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My Summer in France
with Fair Trade


I was comfortably watching a World Cup Cricket match in the first week of March, 2003 when my husband called up from the Makaibari Tea Estate factory to ask whether I would like a holiday in France in May. In an instant, I was mentally taking a stroll down the Champs de Elysses. But reality quickly intervened and it was then that I first heard about the Max Havellar Promotion Program from May 3 - 18, 2003 in France.

Max Havellar is Fair Trade France. Fair Trade, an international movement to promote equitable trade, now also gaining prominence in the US, has four key goals:

  • To pay farmers a decent, living wage.
  • To create direct trade links to farmers, bypassing exploitative middlemen.
  • To provide access to affordable credit.
  • To promote sustainable practices, such as organic farming that help protect the environment.
It works simply: Producers meet specific criteria to be considered a Fair Trade co-operative or estate. Importers/Buyers pay a certain premium over the market value which is then channeled back to the workers of the co-operative/estate. A Joint Body of workers decides how to spend the funds.

Max Havellar France had decided to promote the cause of Fair Trade by organizing an innovative, 11-city tour of France with ten Fair Trade producers representing eight countries. Ten producers (7 men, 3 women) represented coffee, tea, cocoa, sugar and bananas and came from Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Bolivia, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Congo and India. Although Fair Trade tea is in its infancy compared to Fair Trade coffee, I was proud to represent tea, second only to water as the most popular beverage in the world. Max Havelaar had specifically asked Makaibari to be represented by a woman so along with Elizabeth from Ecuador and Blanca from Nicaragua, I was one of the three women. The two-week program, “La Tournee Nationale des Producteurs du Commerce Equitable” from May 3 - May 18, was organized to promote and increase awareness of Fair Trade throughout France. It comprised meetings with government officials, both local and national, media interviews, speeches and debates at student centers, town halls, stores and fairs as well as press conferences.

Central to the program was the Max Havellar “Educational Bus”. There were two such buses, one which remained in Paris and was stationed at different spots everyday. The locations were pre-publicized and the local newspapers, television and radio all covered the story. The second toured France and followed us on our various journeys from Paris to Lille, Valenciennes, Strasbourg, Dijon, Lyon, Nice, Marseille, Bordeaux, Poitiers, Nantes and finally back to France.

The Educational Bus was gaily decorated in shades of yellow and green with a fabulous customized interior which accommodated display windows promoting the various Fair Trade products - coffee, tea, sugar and chocolate. Large panels promoted each participating producer. In my case, there was a story of Jamuni Gurungini, our woman factory supervisor, a position usually reserved for a man.

On the 1st day, we gathered at the main square near Paris City Hall. The magnificent Educational Bus was already parked there creating quite a stir among the crowd. A large group of journalists had already arrived and we awaited the arrival of the Mayor and his delegates. I had been selected to be the first speaker among the producers. I covered Makaibari’s many unique attributes - the oldest tea garden in Darjeeling, the first to be certified Demeter and Fair Trade and a pioneer in women’s participation in management being the first to appoint women supervisors. I added that the Fair Trade Joint Body in Makaibari was headed by a woman administrator. I described Makaibari’s great forest wealth and its abundant wild life. It was home to over 200 species of birds and over 1,000 kinds of butterflies. The many grades of our award-winning teas also drew much interest and I handed out samples and mentioned where they were available in France. I described the seasonality of tea manufacture and its many nuances as well as its labor intensiveness.

Travel during the tour was by Metro, the train and by foot. This was undoubtedly the best way to see a country but was sometimes exhausting. In Paris we stayed at a hotel but in every other town, we were hosted by local families. Fair Trade organizations tend to be run on a non-profit model with grassroots organizations being the key to success. Voluntarism is an integral part of this movement and a dedicated group located all across the country enabled its success. For example, at Nancy, Francois and Genevieve Petigand, sold Fair Trade coffee and tea at cost, without profit, at village fairs and local events. At Strasbourg, Marie Louis, another supporter of the cause, opened her home to volunteers.

