Saturday, November 28, 2009

Just some random photos...

Enjoying sugar cane...Johnbosco, the cooperative's agronomist, speaking to farmers at a meeting.Me and a farmer group after a meeting.The view of Mount Elgon from my balcony.Farmers practicing coffee pruning techniques as part of the Farmer Field School.Me doing a workshop on website content development for PK's staff and Board.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Working moments

We arrived to what I had come to realize is the normal setting for meetings of these newly-forming farmer groups - the women in myriad-colored print wraps and headscarves sitting on papyrus mats spread out under the shade of a mango tree, and the men arrayed on rough wooden benches laid out in a curve under the shade not already claimed by the women.  Chairs, empty were placed facing the mats and benches, closing the circle of the meeting.  We were welcomed and ushered to the chairs.  A murmur of voices softly chatting or giggling at the visitors mixed with the rustling of leaves and the clucking of chickens and turkeys milling about around us in the dirt, as people continued to trickle in and find their places.

Finally, Elias, the facilitator, rose and began the necessary and customary preliminaries - Which local language shall we proceed in?  Who will translate for the visitors? What is our agenda?  Who shall lead the prayer before we begin?  After the prayer, the introductions began, going around the circle, at last reaching me, then Ben C-M from Thanksgiving Coffee Company, who had come on his annual trip to the cooperative, and then to Ben Schmerler, visiting from TransfairUSA, the US fairtrade labelling organization, who expressed his happiness at being part of the meeting with these fairtrade coffee farmers by getting up and dancing, instilling the meeting with energy and inspiring the women to clap out a rhythm for him to move to, everyone laughing and smiling at Ben's funky solo dance.  It was like a joyful confirmation of collaboration in its truest reality - people supposedly incomprehensible to each other through language or culture, finding common ground and creating something (a rhythm and a dance, or in this case, a trade relationship) together in spite of it.  The women in the meeting christened Ben S. "Sanyo", or Smiling Man.
During the progress of the meeting, I would be distracted by a movement in the corner of my eye, over my right shoulder.  It was a turkey.  It had wandered over and begun puffing itself up, edging closer to the back of Ben C-M's chair, and then backing off and relaxing its plumage.  Repeating this over and over, the turkey would make threatening gestures to Ben, who sat with his attention rapt on the meeting, complete oblivious to his aggressor, even as the turkey gobbled intimidatingly at his back.  This turkey had a grudge against Ben, maybe because it knew that Ben was an American and in just a couple of weeks millions of its turkey brethren would be slaughtered for the annual Thanksgiving feast.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Tearing Down Thomas Friedman (as it should be)

Hi Everybody, 
I am reposting below (with permission) an email that was sent by Brenda Baletti, a Geographer and PhD candidate at UNC, Chapel Hill, to the listserve of the CLAG (Conference of Latin American Geographers).  She addresses some very important and interesting issues that cross with some of my work and the work of many of my colleagues, responding to Thomas Friedman's op-ed piece in the New York Times on 11 November.  Comments are welcome, of course.

Hi all, 
I realize that I am probably preaching to the converted, but I am mid-fieldwork in exactly the region from where Friedman wrote an op-ed piece yesterday about the possibilities for Amazonian conservation and I feel the need to respond:

In his November 11th op-ed piece, Thomas Friedman argues that while it is too complex and would take too long to change the developed world’s petroleum consumption, a fast and easy solution to our carbon woes is to completely rework economic development in the Brazilian Amazon by investing a large amount of foreign capital into the region. This attitude—that it is too difficult to change our forms of consumption, but we’ll pay them to change theirs—is exactly the brand of paternalist/imperialist logic that has informed development practices in much of the world since World War II and has created many of the problems that Friedman is allegedly seeking to address. 

