This week marks the start of the Fairtrade Foundation’s Make Bananas Fair campaign – a campaign targeted at government to intervene in supermarket pricing practices.
Albeiro Alfonso ‘Foncho’ Cantillo, a 44-year-old banana farmer from Colombia and a member of the Coobafrio co-operative, is the face of the campaign. He was chosen by the Fairtrade Foundation to come to the UK to help tell people about the effects of the supermarket price wars on banana farmers.
Foncho, whose father was also a banana farmer, tells Fairtrade Foundation Press Officer Donna Simpson about the challenges in, and future prospects of, banana farming.
‘I’m a small banana farmer from Colombia. I feel a lot of love for banana growing – it was my father who inspired that love in me.
I’ve come to this beautiful company to support Fairtrade’s campaign as I think it reflects the needs we have. I’m supportive because, with the level prices are at, we don’t see a very promising future for our business. I feel proud of the opportunity to contribute to something that will help the wellbeing of all banana farmers, in a small way – like a grain of sand.
As a small farmer, it was quite difficult to maintain our banana crops and much more difficult for us to have any dreams as individuals or as families, especially with respect to education, before we were Fairtrade certified.
We had a bleak view of our future from an economic perspective, and were questioning whether we could keep going with banana farming. We didn’t have the knowledge and understanding that we now have with respect to banana farming. I knew a few farmers at that time who sold their land. This was a huge concern. In my own case, if I were to sell my land, and my children were not able to get a job for some reason, they might drift into crime. There is the potential of social breakdown. It’s a concern.
Banana growing is a very demanding activity – there’s a lot of work, every single day. I could see those people were feeling they were putting in all of this work and it got to the point where they thought there’s no point, and it was more feasible to sell their land. I was lucky that when we discovered Fairtrade it put a stop to people trying to sell their land, and has had a stabilising effect in the region.
Before we became Fairtrade certified there was another co-operative we knew about that had gained certification. We felt attracted to the way they were doing things and saw it was helping small producers. So we found out about how the system works and we really wanted to get involved.
Fairtrade has literally changed our way of thinking. It’s taught us to look after what is ours – for example our natural environment. It’s taught us to look after the health and safety of the workers on the farm. It’s given us the ability to save, so we’re able to educate our children. Even more importantly, it’s given us an opportunity to educate others in the community. In the co-operative we all get together and collectively make decisions about the best way to use the Fairtrade Premium. The majority goes to projects which benefit the whole community and then the rest goes towards individual farmers with a view to invest in productivity and improving the plantation so they can increase their yield and increase their income.
There used to be 31 members of the co-operative and there are now 46. All the decisions made are taken together – they are democratic.
The Fairtrade Premium has helped us to invest in things we want to make a difference. We’ve given training to members of the co-operative and also to members of the community who live around there. So for example, if they’re given environmental training, we’d include other people in the community in that, so everyone is learning.
We’ve improved the infrastructure of the farms and of the co-operative – we’ve rebuilt the offices. One of the things we’re putting energy and effort into is educating children in the importance of looking after the environment and inspiring love for the bananas and plantations.
As banana farmers we face several challenges. One of the biggest challenges we have is that the big land owners offer to buy land from small farmers, and unfortunately some small farmers see this as a better option – to sell their land rather than to keep growing bananas, because they can’t see a sustainable way of life – a sustainable business – in banana farming.
The other challenge is price – the price we receive for selling one box of bananas. The reason price is a challenge is that it’s not high enough to give us a meaningful return. Because we’re in Fairtrade we have much more stability and security and we can see a future in our business.
Because we are investing in education, we can see future banana farmers following in our path but perhaps with more knowledge than we have: more environmental knowledge and understanding, but also more technical knowledge, and hopefully, more confidence and ability to relate to the markets with a more powerful voice.
One way to overcome some of the challenges we face is for consumers to buy more Fairtrade bananas. I’d like consumers to understand the effort banana farmers make to produce the fruit, and the effort we make to bring a high quality product to the market. I’d like to ask them to consume more Fairtrade bananas, because it’s a product which helps many banana farming families to thrive in moving forward – and just to consider if the price they pay for bananas is fair and consider the price they should be paying.
Please support us in our campaign – every single banana farming family would thank you for that.’