and introspection.  Though my motivation for MamaShayna hopefully peaks through from time to time, it is particularly well-represented today on the Fair Trade blog, where I’ve been added to the ‘Faces of Fair Trade’ series.  You can read the interview by clicking here.

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Another Market is Possible; perspectives from Brazil’s northeast

Versão em português aqui: Outro Mercado é Possível

I’m psyched!  In a country with enormous potential for the solidarity economy & a responsibile consumer movement, Brazil is a huge, sleeping giant. I feel like Recife (the city that I live in) really seems uniquely positioned to lead such a movement; we’re in a region that houses half of Brazil’s family farmers (over 2 million!), and so many people have intimate family ties back to the land.  Even city people here know what a farm looks like, they can identify tons of fruit trees & medicinal plants in the local parks here, and they know that the city favelas are overcrowding in part because of the exodus from Brazil’s countryside.

Related to this, we gave a talk last night called “Sustainable Trade and Conscious Consumerism: Another Market is Possible”  (taken from the popular line of the World Social Forum, Another World is Possible).   This event was part of Brazil’s National Business Day, in which business students chose which lectures they’d like to attend instead of their regularly scheduled classes (we’re last on the list below, and all other events were entirely business-driven).

I’ve met some great characters here in Recife, and my co-presenters are two of my favorites; Eder Leão, a quirky & smart Recife-native who coordinates the solidarity economy work at the Federal University in Pernambuco, and Omar Rocha, an anthropologist and inquisitive social activist who recently got money from Recife’s City Hall to launch Recife´s first responsible consumer campaign, slated to launch in 2009.

I learned a lot from my co-presenters last night.  It’s fascinating is that Brazil does not have an active consumer rights culture like we do in the US; something that we in the US really take for granted.  Outside of the current, hip trend of ‘thinking green’ when thinking of responsible consumerism, think back to Ralph Nader’s advocacy work to get seatbelts in cars, or to how you chose your ideal dishwasher via ratings on The Consumer Reports… all of these came from a movement of active, organized consumers in the US.

But beyond consumer advocacy, during last night´s talk we looked at rethinking, deconstructing, and reconstructing notions and actions of consumerism.  Omar presented two iterations of consumerism which I want to share because I think that these are insightful in understanding how to think of re-constructing truly effective, healthy ideas of ‘consumerism”.

Responsible Consumerism: The capacity of each person or institution (public or private) to choose, to producer services and products that contribute, in an ethical manner, to improve the livelihoods of individuals, of society, and the environment (Kairos Institute)

However, beyond being responsible consumer, to contribute to real sustainability we need to be

CRITICAL consumers: “the deconstruction and reconstruction of patterns and habits of consumption…creating new and alternative forms of consumption and production values that respect social, cultural and environmental… in the ideal of another world is possible.”  The argument is that citizens have ceased to been treated as citizens, with all of the rights afforded to a human being (safety, food, water, etc), and have come to be seen as mere consumers by states and corporations.  How many votes can we buy, how many chemically processes & packaged foods can we sell.  It is our responsibility, as citizens of this world, to reclaim the word ‘consumer’ and the space that it occupies.

A poignant example:

While 1.7 billion people can be classified in a “global consumer class” (people who have access to television, Internet and cellular), 2.8 billion survive on less than two dollars a day and more than a billion people do not has access to drinking water….It is possible to provide adequate food, drinking water and basic education for the poorest people in the world with less than is spent annually on cosmetics, ice cream and food for pets.
Source – Brazil SócioAmbiental Almanac 2008

ie.: There are more citizens of this world who lack access to clean water and adequate resources to eat and clothe themselves than there are people who can afford luxury consumer goods, and we could provide food, water, and education for the price of fancy pet food and beauty products… This is absurd.  Shouldn’t our reality as human beings be the exact reverse?  Isn’t that our responsibility, to take care of each other first?  A kindergarten lesson.

I’m not trying to be simplistic; it’s not as if the policy solution is to ban chocolate ice cream from rich countries and use the money to send food abroad.  (Besides, shipping subsidized corn abroad has casued enough detriment via misguided US Food Aid policy).  But Omar’s articulate conceptualizaion of the reality of consumer behavior struck me as a very effective portrait of what’s actually going on.

