21 March, 2016

Democracy in action at launch of new Fairtrade group in Parliament

by Tim Aldred, Head of Policy for the Fairtrade Foundation

The launch of the first all party parliamentary group (APPG) for Fairtrade was one of the highlights of this year’s Fairtrade Fortnight providing an opportunity for more MPs to get involved with Fairtrade.

Just over two weeks ago I was sitting at a breakfast table listening to a banana farmer from Colombia address a minister and audience of MPs, campaigners and secondary school pupils in an ornate room inside one of the UK’s most iconic buildings, the Houses of Parliament.

Julio Mercado Cantillo’s life, growing bananas on a small family farm in Santa Marta by the Caribbean Sea, is a world away but as he spoke of the problems he has faced farming one of the UK’s favourite fruits, it became clear how connected we all are. Despite working his whole life, Julio (pictured above with International Development Minister Desmond Swayne MP and tea farmer Patrick Kaberia Muthaura) had no choice but to sell his bananas at a loss to unscrupulous traders, meaning he didn’t have enough to eat or know where his bananas ended up, but after joining Fairtrade his life was transformed. Today his bananas are stocked in the UK, by the Co-op, which supported the event, and the retailer’s Fairtrade Strategy Manager Brad Hill said that over its 20 years of stocking Fairtrade goods, £30 million has gone back to farmers.

This event on 1 March was one of the many highlights of this year’s Fairtrade Fortnight and marked the launch of the first all party parliamentary group (APPG) for Fairtrade. But I imagine to some this scene may sound odd; one might wonder why such a group is necessary. One of the core principles of Fairtrade is that farmers move out of poverty by taking control of their lives, with producers working together in co-operatives to have a stronger voice and negotiating power. The Fairtrade movement has seen campaigners, politicians and businesses work together to stand up for farmers; democracy in action. We’ve come a long way and thanks to the activism of grassroots communities across the UK, Fairtrade is now on the agenda at very centre of governance and decision-making.

In the Houses of Parliament 850,000 cups of Fairtrade coffee and 68,550 Fairtrade bananas are served each year and MPs across the UK have been instrumental in working with communities to literally put Fairtrade on the map, establishing a network of Fairtrade towns and cities in their constituencies. But one community felt more could be done and campaigners from Holme Valley Fairtrade convinced their local MPs Jason McCartney MP, (Conservative, Colne Valley) and Holly Lynch MP (Labour, Halifax) to work together to set up the new group, with support from the Fairtrade Foundation. As well as raising awareness of where our food comes from and ensuring Fairtrade products are well stocked in local businesses and supermarkets, the new APPG offers MPs a way to encourage businesses to clamp down on damaging practices and do more to address problems facing farmers in developing countries.

In an enthusiastic speech, International Development Minister Desmond Swayne MP welcomed the APPG and spoke about some of these challenges. He raised the importance of supply chain transparency, and helping producers to access overseas markets. We were pleased that he highlighted the need to offer more support to smallholder farmers as part of the Department for International Development’s agricultural development agenda.

Shortly before the event started in the Jubilee Room, Julio and Patrick Kaberia Muthaura, a tea farmer from Kenya, had a quick tour of the 900 year old Westminster Hall (the oldest building in Parliament) and had their photos taken on the steps where Nelson Mandela once stood. This was a particularly symbolic for Patrick, a farmer, a businessman, a leader in his community. He was delighted to have the opportunity to come to the UK and be listened to and interact with the people who campaigned to put his tea on supermarket shelves. But he was also extremely proud to speak at the historic seat of democracy in the UK, to convince MPs from different parties to work together to continue championing the rights of smallholder farmers, alongside Julio.

So, if you want your MP to do more for Fairtrade, to call time on unfair trade and help make a difference to the lives of farmers around the world, do ask them to get involved with the APPG. They’d be joining over forty MPs from seven different political parties who came to show their support on the day, with many more who took part in Fairtrade Fortnight around the country. Helping farmers around the world to get a better deal is clearly something shared right across the political divide!

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