To Ecuador, With Love

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On a clear day, Norma and Marcos Toapanta have a spectacular view of Cotopaxi, Ecuador’s highest active volcano, from their small home. Today, however, the mountain is swathed in clouds and fog, and a light rain falls as Norma leads a group of visitors down a path worn through tall grass.

The air smells of wet earth and manure. A cow pauses to watch the unusual parade of foreign visitors, who are here to see for themselves whether their efforts back in the United States are paying off.

There is nothing special about Norma’s house, a rectangle of concrete blocks with a cement floor, split into a few small rooms. Nothing special, except that the house belongs to Norma and Marcos, who welcome guests as proudly as if they were showing off a sprawling hacienda. Marcos points to a nearby dwelling made of weathered wood and tin. That’s where they used to live, with his parents and too many other people to count, he explains with a laugh.

Their new house has a kind of rooftop patio where the Toapantas can take in the majesty of the surrounding Andes. Marcos points to rebar extending past the roofline. Someday, he says, he will add a second floor. Marcos is, finally, a man with a future.

A month or so earlier, thousands of miles away in Oakland and Austin and other cities, pallets of Ecuadoran roses arrived in Whole Foods Market stores. They were huge and beautiful, with heads the size of softballs in deep reds, pinks, and purples.

Even though they were more expensive than other roses, they flew off the shelves. The customers were undoubtedly thinking about loved ones, not about Norma Toapanta, when they bought the roses.

But standing in her kitchen, Norma is thinking of them.

“It is because of fair trade that I have this house,” she says.

The Toapantas work at a nearby rose farm, Agrocoex, one of nine farms in Ecuador that sell Fair Trade Certified flowers to Europe and the United States. The program, run by Oakland-based TransFair USA, ensures that any flowers with the Fair Trade Certified stamp were produced by farms where strict environmental and labor standards are met.

Autonomous inspectors visit the farms every year. They look for use of harsh chemicals, pore over books documenting overtime pay, then interview workers to make sure their experience matches the records. They look for forced child labor, which is prohibited, and make sure that employees participate in a workplace democratization process. And they look for stories like the Toapantas’.

The Toapantas’ home was built as a result of TransFair USA’s fair trade premium, a portion of the flowers’ retail price (12 percent) that importers direct into a bank account controlled by a workers committee. The workers then decide how to best use the funds to invest in their community. At Agrocoex, they offered small loans to workers who wanted to build their own homes. The Toapantas took out half a dozen such loans and built theirs, wall by wall.

Americans love the symbol of love. We buy more than 1.5 billion roses a year, most of them from Colombia (9 million) and Ecuador (4 million). We used to buy domestically grown flowers, but the climate and low costs of South America began to draw growers in the early 1980s. This led to more toxic bouquets as Latin American growers doused their flowers with chemicals banned in the United States.

Workers, who are mostly women, bore the brunt of this practice. Many showed signs of toxic poisoning, according to several studies. They were rarely trained to use toxins and often given inadequate equipment.

Working conditions were also an issue. While Ecuador’s official unemployment rate hovers in the 10 percent range, the ranks of the “employed” include everyone who works part time, down to the child shining shoes in the plaza in Quito. About 45 percent of the population is under­employed, and the average annual income is about $2,870, according to the World Bank.

Rose growers employed children, pushed employees to work long hours, and refused to offer vacations, sick pay, or maternity leave. They eventually began to get bad press, and social activists pressed for reforms. There are now various certification programs sponsored by Colombia, the flower industry, and nongovernmental agencies, leading inevitably to some confusion for shoppers. TransFair USA, which has the support of such groups as Oxfam America and Global Exchange, is trying to become the “gold standard” for certification.

The idea, then and now, is to persuade growers that a fairer farm is profitable. Across the marketplace, Europeans have embraced fair trade much more quickly than U.S. citizens. The question, then and now, is whether customers in the market with the most potential, the United States, will ever make working conditions a continent away a factor in deciding which rose to buy.

Patrick Busch runs the United States’ only rose farm outside of California, in a suburb of Minneapolis. When his family first got into the business, 80 percent of his roses were grown domestically. Now that figure is about 15 percent; the rest come from non-fair trade farms in Colombia and Ecuador. So he’s both a farmer and an importer.

