New Internationalist 322 April 2000
A capitalist brainwave - not much practical use, you might think,
to tribal people in southern India or a working-class housing estate
in Glasgow. But Mari Marcel Thekaekara reckons that tackling
unfair trade gets to the roots of injustice - and teaches
some hard lessons about fair trade as well.
‘Tea flourished in the colonial era. It would be almost poetic justice to use it to change the way society is structured, to bring about a global change, to reduce the imbalance, to create a radical new trade relationship.’
It was two o’clock in the morning, but I’d been married to Stan for over 13 years and knew that these pipe dreams of his had a way of materializing out of thin air, a bit like his magic tricks. However, I was tired and sleepy and not inclined to solve the world’s problems or debate global injustice.
The place was Germany. The year 1995. He’d just sold his capitalist brainwave, his dream scheme, to a group of idealistic left-wing German students. They were ready to raise funds for a tea estate to provide financial security to the adivasis (tribal people) of Gudalur. A mind-boggling sum was what we needed, and these were struggling students. But everyone was raring to go.
By 1998 we had the estate. Two-hundred-odd acres of it. And by 1999 we had a flourishing tea-planters’ co-op. Our tea was doing well in Germany, a British MP demanded to know why it was not being used in the House of Commons, a BBC World Service radio programme brought enquiries from places as far-flung as Dublin and Hull. There were plans to start selling tea in Glasgow, Gloucester and Middlesborough. These were projects on housing estates, depressed areas – Easterhouse in Glasgow, the Matson Neighbourhood Project in Gloucester and in parts of Middlesborough.
Uriah Heep humble
But let’s start at the very beginning. Our tea-planting programme began in 1984 when Stan trained the first adivasi group, from the Paniya tribe, to plant tea scientifically, inviting derisive laughter and jibes from rich local planters. Tea was a colonial crop. There were layers and layers of plantation hierarchy: the managers in palatial bungalows; a legion of servants; evenings at the club. The workers on the bottom rung, Uriah Heep humble, never dared even to talk to the manager. Coolies (our adivasis) owning little plots of tea was unthinkable!
But we did it. Fifteen years down the line it’s meant a sea-change in the economic position of adivasis – a political statement that Stan intended when ACCORD (the project we work for) went about converting landless adivasis into tea-planters with a vengeance.
In 1990 we met GEPA, a German fair-trade organization. It was our first introduction to fair trade. Nilgiris tea hit Germany and was a big success. It was not our tea, but it linked to us because we received a percentage of the profits to plant tea for adivasis.
In 1993 we sent tea to a women’s co-op in Madurai in exchange for saris which they wove – a huge success. Our women got beautiful hand-loom saris at half the market price and the Madurai women got tea at half the price. Stan tried to work out a way to connect the huge non-governmental organization (NGO) grassroots population and set up a co-op of all the goods produced. We could get apples from Himachal – in Gudalur apples were prohibitively expensive. North Indians, who drank enormous quantities of tea, paid up to three times as much for it; we could send coffee, tea, pepper, cardamom, ginger. Umbrellas from Jagallur for the Western Ghat monsoons. The scope was endless.
Getting it to work was quite another matter. NGOs often took pride in being activist, not engaging in mere development. Marketing, trading or organizing an exchange required a totally new range of skills. The idea grew, but we needed someone exclusively occupied with making it happen. That we didn’t have.
In 1994, after visiting Easterhouse in Glasgow, we talked about creating employment. The conversation moved to sending ginger and tea to Britain and creating employment there through value addition – manufacturing. It would be great to link poor communities. Michael Norton gave it a name: Direct Links. Michael’s favourite product was chocolate ginger. The ginger would be grown by adivasis and the chocolate coating and manufacturing done in Britain. The idea began to grow.
In 1997 a group of adivasis went to Germany. They had been invited to the Kirchentag, a huge gathering of the German Protestant Church which takes place every other year. We’d had complicated discussions about the implications of plunging a group of people from rural Gudalur into Germany, but finally the ayes had it. We felt it was time, in keeping with our policy of adivasis taking control, that everyone was exposed to everything, including what went into fundraising and the outside world.