Eder and I had the role of showing that ‘Another Market is Possible.’ Eder began by giving an overview of global trade and its inequities (which you can read all about at, and explained what the concept of the solidarity economy means- an economy based on self-management, cooperation, solidarity, and economic action- one in which people & the earth are not seen as commodities, but as living, breathing parts of an integrated ecosystem, and the basic format of trade or exchange can support the very health of that ecosystem, instead of acting to its detriment (that’s my take it).

The race for the perfect tomato

I then jumped in and talked about the consolidation of the modern foodsystem and how this is creating all sorts of negative, downward pressure on small family farmers to produce with new safety, beauty, and heatlh standards and stringent delivery schedules.  I described this as the race to create the ‘perfect tomato’- you know, when you’re in the produce aisle and reach for the most ‘gorgeous’ red, round, juicy tomato… and when you get home, you cut it open, and- alas!- it doesn’t smell like a tomato, let alone taste like one.  It has more of a spongy, watery texture.  Not to mention that its likely full of agrochemicals ’cause it was grown in the dead of a frozen northern winter, probably in a greenhouse.

… yet despite the plethora of market challenges, I’ve found farmers in the interior of Brazil are creating their own forms of market access through agroecological fairs and direct sales to consumers (read more about this on my blog here), and this is the exciting part about this movement for a more ethical trading system here in Brazil’s northeast.

So, how are Recifans poised to take the lead in Brazil’s movement for conscious consumerism?  As one participant noted, “We all know this reality.  It’s our parents and grandparents that come from Brazil’s interior, farming families that lived without water in the semi-arid and/or had to migrate and abandon their land because agriculture didn’t provide for the family.”  Recifans are much closer than us in the US to rural farming realities & traditions, evidenced in the popular ´forro´ music which comes from the countryside, or in the daily consumption of traditional foods like tapioca which uses mandioca flour, the sweet rapadura which comes from sugarcane, or their corn-based couscous.

Most US small farmers were forced to abandon their land earlier in the century due to very similar market consolidation trends and impossible demands being placed on them.  But Recife has a chance to act as a positive catalyst in the preservation of the small farmer by learning from the experience of the US, recognizing the trends in market consolidation and their potentially devastating effects- and then by taking action to support these small farmers.  And it´s easy to do so!  Recifans lives physically close to farming areas, and there are over 50 agroecological farmers markets that take place every week throughout the state, throughout the year (thanks to a tropical climate & innovations to farm in the semi-arid regions).  To sum up, the emotional ties and physical access to products produced outside of the modern food system exist here, and it is realistic to find products that are coming from small farmers who are stewards of the land and produce in organic or agroecological farming systems linked to the solidarity economy.  It’s possible!

Well, this seems like a lot of information to cram into one blog entry- and it was a LOT of information for an introductory workshop on solidarity trade & responsible consumerism.  To sum it all up at the end of the evening, I asked participants what one action would be that they would take today to be a more responsible consumer.  And responses varied-
  • use re-usable cups instead of the infamous small plastic cup which is everywhere in Brazil
  • bring a canvas bag to the supermarket
  • check out the local agroecological fair this weekend to buy directly from farmers
  • learn more about the social technologies of water preservation in Pernambuco’s semi-arid region

I was impressed. We packed a LOT into a two and a half hour presentation, and the participants responded with tangiable outcomes reinforcing our central theme- Another Market is Possible.

Well, I’ll wrap it up for now, but please share your questions & comments on this post!  Let’s get a dialogue going.  And the Portuguese version of this post will come soon, so that we can get some local perspectives, too.

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Seu Branco Canela’s White Gold

RIo Grande do Norte, the northeastern most state in Brazil, was once a flourishing region of ‘white gold;’ I have yet to understand what really happened, but I do know that most of those cotton mills now lay untouched, and have been for well over a decade. Here in the interior, semi-arid regions of the state there’s a local movement of family farmers who are looking to reinvigorate cotton production, and they’re doing it differently. I’ve been fortunate enough to get a glimpse into how.

Seu Branco Canela (whose name translates as Mr. White Cinammon) is one of those farmers. Well into his 70’s, he worked his entire life as a sharecropper for a large landowner, producing corn & beans. Along with his family of seven kids and his wife Clonice, they rented their home and were obligated to sell 50% of their production to the owner, leaving enough to subsist, but not to thrive. As part of the land reform movement the federal government formed the Assentamento Remedio around a decade ago, distributing land, houses, and a loan of R$9,000 to 50 poor families. Seu Branco now lives here, and says that the day he received his house (pictured above), his days of slavery ended.

