Sugar Cane chained together

Black Lives Matter and De-colonising Trade

by Michael Gidney, @fairtrademg

Fairtrade Foundation’s CEO Michael Gidney reflects on the links between slavery, racial injustice and the need for change in global trade.

When those in power are not in step with the public mood, eventually the public take matters into their own hands.

This is what’s happening in the UK with the toppling of the Edward Colston statue and Rhodes Must Fall. Though they have risen to prominence in the wake of the appalling murder of George Floyd, and heightened awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement, they are longstanding campaigns persistently ignored by local and national government. Public action has run ahead. (Bronze) heads are rolling.

Central to this debate are the links between racial injustice today and the transatlantic slave trade, which Britain dominated. Over three million African people were enslaved and transported to British colonies in the Americas and the Caribbean. Britain was so invested in the slave trade that reparations (to the slavers, not the enslaved) were not paid off until 2015. Why this has not been acknowledged sooner as part of our history, why its impact on contemporary life is not fully recognised, is an extraordinary and telling omission.

However, the widespread reluctance to acknowledge the slavery and racism which powered the British Empire, the Industrial Revolution, our museums, our architecture and so much of our culture, is changing. Who would have thought, just a few months ago, that institutions as central to British capitalism as Lloyd’s of London and the Bank of England would be looking at themselves with new eyes, distancing themselves from those in their past who are now on the wrong side of history?

Who initiated this change? The public. Institutions and companies – particularly long-established ones – don’t tend to change themselves. It’s the public who have forced the pace.

The Slavery-free sugar campaigns of the 1790s

This is what happened with the original campaign to abolish the slave trade in the late eighteenth century. There were many groups who played a part in abolition. Among them were consumers, who launched a campaign in the 1790s to boycott sugar grown by enslaved people in the Caribbean. Campaigners created pamphlets, petitions and artefacts, including sugar bowls, and up to 300,000 consumers took part. Retailers joined in, displaying their support for ‘freemen’; sales of slavery-free sugar from India increased tenfold in just two years.

This early campaign for trade justice reminds us how much has been achieved but how much further we must go. Sugar remains a major global commodity, produced in 110 countries, making millions for traders; but still those who grow and cut sugar cane remain very poor. Part of the problem is the everyday discrimination which renders this exploitation unseen.

Even today, the commodity trade is a hangover from the days of colonialism and slavery: the very concept of ‘commodities’ dehumanises trade, making the product more important than the person growing it. Trade in agricultural commodities – coffee, tea, cocoa, bananas, as well as sugar – discriminates against people in the global South in two important ways: 

1. the commodity trade denies farmers value for their produce

For years, companies have competed to offer ever cheaper products to consumers, but price wars too often come at the expense of farmers, with risks and costs passed down the supply chain until there is no value left for those who actually produce.

European government policy made matters worse, with a complex web of tariff and non-tariff barriers that combined to prevent developing countries from diversifying out of primary production. Even with preferential tariffs offered to developing countries, the infrastructure and investment that farmers need to capture the full value of their crops, to process their harvest into finished products, have been hard to come by. This has benefited European manufacturing and jobs over those in Africa, even though Europe grows no coffee or cocoa, no bananas, no tea.

2. the commodity trade denies producers a voice

Prices are set and decisions are taken without reference to the people who know most about the products – those who grow them.  From the earliest days of the Caribbean slave trade, sugar was controlled by European colonisers, who made the decisions and reaped huge profits. Fast forward to the present day and still the voice of sugar farmers goes unheeded. Multi-national companies switch their sourcing frequently, moving from one producer to another, looking for cost-savings or to minimise their own supply risks. While that may work in the short-term for their businesses, it ignores the human cost – the impact on the men and women who grow these commodities, often with no other means of feeding their families.

Here again, big company practice and government policy can present a huge wall of indifference. When the EU changed its sugar regime in 2014, making European beet more competitive than cane from its former colonies, it did so without reference to sugar farmers. There was talk of some ‘adjustment’ funding, but that was too little, too late for the 200,000 African, Caribbean and Pacific sugar smallholders most affected.

The global commodity trade is too often part of the problem

So, when looking at racial equality, the global commodity trade is too often part of the problem. That’s reason enough to reform it, but the ‘we know best’ attitude that dominates global trade also works against sustainability. There are now so many corporate ‘sustainability’ schemes working in cocoa, duplicating effort and pushing the proprietary agenda of the powerful, that the government of Côte d’Ivoire has temporarily suspended all such schemes until there is a clearer picture of which ones actually benefit cocoa farmers. If only someone had asked the farmers themselves.

If those 18th century campaigners for trade justice were here now, what would they think? I’m sure they would recognise the strength of public feeling that brought down Colston’s statue, and the prospect of hope and change that it represents. Perhaps they would be inspired by the extraordinary support for Fairtrade from the public, with 76% of the UK population saying they ‘care deeply’ about Fairtrade. This is a huge mandate for faster and better progress, but change requires a clear-eyed recognition that global trade is still stacked in favour of those of us in the global North. The work of de-colonising trade has barely begun.

The struggle for racial equality should be part of what we buy, just as it must be part of how we behave, what we read or how we vote. The campaign for Fairtrade will not succeed until we have finished what the abolitionists started more than 200 years ago.

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