Friedman’s argument is based on the assumption that environmental protection can most effectively be realized through market mechanisms. I agree that the current forms of capitalist development will soon destroy what we think of as “the Amazon”, although I would remind Friedman that the Amazon is more than the “lungs of the world.” His “unending sea of broccoli” is a human landscape. The social consequences of multiple forms of “green” development are devastating the region’s inhabitants. We see this socio-environmental destruction daily in the area that Dr. Friedman is currently visiting with the bauxite mines of ALCOA, Electronorte’s plan to construct five hydroelectric dams in the Tapajós River watershed (among hundreds of others in the Brazilian Amazon), the construction of a Cargill’s massive soy exportation facility on the Amazon River in Santarém, and territorial reordering projects that remap the region in the name of conservation and sustainability but in the service of development, which is proving more each day to be a severe contradiction. Increasingly the conservation areas and the territories of the region’s inhabitants are cut to a fraction of their intended size in order to accommodate the demands of loggers, mineral companies, large farmers, and dam builders. And still, barges of timber leave the “protected areas” at alarming rates. Management plans approved by the state and federal governments allow both legal (although often unethical) and illegal extraction, while the very regulating agencies created to monitor the extraction process look the other way.
Current market-based incentives, advocated for by most international NGOS such as Conservation International and the Nature Conservancy, green-wash this kind of development. All of the corporations listed above are packaging their projects as green development projects, but they are not without the same old development consequences. For example, programs such the “soy moratorium”, which create incentives for soy farmers to farm without deforesting, result in dispossession of small farmers and expansion of monoculture agriculture. The dams that are financed as “green energy” by the very climate legislation to which Dr. Friedman is referring will submerge hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest and displace and dispossess tens of thousands of people. This are just a couple of examples of Dr. Friedman’s market-based solutions.
Friedman’s implication that reducing the number of hectares that smallholder agriculturists have under cultivation by giving them access to international markets for artesenal goods borders on the absurd. First, there is no such large or even medium scale production of such goods in the Tapajós; Dr. Friedman visited one of the few communities in the national forest that produces such goods, and the producers in these communities are only a handful of families (rather than being a small industry that supports 8,000 people as he suggested). Second, this market-based solution raises a direct threat to food sovereignty in the region—who would produce the food that these farmers stop growing in order to have time to make rubber purses? Would it be the industrial farmers that are moving into the region replacing diversified agro-ecologies with monocultures?   Should these communities really predicate their livelihoods on the tastes and lifestyle choices of wealthy tourists from North America and Europe?
Friedman argues that 46% of the Amazon is “set aside” for indigenous people and conservation. I’m doing research in two such areas in the region where Friedman is visiting and argue that this characterization is flawed. On the same day that Conservation International and Dr. Friedman were chatting with families in the Tapajós National Forest, 65 km to the west on the other side of the Tapajós River, the indigenous and traditional residents of Gleba Nova Olinda were reacting to the forces of development in a very different manner. People from over 40 communities joined together in theirrabetas (canoes with outboard motors), closed off the Arapiuns River to timber exportation and sequestered two barges full of timber in a dramatic effort to garner attention and support for their struggle to access territorial rights for indigenous communities and to eliminate logging in the region. When state and federal government agencies recognized the violation of these rights but steadfastly refused to act to correct the situations, the people took environmental enforcement into their own hands, burning the two barges of wood. This dramatic act demonstrated that they would rather destroy the wood than to let their patrimony leave the area in the hands of loggers.
Four months earlier and 100 km to the east, the Brazilian government created the Renascer Extractive Reserve, a conservation area, at half of the original size promised to its inhabitants in order to provide access to primary forests for loggers and to mineral deposits for miners. Since the creation of the reserve on June 5th, illegal logging activity has increased exponentially. Up to 5000 cubic meters of wood is leaving the reserve PER DAY. Despite countless denunciations through legal channels by residents and their social mediators, the regulating government agencies do nothing as the timber goes down the river to the open market. At this rate, according to a local logger, the wood in the reserve will be gone within just a few months.
In both of these cases the territories of "traditional" people are being severely limited in order to grant territorial rights to loggers developing “sustainable management plans” to take all viable wood out of these areas. These are only two examples of countless situations where the smallholder residents of the Amazon region are robbed of their rights and their patrimony in the name of a sustainable development model that caters to multiple stakeholder interests.

The severe problems of the post-Kyoto debates, the current global economic crisis, and the general collapse of the free market paradigm all indicate that the market-based governance approach that Friedman and most major international environmental NGOs advocate are nearly always insufficient and incorrect. Further, the social and environmental costs of green-washing these market based approaches to conservation are enormous. If countries and organization of the global north truly want to stop destruction of the forests and peoples of tropical regions, the myriad non-market based approaches to conservation must be recognized, valorized, and implemented in these debates about climate change legislation. Many of the people of these regions have a much better knowledge of how to manage these areas then G-20 bureaucrats. The international community can better serve Amazonian conservation by directly engaging in domestic debates rather than using the generalized discourse of “governance” and market based solutions to problems of global consumption patterns. A more reasonable approach is to put pressure on state and national governments to recognize and respect the rights of people to govern themselves and their region in practice rather than just in rhetoric. A more thoughtful paradigm also begins by recognizing that our modes of consumption and of international governance are directly responsible for much of the destruction with which we are all so concerned.

