Of course I know buying Fairtrade is a good thing to do. However, I had no idea what it really meant to the people at the other end of the food chain. So while I was visiting Ecuador, I thought I’d find out.
Ecuador is the country of the banana. The hotel I stayed at in Guayaquil, its largest city and main port, was called the Ore Verde - Green Gold - and that is how Ecuadorians see the banana. Ecuador is one of the world’s smallest countries and yet it is the biggest exporter of bananas. However, the wealth from the green gold clearly flows into only a few pockets, as 80% of the population live below the poverty level. I wanted to see how Fairtrade could make a difference.
As I drove south out of the steamy heat of Guayaquil, I entered banana country. For two solid hours I drove past banana plantations. Banana fronds stretched as far as I could see in every direction. Huge fields on the plain were filled with banana trees, as were tiny fields perched on little conical volcanic hills.
Small villages with clusters of wooden houses were spread along the road. The producers in these communities work incredibly long hours and childhood is more about cheap labour than education. The prices small-scale producers get for their bananas from middlemen buying for global corporations is so low that survival is a daily struggle. It’s not surprising that many give up and join the rural exodus that swells the shanty towns along the city boundaries.
There is no hope of saving enough money to buy basic machinery to make the job easier or more efficient. There is no health cover - farmers and workers have no access to social security. The agrochemicals they use can cause skin and respiratory problems, as well as increased incidence of sterility, cancer and birth defects. Their children have little opportunity to go to school.
In 1997, the visionary Jorge Ramirez decided things had to change.
He founded and became president of the Association of Small Banana Producers. Ramirez died in August 2004, but his work is being taken forward by Luis Loa and the association. It has changed thousands of lives.
The association has taken the name of the town in which it is headquartered, El Guabo, and is now a world leader in the export of Fairtrade bananas. It represents farmers from 15 different communities and exports about 30,000 boxes a week to Europe and the US.
Getting produce from 300 small to tiny farms and grading, packing and sending the fruit to be shipped to dozens of buyers in many destinations is a logistical nightmare. And it’s a race against time. Take too long and the banana is past its sell-by moment. That moment is critical - buyers pay $7 per box for good fruit but when it is overripe they charge $14-$23 to dispose of it. Why does it cost so much to throw it away? Are supermarkets making a profit from it?
The association is the very model of democracy, run by a board that is elected every two years. All the producers I met felt they had a big stake in the success of the whole and the individual ability to make a difference to their families and communities.
In a country wracked by unemployment and financial