How Fair Trade Changed My Life

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(and more importantly, the lives of thousands of indigenous Mayan people living in Chiapas)

In 2008, I took a nap in the UofM arts’ lounge, only to wake up and find myself in the middle of an Engineers Without Borders planning meeting for a fair trade coffeehouse.

(Why on Earth they didn’t stay in their own swankier, lice-freer lounge is a mystery to me, but it worked out well nonetheless).

I got involved with the planning meeting, even asking Sara to help me despite the fact that we were just friends at the time (she agreed because she was secretly deeply in love with me).  Through some kind of butterfly effect, that coffeehouse turned into many years of studying political science and economics in an effort to better understand the barriers that developing countries face in maintaining self-sustainability.  Also, Sara and I got married as a result, so bonus.

(Quick explanation of fair trade: free trade is great between ‘peer countries’, like Canada and the States.  When a developed country forces free trade on a developing country, however, it’s like Sidney Crosby insisting on playing hockey against a 10-year-old.  By charging a price that is technically higher than the international market requires, fair trade provides time and support for the developing country to build their own industries in their own way and thus beat Sidney Crosby at hockey.  For more explanation and less mixed metaphors, see Kicking Away the Ladder by Ha-Joon Chang.)

(Quick explanation of Sara being secretly deeply in love with me:  She wasn’t.  Apparently.)

What does any of this have to do with Chiapas, Mexico?  Simply put, fair trade started here. Since finding out that Sara would be spending a month here, I have researched the dramatic origins of this movement with the hopes of actually meeting the people behind the product. What follows is the super-condensed version of how the Zapatistas started fair trade:

In 1994, Canada, the U.S., and Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  One of the stipulations of NAFTA was that no land could be communally owned, as this was seen as an economic inefficiency.  In direct defiance of their own pre-existing laws, the Mexican government then started selling indigenous land to the highest bidder.  Enter the Zapatistas, a well-organized indigenous movement named after the people’s revolutionary hero from almost a century earlier, who to this day have protected the Mayan (Tzotzil) land from government and corporate encroachments.

Though the initial uprising was armed, the EZLN (Spanish for Zapatista National Liberation Army) has been a peaceful occupation of their own land for 21 years.  They have withstood bribery, false treaties, and horrific government-backed violence.  Furthermore, the Zapatistas have gained international support and recognition for their transparency and the gender-equality that exists within their communities.

The Zapatistas have one goal: la autonomía.  To protect this autonomy, visitors are carefully screened and rarely admitted.  To support this autonomy, they have developed a sustainable coffee industry and have reached out to businesses in the developed world, asking them to buy their product for a few pennies more than the Nestles and the Folgers of the world are offering, thereby funding their schools and hospitals without any assistance from the government.  This idea has spread worldwide, and is commonly known as the Fair Trade movement.

Employees at Maya Vinic coffee shop here in town show off their siphon skills with some local fairly-sourced brew.  
And so, with a belly full of coffee, I set out in search of this incredible success story.

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4 responses »

  1. Pingback: El Zapatismo | saratreetravels

  2. Pingback: Collision  | saratreetravels

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