Seu Branco Canela resting on his own front porch

I had lunch with Seu Branco’s family and the daughter of the landowner that he worked for, gaining a tiny, curious glimpse into the worker-owner dynamic. Branco has always been very active in CONTAG, the national workers’ union, which he says represents over 100,000,000 Brazilian’s and their families. He remains close to the children of the former landowner, and said that he was always encouraged to participate in union politics; as a union leader, he’s proud to tell stories of workers, their struggles, and successes from all 26 states of Brazil. Although Branco says he’s ‘slaved’ away on another families’ land, that family became his own, sisters and brothers who now visit him in his own home.

Now that Branco and his family have a home of their own and 20 hectares of land, they plant corn, beans, lots of vegetables, and ‘white gold,’ all integrated into an agroecological system- no chemicals added. Branco says that he lived for so many years applying chemicals to crops that his health suffered gravely; he feels a marked difference in the way that he now lives, chemical-free.

Branco’s 22 year old son Kellisson took me out to see the cotton crop at its peak harvest time. Branco can’t work in the cotton fields because he has a horrible skin allergy when he gets near the stuff, and he thinks that this is part of a reaction to the agro-toxins, pesticides, and other chemicals that he used for years while growing conventionally on someone else’s land.

Cotton, ready for pickin’

A beautiful harvest!

On an informal note, I found cotton picking to be really entertaining. Every flower that blooms produces white puffs- or the cotton balls that we use to clean our ears out and take off makeup- which grow as you pull them apart from the plant. While Kellisson and I picked cotton for the hot, dry afternoon heat, his nine year old nephew Thauã took photos of our work.

The family grows ten crops side-by-side with cotton, and sesame is one of those crops. Above, a neighbor demonstrates how to pull the sesame seeds off of the dried plant.

Feijão do Porco (‘pork beans’) are another crop that can be integrated with cotton (beans in center, cotton on right), and its used as animal feed. Branco has milking cows, chickens, hens, and others. Besides sesame, Kellisson grows corn, various types of beans, watermelon, potatoes…

Kellison and Thauã, proudly showing off our afternoon’s harvest. This is the second cotton harvest for the family, as they started producing just last year. Kellisson is now a leader among his peers and tomorrow will be one of the farmers to give a training on agroecological cotton production to 15 others from the area, in a project supported by the European Union. We’ll then visit his fields on Friday, where get to see the family’s fields, which are now gleaming with white gold, and have a mini-training on production.

One of the virtues of working for himself, Branco gets to relax in the afternoon with his grandson while we are off in the field. The family has hopes for their agroecological cotton production and the direct markets that they are creating with small european companies, as they get paid 6 times what they would be selling to a middleman on the conventional market. Branco hopes to maintain his family with their food harvest, and provide a little extra for investment in the education and in his grandchildren’s future.

Fields of white gold, golden corn, and blue, vast skies.

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World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought

The what??? That’s a mouthful! I also didn’t know that this day existed, and probably wouldn’t have understood its significance, had I not been living in one of the driest regions of the world in northeastern Brazil for the last five months. My tropical coast city of Recife is the exception to most of the region, which is dry and suffers from a severe lack of access to water (ironic- check out Brazil’s lengthy coastline here). This region also houses half of Brazil’s family farmers… so how is it that 2 million small-scale, family farmers survive in the midst of such a drought-prone climate, in which 32% of the land is deemed simply infertile?

With a lot of difficulty. It’s a poor region; 915 of the 1492 municipalities in this region register an HDI (Human Development Index) that is lower than the land-locked African country of Namibia. Brazil’s economy is growing, but its inequality index remains one of the most extreme in the world, and the engine of its economy is simply not making its way to this little corner of the world. I was shocked to learn just yesterday from Diaconia that, “In truth, it [Brazil] is the most extensive and populous contiguous area of poverty of any country in the world.” However, hope abounds… in honor of today’s World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, Recife’s local paper, the Diario de Pernambuco, tells the following story:

A story of success in the northeast [of Brazil] is that of Zé Antônio, 59 years old, as he likes to tell: “Everything started like this: I began alone in 1999. Here the people only planted corn and beans. One day the land didn’t give produce any more. I was tired, and even the weeds in the garden were weak. The people from Diaconia taught me to plant using organic products and everything started to improve, improve, improve… I learned and today I help 23 other families to do the same.” On his land alone there are eight different species of oranges. Over 200 kilos [90 pounds] of fruit are produced for the local market every week. Seu Zé, Dona Isaura and their two married daughters have unified their work to guarantee the dignified survival of their family.