Santarém, Pará, Brasil
November 12, 2009
Brenda Baletti
Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Geography
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Humanizing Fair

Obtaining coffee for your French Press is no simple matter. The international coffee trade business – especially the specialty coffee trade – is a complex and delicate web of dialogue that, if done to the satisfaction of everyone involved, has the potential to really contribute to making the world a better place.  That is what I like to think of as one of the foundational ideas behind fair trade (either with a capital F and T, or lower-case f and t).

I know that many of the readers of this blog buy and drink fairtrade certified coffee, because we have a sense that it more directly benefits disadvantaged coffee farmers by offering them a stable market and higher prices.  As consumers, we read the stories on the package of how fair trade changed someone’s life, and we see the photos of families in far-off countries.  But the hardest thing for us is to go beyond that, to actually stop and ask – is that all?  Is there more behind that story?  To listen to the people who produce the coffee, cocoa, or tea that we drink every morning, to hear that the reasons fair trade is necessary in the first place are complex and require solutions that extend far beyond higher and more stable prices, although those are definitely important.

I don’t want to write the usual fair trade monologue of how you should be aware of where your food come from – I don’t believe that knowing alone goes far enough; and anyway, there is enough information already on the internet or on your supermarket shelf that you can access if you felt inclined to do so.  What I want to write about here is how your efforts to educate yourself about what you consume is part of a complex network of efforts, a grand movement of people, places, and organizations you cannot even imagine; your efforts to change how you consume are instrumental within this movement, and they support a myriad of other pieces of the puzzle of global food trade.  Fair trade, then, as a product certification and as a social movement, is a way to connect all of these often-disparate efforts, facilitate dialogue and communication, and to streamline efforts to goals in common.

In my work in Nicaragua in 2002-2005, and in my work with United Students for Fair Trade in the last three years, I always tried to explore these complex realities and relationships of fairtrade, and also explore how to use them to connect different people, different groups who could collaborate.  What I loved about the fairtrade world is that it never stopped with coffee or with any product.  I witnessed time and time again how coffee, or its fairtrade-certified status, would bring two random people together in a room at a conference, or in shaded coffee field on a mountain, and out of that meeting would come spectacular ideas, and real, constructive collaborations that continued to blossom long after the visit was over.  It always struck me that if we could talk about ourselves as more than coffee farmers, more than coffee drinkers, even as we acknowledged that coffee is what brought us together, we could really help more people to relate to fair trade and its vision of making trade relations more human and more sustainable.

Farmers are not just farmers – they are businessmen, community leaders and organizers, and have countless other roles. Cooperatives become the motors of rural development in places where the government either cannot or will not support development.  In Northern Nicaragua, that meant cooperatives taking on roles coordinating projects such as literacy-by-radio campaigns, economic diversification through agroecotourism development, scholarships for children of cooperative members.  In Uganda, it means a cooperative being instrumental in creating and building interfaith peace and trust in a community where distrust and conflict goes back a long time.  Companies are not only buyers of product – they are bridges, resources, advocates, educators of coffee-drinkers back home.  The point is that once we start thinking about each other as more than participants in the value-chain, we have to move away from questions like “does fairtrade work or not?” and towards a vision of collaboration in which we see it as a critical tool that contributes to the goals that we have in common with farmers or businesses, and makes us imagine more creatively how we can all collaborate…

Okay, enough of my ranting. I will write later this week about Peace Kawomera’s recent visit from Ben Corey-Moran from Thanksgiving Coffee and Ben Schmerler from TransfairUSA – It was an exciting and fun visit!

Also, speaking of collaboration (and great coffee!), please support Peace Kawomera cooperative by purchasing their coffee! (My birthday is coming up, so do it for me!).  Go to the link on the right sidebar of this blog, or go directly to

Mwebere! (Thanks! In Luganda)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

In between a motorcycle and a truck...