The experience was tremendous. Our adivasi team were moved to tears by the commitment, sincerity and affection they received from the German students who’d invited them. In 1991 two of the students came as interns to our hospital. Christiane and Ute were sensitive, caring and committed to creating a better world because they belonged to ESG, a German student movement which tried to explore the true meaning of Christianity. They fell in love with the adivasis of Gudalur and with ACCORD.
After they left they formed a rice group in Heidelberg. A few students would get together once a week, eat a simple rice meal and send the money this saved to the Gudalur adivasi hospital. This rice cheque arrived every few months and we were moved by their continued interest and persistence.
The adivasis were stunned by the support for their community when they arrived in Germany. Everywhere they met students and people who welcomed them. One of the visiting adivasis, Radhakrishnan, was choked with emotion when he went to one house to find pictures of his family, his mother, his house and even his cow on their wall.
Everywhere the Germans they met were committed to drinking only fairly traded tea. Then another of the adivasis, Bomman, asked the million-dollar question. ‘They are our friends. They work for our people, care so much about us. Why should they have to pay more for our tea? They should pay less!’ He was really upset.
That set us thinking: why did committed people all over Europe and America pay more to use fairly traded products?
Fair trade talks about unfair prices: ‘Fair trade, not aid.’ But in addressing this injustice it asks the consumer to pay more for the product. If you examined the products, the poor producer got marginally more, but the buyer, committed and decent, ended up being penalized for her pains. Something wasn’t right.
The inherent injustice was not being addressed, even though people with a conscience were trying to make up for it by paying more. No-one was attempting to change the unjust structures, Stan argued. No-one was challenging the notion that it was only capital which counted. Labour? Well, too bad if it remained an unequal partner in the production game. The people who made the rules at the top were just too powerful to be challenged.
Co-op of the poor
‘So why not,’ continued Stan, ‘start a venture where the producers, us, and the consumers, committed fair-trade buyers, have joint and equal ownership of the product? When rich people spend money it’s always an “investment”. When poor people spend it’s always “expenditure”. For example, if I have money, capital, of say $2,000, I’m free to buy tea and sell it at any price I want. I get my money back from the poor consumer. It’s blatantly unfair. If this profit could be given to the poor producer, we could link the poor producer and the poor consumer in a far more equal and just structure.’
A conversation with Joel Joffe brought further clarity. It was illuminating talking to a person who understood the market. Joel, founder of Allied Dunbar and Chair of Oxfam, is an expert at finance. He put the concept in a nutshell: ‘You’re talking about an international co-operative of producers and consumers. But you need money to start. You need a third partner.’ He put his money where his mouth was and funded a salary for a person to work on the co-operative idea.
We realized the importance of the capitalist partner when our adivasi tea co-op ran into difficulties because the factory owner didn’t pay up on time. ACCORD did the bankrolling, otherwise a flourishing co-op would have crashed badly.
Some crucial questions were raised by the German group. Are we in competition with the fair-trade organizations? The answer is categorically ‘no’. We’re both working for the same ends, with a commitment to equality, justice and change. The fair-trade people have a cadre of committed consumers. We’re essentially talking about a co-operative of the poor – organized groups in the North and South: the people who live on housing estates, in difficult areas of the North; adivasis on the other side.
Robin Murray, one of the founders of Twin Trading, threw us an unexpected challenge. ‘You’re making a presumption that there’s a fair-trade movement,’ he said. ‘There isn’t. A fair-trade product is almost another brand name and they’re trying to increase margins using markets and different strategies. You may be better off not using the fair-trade structure at all.’
From Gudalur to Germany to Gloucester. Take the residents of Matson and Easterhouse or Oxfam supporters. Take Gudalur adivasis or Gujarati sweepers. There’s a common cause. We could create a formidable network.
I think the average human being does not wish to exploit anyone, to live off the backs of the poor anywhere. To unite all these people we need a new slogan. The equivalent of: ‘Workers of the World, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.’ Something like: ‘A global village of our own making.’
I’m convinced that now we have entered the millennium there is a significant number of people who want to create a just society. And I believe that we can actually do it. In fact, I know we can – I’ve seen enough impossible dreams turn real.
Help us produce more like this
Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.