Zé had left his town of Afogados da Ingazeira for work in the Brazilian states of Alagoas and Brasilia, but he says that he “never imagined that right here [in his community] he would have employment and a better life.”

Cover of today’s special on agroecological alternatives, Diario de Pernambuco

I’m currently working with Diaconia, one of the organizations that is leading the dialogue and supporting rural communities in Northeastern Brazil to confront these overwhelming obstacles. My work zeroes in on the incredible alternatives that are arising from the land – mainly utilizing agroecological concepts to raise crops and animals without chemicals, and to diversify production of crops from simple corn & beans to a colorful fruit basket. I’ll be looking at how to best communicate the stories of people like Zé Antônio. raising awareness of the agroecological fairs within Brazil which bring healthy, pesticide-free food to local communities, as well as capturing the stories of these valiant efforts to create healthier communities and ecosystems here in the sertão, or dry-region, of Pernambuco and Ceara.

In today’s paper, Eduardo Assad who is the chief Brazilian expert to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that this already hot & dry region will be affected by climate change with temperatures rising between 1 and 4 degrees; invariably the poorest in the region, its farmers, will be most drastically affected. He says that to prepare for these changes, the people of the northeast need to produce what’s native to their land… just what the wisdom of Zé Antônio told us over a decade ago. Yes, the experts’ verification of these claims is absolutely necessity for ‘validity’ in certain influential political circles, but what moves me is the deep knowledge that the the farmers and their communities innately possess, and the visions that they themselves, independent of the ‘experts’ have been forging into reality.

Furthermore, Assad says that we need to grow the Brazilian and international markets for these native crops like cajá or serigüela, delicious fruits that are native to the region. From my perspective, not only are these types of fruits packed with vitamins and natural antioxidants that are good for the consumer, but indigenous crops like them, grown in their natural environment, contribute to a reinvigoration of the soil through crop diversification (instead of planting just one or two crops like corn & beans), which further combating climate change & poverty by greening the land. So I’ll also be working with farming communities via Diaconia to share communication and campaign strategies & think in creative ways about how to capture local (and maybe even national or global) to share the literal fruits of their good labor with the world.

This is a country where monthly minimum wage is a mere $233USD, and many family farmers just scratch past that amount of income for their entire yearly salary. Brazil’s northeast is a place where most farmers plant just corn and beans (insufficient to provide for dietary needs and maintain rich, healthy soil), and many people end up working on the land of larger landholders or migrating to other regions for work, losing some autonomy & control over their own lives. What strikes me is that in a region where over a third of land is deemed infertile, including that of Zé Antônio, an agroecological system of farming has provided hope for people living in these climatically disadvantaged regions, incentivizing them to stay on their land and pass their wisdom & traditions to their children.

Or, as the UN Convention to Combat Desertification says in today’s commemorative press release: “Local knowledge needs to be identified, preserved and shared while respecting the rights of the owners of such knowledge, as the men and women living on the land often have long developed and implemented sustainable practices of reducing land degradation and risk.”

In a country where small-scale family farmers still produce 70% of the food produced, and 70% of rural people work in family agriculture, I’m privileged to be immersed in these perspectives today. Happy World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought… here’s towards continued learning from the Zé Antônio’s of our world.


UPDATE JUNE 28th 2008: For a take on this article from a friend and fellow Fulbrighter in Uruguay, click here. For Latin American & travel enthusiasts, his blog is a treasure!

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My first talk at Uni is tomorrow morning…

I’ll be sharing fair trade campaign experiences from the US, and discussing differences in communications and campaigns strategies for social and environmental change here in Brazil. Come one, come all!


Post-presentation notes (June 18th)

Baixar a apresentação aqui: aprensentacao-13-junho-08

You can download my presentation here (in portuguese): aprensentacao-13-junho-08

Here’s a link to coverage of the event in Portuguese.

Photos and stories from the event forthcoming!

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