You might already know via Facebook that I got into an accident on a motorcycle on Monday morning.  I don't remember exactly how it happened or how i got the scrapes and bruises I ended up with, but I do remember that Muhammad the bodaboda driver that picks me up every morning to take me to Peace Kawomera's office outside the city in Namanyonyi, was paused on the highway outside Mbale to make a right-hand turn onto the dirt road that leads to Namanyonyi (we drive on the left here).  I remember seeing a truck speeding up behind us on our right side, feeling it hit me, and next thing I knew I was several feet away lying on the asphalt.  I got up and moved to the side of the road, dazed, and watched Muhammad pick up the motorcycle and move it to the side as well, his right hand dripping blood onto the blacktop.
I noticed a scrape on my arm, and my leg was sore, but nothing seemed broken or seriously injured. People kept coming up to me and saying "Sorry", and a young woman stood by me and commented on what was going on, as Muhammad and others ran back and forth, seemingly negotiating or arguing with each other, though I would not understand what they were saying.  After what I think was a good number of minutes of just standing there dazed, Muhammad waved me over, put me back on the motorcycle and drove me to Namanyonyi, where I worked the rest of the morning until going to a farmer group meeting in the afternoon.  I did end up with two gigantic purple bruises on both sides of my right knee, though I cannot for the life of me figure out what managed to hit me on both sides of my knee at the same time.  But, I am fine, working a normal schedule, and getting very nervous every morning when I have to get on the motorcycle to go to Peace Kawomera.  But, life goes on...

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Day in the Life...

Early some mornings the melodious singing chant of the muezzin calling Muslims to prayer wakes me and then lulls me back to sleep.  Most mornings I get out of bed some time later than the muezzin probably would prefer, and make coffee on my single-burner kerosene stove. I take my steaming coffee, complete with powdered milk, out to the balcony to drink, and I wave at the neighbors as they go about their morning washing.

Muhammad the bodaboda driver, the son of Elias, one of the staff facilitators at Peace Kawomera, arrives and waits for me on his motorcycle in the gas station below my apartment at 9:45am.  I hop on, and we ride past the Sleeping Baby Lotion Factory, cross the center of town on Kumi Road, and continue until we turn onto the dirt road that goes towards Mount Elgon and that leads to Namanyonyi, the community where Peace Kawomera’s current office is.  We pass scores of other motorcycles, as it is the most popular form of transport both within the city and between the city and rural areas, as well as numerous people on bicycles, people traveling shorter distances on the roads on foot, and of course a few vehicles.

The landscape is a mosaic of shades of green and brown – small coffee fields spotted with shade trees, houses with their red-brown dirt patios, treeless maize or bean fields, fields of bushy, pointy-leaved cassava plants.  There are also fields with stubs of coffee plants, silent testimony to different periods when desperate farmers cut down their coffee - in the 1970s when Uganda’s economy collapsed under Amin, its coffee completely devalued simply because it could not get to market, and in the 1990s during the global coffee crisis, when prices sunk lower than production costs for most coffee farmers.  This is a landscape of smallholders living hand-to-mouth, producing what they eat on small, piecemeal plots, selling what little is left over, and growing coffee to earn a little cash.
But there is a glimmer of hope for smallholder coffee farmers on Mount Elgon.  Peace Kawomera is organizing farmer groups with the help of a USAID grant.  So far they have organized about thirty or forty groups of twenty-five farmers each, with the help of six farmers who were hired as facilitators, or promoters.  The very act of organizing has the farmers with more hope, more motivation.  They see that the grave problems they face on a daily basis– lack of knowledge about how to fight coffee pests, how to fertilize the fields with little financial resources and no formal training on how to produce organic fertilizers from on-farm waste – are better faced together, learning from the body of knowledge that already exists amongst their neighbors, affirming their own existing skills and expertise as farmers. 

Every day I attend a meeting of a different farmer group, in a different community, and I listen to their concerns, their questions, their discussions. ask at the meetings, can you help with this? How big and how deep do I make the holes for planting seedlings? Where I am going to get seedlings?  Often, a member of the farmer group meeting will offer an answer and begin a discussion about all the possible solutions, and by the end of it, they have realized that they themselves have many of the tools and knowledge to confront the problems that made them feel helpless and dependent on donor organizations before, and At the same time, Peace Kawomera is supporting the formation of these groups to provide training to improve coffee quality, and to get better prices for their product.  But the idea is that the farmers can have the capacity to improve their own lives and demand more. With time and work, it is happening.
At the end of the day, Muhammad arrives on his motorcycle to the community where I happen to be.  I say my goodbyes and my thank yous, and I know I will continue to work with them in the next nine months, and I hop on behind Mohammad and make the journey, often through the daily afternoon rain, back to Mbale city.