Busch’s costs to grow in the United States are about $25 per square foot, several times the cost in Ecuador, and he pays his workers $15 an hour. A worker on a Fair Trade Certified farm in Ecuador earns perhaps $5,000 a year, plus benefits.

“The public awareness of organic and fair trade is certainly increasing, but no [customer] ever asked for organic or fair trade until this year,” says Busch. “The problem with fair trade is that a lot of farms are already doing many of the things [fair trade] farms are [doing], and I don’t know if the money is really getting back to people and making a difference. I’m afraid it’s more of a marketing tool than anything else.”

Busch asks a fair question: Why don’t shoppers buy their roses locally from him, rather than through fair trade? He pays workers better, has a smaller global footprint because of transportation issues, and is subject to strict U.S. regulations about control of toxins.

The rose issue is much bigger than a social premium going back to Ecuador, he contends. “Solve the immigration problem so we don’t have such a disparity of income between countries,” he says.

Michael Conroy is a Hemingwayesque raconteur with a Ph.D. in economics and fluency in both Spanish and Texas-style B.S. Conroy has studied, taught, and promoted the notion that idealists can persuade corporations that it is both right and lucrative to make a product that doesn’t do harm to their workers or the environment.

A former professor at the University of Texas and author of Branded!: How the Certification Revolution Is Transforming Global Corporations, Conroy is one of my companions during a weeklong tour of Ecuador’s Fair Trade Certified rose farms. He is the board chairman of TransFair USA, which sponsored the trip.

Conroy has heard arguments against fair trade from the right (the market reveals whether consumers care about working conditions) and the left (companies can “fairwash” their image by token adherence to certification standards). He has traveled the world for several organizations committed to improving global trade, and he thinks the progress that has been made in the past 15 years is remarkable.

“These programs give consumers a direct ability to contribute to resolving major social and environmental problems around the world through every dollar that they spend,” says Conroy. “Fair trade promotes a more equitable model of globalization.”

Conroy calls the move into fair trade roses part of a “certification revolution.” For the first time, he says, consumers have a way of fighting back against giant corporations and forcing them to treat the earth and their workers better.

Conroy addresses Busch’s complaint like this: Studies show that roses grown in an equatorial climate have a smaller carbon footprint than those grown in cold northern locations. If Busch can prove through an unbiased third party that he meets all standards and compliances, and provides a social premium to the community, then, says Conroy, “Minnesotans should buy from him.”

As our caravan of SUVs travels from farm to farm, Conroy is determined to show me some of fair trade’s successes. Over several days, we visit four farms, talk with dozens of employees both in front of their bosses and in private, and see firsthand some of the social benefits that have already come from the nascent program.

Though the workers are still poor and most lack significant formal education, being employed and treated well has empowered them. Many of the company leaders are women, and they speak forcefully about how conditions on these farms are vastly superior to those on other farms where they have worked. During worker meetings at each farm, participants often praise their bosses for respecting them, but they don’t hesitate to cite problems or offer advice. There is often more spirited talk between boss and subordinate than you’d see in a typical U.S. workplace.

The farm owners, like Diego Espinosa at Agrocoex and Alvaro Espinosa Chiriboga at Agroganadera, are forthcoming about the annoyances and costs of meeting certification standards, including some resentment over being told by foreigners how to behave. And they express reservations about whether fair trade programs will ever completely transform their industry.

Chiriboga walks through the packing area, joking with his workers and talking about paying extra benefits and vacation. “To me, this is not a cost, it’s an investment,” he says. “Is fair trade going to be the next big thing? I really don’t think it will. A percentage of the growers will accept this, but not all of them. Right now, I just don’t think there’s the market.”

The TransFair USA certification process is the most rigorous, says Chiriboga, who has also been certified by organic groups and European programs. He describes the last inspection, when three people spent three 12-hour days inspecting the farm.

“The fair trade program focuses on the people,” he says. “It’s the best label because it’s the most demanding and is starting to create a market. But the thing that’s also very important in fair trade is quality. You have to have quality first or it won’t sell.”

Despite Chiriboga’s caution, the rewards for the workers are evident. In a small cement building at the Agrocoex farm, five young workers are learning to use Microsoft Word. In the past four years, 80 percent of the workers have taken computer classes.

