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‘We all need a healthy planet to thrive’ – Q&A with Fairtrade’s Climate Advisor

How do we build a planetary future that is inclusive, equitable and green? How can we ensure that governments, captains of industry, and consumers act on both climate and social justice in equal measure? And how does Fairtrade contribute to a greener tomorrow? With the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) just months away, these are the questions that are keeping Fairtrade International’s Senior Advisor for Climate and Environment, Juan Pablo Solís, up at night. And the quest for concrete answers is what drives his daily work at the international organization.

The Costa Rican-born Solís landed at Fairtrade in early 2021, bringing with him a wealth of experience in ecological economics and sustainable development, spanning sustainable food systems, microfinance, sustainable agriculture, climate change, gender, energy efficiency, forest management and agroforestry. Now, his focus is on ensuring smallholder farmers have a voice at the climate negotiating table when it comes to ensuring their sustainable futures, their livelihoods, and their survival.

‘The climate conversation needs to recognize the inequalities existing between those on the frontline and those with the privilege of accessing a wide variety of options in resilience,’ explains Mr. Solís. ‘The fair trade philosophy is part of the solution, and it is our duty to make the case and explain why we think so.’

As the international community gears up for COP26, we caught up with Juan Pablo Solís about how Fairtrade is a key part of the climate solution, bridging the yawning gap between social justice and the global climate crisis.

Fairtrade International: When we talk about the Fairtrade movement, we think social justice and worker’s rights. But we don’t often think of Fairtrade as being a critical player in the climate space. How is the organization tackling the urgency of the climate crisis and how this crisis is playing out in agricultural spaces across the world?

Juan Pablo Solís: Our standards have long given particular attention to bans on unsustainable practices like the inadequate use of pesticides or no GMOs. Meanwhile, Fairtrade’s Standards team has had its environmental strategy in place since 2010 and our Fairtrade Climate Standard was established in 2015. So, environmental rights and climate change have been part of our mission since the very beginning. But now there is a growing need for us to be bolder and more vocal about Fairtrade’s role in promoting climate justice.

In fact, what we’re seeing that’s new in the global climate crisis is the severity and unpredictability of the crisis itself. If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us something, it’s the importance of reconciling our relationship with nature. For our part, we have seen the increasing fragility and vulnerability of many smallholder farmers – spanning from Honduras to Indonesia –who face unprecedented challenges due to this rapidly changing climate.

That’s why our five-year strategy is clearly incorporating climate resilience as a core element. The Fairtrade movement knows that we will be far from achieving social justice if we are not agile in tackling environmental and climate problems as well. There can be no social justice without environmental rights. We all need a healthy planet to thrive. This is not an issue of the “global north” or the “global south.” It is global and it is urgent. Period.

FI: When we talk about agriculture and environment, we think of large-scale monocultures that have negative impacts on the climate, on forests, and on biodiversity. But small producers and independent farmers are among those dramatically affected by climate change. What do consumers need to know and look in order to shop smarter and greener?

JPS: Every morning we wake up and brew a cup of coffee or heat water for tea; we prepare our breakfasts with tropical fruits such as bananas. And during the day we enjoy sweets such as chocolates. But despite our familiarity with these products, we fail to ask ourselves key questions: how were they produced? How were they traded? And, maybe most importantly, what is the environmental footprint of my food choices?

Land use change, including agriculture, is responsible of a third of our global emissions. And a significant part of that is due to the conversion of wildland into farmland and the excessive use of synthetic inputs, such as fertilizers and herbicides. Nonetheless, we have to differentiate between those large-scale and intensive agricultural farms, likes those producing soybeans in the Amazon, from the small-scale organized farmers that produce cocoa in West Africa. The way I see it, it is unfair to lump those soy producers in the same bucket with the cocoa growers because context matters. The decisions taken by farmers are defined by the type of information they can get access to, the incentives they receive and, in the long run, the set of options from which they can choose. A farmer that is not earning a living income is less likely to prioritize climate actions because food security might come first.

And that is what Fairtrade is committed to. But we cannot do it alone. Consumers must also raise their awareness and be more emphatic over the realities where their food comes from in order for us to achieve global social and climate equity.

FI: Why does the climate movement need Fairtrade?

JPS: The voices of smallholders are critical in resolving the global climate crisis. That’s why the Fairtrade movement is calling for the international community to heed those voices and it’s why we’re demanding spaces that include smallholder realities in the climate political game.

As in many fights over human rights issues, the climate conversation needs to recognize the inequalities existing between those on the frontline, such as Fairtrade producers and smallholder farmers, and those with the privilege of accessing a wide variety of options in resilience. We are calling for a global push to move the agenda from do not harm into do more, invest more, and work harder to reverse and mitigate in equal terms. In my view, the fair trade philosophy is part of the solution, and it is our duty to make the case and explain why we think so.

FI: In November, the many of the world’s politicians will gather – virtually and in person – in Glasgow, Scotland, for the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26). What can we expect from Fairtrade at this major event and how do you envision Fairtrade’s role at COP26?

JPS: Overall, our approach is designed to amplify the voices of producers. There are many aspects in the UNFCCC agenda, like the current debate on deforestation-free value chains or the suitability of climate finance to meet smallholders’ needs and increase their resilience which are critical to them. We believe fair trade is a key part of the solution and they need to be represented.

Fairtrade International and CLAC, the Producers Network representing Latin America and the Caribbean, are admitted observers and regular attendees of UNFCCC Conferences. In the past, we have taken a strong public position in support of smallholder farmers and calling for international trade to be dictated along fairer terms for people and the planet, along with several actors within fair trade as a whole.

FI: Is there a documentary about climate or the environment you think anyone who is interested in this topic should have on its must-watch list?

JPS: Decision-making is about information. It’s also about the alternatives we’re presented with and those alternatives are influenced by our feelings. I like to practice empathetic listening as much as possible: to listen and understand the realities from different angles (from the standpoints of both consumers and producers). This is what helps me to clear my ideas. Empathy is a great way to become more climate aware. And while my recommendation is not a documentary or a film, I can say that Brené Brown’s What is Empathy and why is so different than Sympathy? and Els Dragt’s A Vision on Empathy help me reaffirm my practice.

Learn more about Fairtrade’s climate action

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