Max Havellar France, had been working on “La Tournee Nationale” since early this year to achieve maximum promotional impact. The results were evident. Local and national media were on hand in every town and at each event. We met delegates from the Mayor’s office on Day 1 in Paris and had an informal meeting with the Minister of Agriculture at his offices on Day 4. We were carried live on local television in Paris and were interviewed by Radio France International. In Nancy, a local journalist, Andree Rinck covered the event in general as well as my particular story, and published it in L’est Republicain. At Poitierre, we were carried live on the regional radio network, Radio Pulsar, as well as on national TV Channel, France 2. At an organized press conference, several journalists including Daniel Biron from Courrier Francais, Emilie Roland from Nouvelle Republique and Xavier Roche-Bayard from La Vienne Rurale covered the event. Two freelance journalists actually traveled on the Educational Bus for the entire tour.

I was quite amazed at the level of student involvement and interest in Fair Trade. Although I had expected interest from farmers and social activists, I had been totally unaware of the enormous grass roots advocacy of the cause. On May 6, on the first leg of my France tour, I was scheduled to address schoolchildren at the exclusive “Sainte Marie aux Mines” secondary school, about 70 kms. from Strasbourg. The school had conscientiously prepared for the event by inviting 11 and 15-year old students to compile a list of questions in advance. Following a brief introduction by their teacher, each student was given the opportunity to ask one question. They were eager, enthusiastic and curious.

Despite my having traveled widely to the U.K., Europe and the U.S., there were many aspects of French life that were completely new to me. One such concept was the Student Center. These Centers typically served as the local town auditorium and events were widely publicized in advance by leaflets and notices as well as word-of mouth. And so I found myself in Strasbourg at the “Center Bernanos” on the evening of May 6. The program commenced with a film on a Nicaraguan Fair Trade coffee co-operative and was followed by brief speeches by individual producers. A question-and-answer session was always included, with each evening usually ending in a lively debate on all things Fair Trade and a sampling of Fair Trade coffee and tea. The audience consisted of about 50 - 60 people from all walks of life and all ages. Similar events were held at “La Maison des etudiants” in Poitiers as well as in Nantes.

The students were extremely aware of the need for equitable trade and were fascinated by the labor intensifies of our practices on Makaibari Tea Estate and our focus on people and their wellbeing. They were awed to learn that over 500 people were employed in manufacturing tea and that women at Maikaibari were not just relegated to the role of homemaker but that they earned their living plucking tea, supervising work teams, working in the factory and that they administered a small but very successful micro-loan program enabled by Fair Trade premiums, that had distributed over $10,000 in funds in the last year without a single default.

Fair Trade is not in its infancy in France. The label is well developed in Europe and has a certain name recognition in France. Despite this, I was still unprepared for the altruistic dedication of countless volunteers, especially those of the women running Artisans du Monde, an organization of almost 4500 volunteers throughout France, operating about 100 shops carrying only Fair Trade goods and providing a platform for equitable trade. The shops I visited during my tour were run mainly by older women, all working in shifts, in total cohesion, making just enough, they said, to cover the cost of electricity and the most basic overhead. Similar to the Demeter Shops I had seen in the U.K. and in Germany where Biodynamically grown products were available, these shops focused on Fair Trade Goods. I also noticed aisles dedicated to Fair Trade products in major supermarkets such as Monoprix.

My visit ended by celebrating International Fair Trade Day in Paris on May 18 and one last farewell to my fellow producers and my generous hosts. I will be able to communicate to the entire Makaibari family that there are people around the world assiduously working to further equitable trade and that Makaibari’s participation and leadership in both organic and biodynamic farming as well as in Fair Trade is appreciated and has tangible results.

Makaibari tea is available from Eco-Prima, Inc. 12 Susquehanna Road, Ossining, NY, 10562, 1-877-ECO-TEAS. Fax 914 923 6153, e-mail: eco.prma@verizon.net.

Further info on Makaibari and Fair Trade is available at www.makaibari.org and www.silvertipstea.com or www.transfairusa.org.

Srirupa Banerjee is the Director, Makaibari Tea Estates, Darjeeling, India.

Tea & Coffee - September/October, 2003
Modern Process Equipment


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