“We think it’s very important to teach first the workers, then their children, how to use computers,” says Chiriboga. “I cannot imagine nowadays that you can live without knowing how to use a computer.”

In the next room, Sabina Sopalo is taking advantage of the social premium, but it doesn’t look pleasant.

Sopalo is having her teeth drilled by Dr. Javier Moles, who today wears a shirt with little teeth on it. Dental care is sparse in rural Ecuador, says Moles. Few people have insurance coverage, and a visit could cost at least a week’s pay. So when the workers at Agrocoex got one of their first payments from the sale of Fair Trade Certified flowers, they hired a company dentist. Sopalo’s visit will cost her between 20 and 90 cents.

The next day, at another farm, we take a side trip to Agroganadera’s child care facility, a squat building painted with bright pictures of dancing bears and Bambi. The Hoja Verde day care center looks after 55 of the workers’ kids, ages 3 to 5. It’s immaculate, and free.

One of the women we noticed earlier at the farm, Evelyn Aracely Vinueza Reascos, is here, wearing a vest with a picture of a stork on it. That means she’s pregnant, and coworkers know she cannot enter a facility where toxins are present, or lift heavy weights. Her work days will shorten as the due date nears. And she will get paid maternity leave.

At Agroganadera, they’ve used their social premium to begin an English language program for children, buy pigs for either consumption or breeding, and start a propane hot water program that has saved workers thousands of dollars.

David Galo Rivera Rodriguez is a shy kid with a quick smile. He moved from the coast to live with his uncle and work on the rose farm because he got a scholarship to attend a good school. The company provided him with six years of schooling, and he’s now going to university to study English and German.

The changes didn’t come without resistance, from both owners and employees.

Chiriboga says the social requirements “were a real shock because we weren’t prepared for that. Originally there was a lot of training of employees and a lot of workers were resisting it. Some were scared by the process because it made you take responsibility.”

The process was slow, he says: “It looked like the social premiums were never going to get here. Once we saw the projects taking place, we began to realize the investment of time and money was well worth it.”

Some of the workers balked at outside control of the money. All projects have to be cleared by an independent facilitator.

“At the beginning, they wanted to take the money and divide it up,” says Chiriboga. “It was difficult to convince them that they had to develop a project. People wanted to buy DVDs and stereos.”

And there are always unintended consequences. During lunch, a human resource manager tells me that the rose trade brought so many people to this rural valley that prices soared for locals. Delinquency and family problems increased.

“The good thing is, there are jobs where there were none,” he says.

Some of the fair trade farm owners are wary of criticizing their neighbors and worry that the industry could be portrayed poorly. In fact, they agree with Busch in Minneapolis that conditions have improved dramatically inside and outside fair trade farms. That may be because the working conditions pushed by fair trade have created competition for the best workers, and other farms have improved benefits to keep up.

Suraya Falcon, a worker at Agroganadera, says about previous jobs: “I have worked hours that I wasn’t paid for. There were layoffs, and they sprayed pesticide when workers were around. I worked there for four years and finally said enough when I became pregnant. This is one of the best farms in the area.”

Karen Christensen, global produce coordinator for Whole Foods Market, lives in the real world, somewhere between total idealism and good business. Whole Foods rolled out a nationwide program to sell Fair Trade Certified flowers in March. Sam’s Club also now offers them on its website.

Christensen has been to some of the farms we visited in Ecuador and has seen some of fair trade’s successes. She knows that none of it matters much if shoppers won’t buy the flowers, but she has confidence that they are “exceptional.”

Whole Foods tested them in several regions of the country and “we can’t keep them on the shelf,” she says. “They totally sold out.”

But did consumers choose the Fair Trade Certified roses because they understood the ramifications and really wanted to help the people who put them on their table, or were they moved by the long stems and large heads, the beauty of the flowers?

“It’s a little hard to say,” Christensen says. The labeling on the rose sleeves clearly states that they are fair trade items and what that means.

“What I know to be true is that people respond to quality, and they are willing to pay the highest price for the best quality,” she says. “A segment of our market cares very, very much about the fair trade aspect. If we can provide a high-quality product and make the world a better place at the same time, that’s all you can ask for.”

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