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Fairtrade Fortnight: Colombian banana farmers help set new price


Who decides on the cost of a banana – and how do they arrive at that price? Photograph: Alamy


Powered by article titled “Fairtrade Fortnight: Colombian banana farmers help set new price” was written by Tim Aldred, for on Tuesday 25th February 2014 14.09 UTC

I visited Colombia before the Fairtrade Fortnight campaign because I wanted to speak to banana farmers themselves: to hear about the prices they receive for their goods, whether they are enough to earn a decent living, and whether the Fairtrade mark actually makes a difference to their lives.

In fact, I got to do more than that. During my visit I joined a meeting between banana farmers on the Fairtrade minimum price. More than 30 members of farming co-operatives were crammed into a room at the offices of Emprebancoop, a co-operative close to Santa Marta on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. The office sits within a small town of pastel coloured houses, with banana fields surrounding the development. Bananas were being loaded up onto lorries for export as we entered. Almost 30% of the UK’s Fairtrade bananas come from Colombia. If you buy a Fairtrade banana, there’s a good chance it will have come from one of the farms managed by the farmers in that meeting.

After a round of introductions, the meeting kicked off with a web conference with the Fairtrade office in Germany, six time-zones away. Jose Paredes, one of the team who oversees Fairtrade standards and minimum prices, explained that this meeting was part of gathering the information for new Fairtrade minimum prices for bananas in 2015.

The scheme guarantees the producer a minimum price for the bananas they sell as Fairtrade, even if the market price is lower. This helps farmers to secure stable prices. Farmers say that, without the agreement, they’d be under pressure to sell up. Since joining Fairtrade, children had been able to complete their schooling, many social projects had been undertaken, productivity had jumped. They were able to invest in the future of their businesses.

Fairtrade’s minimum prices change because costs go up. When prices for transport, fertiliser and wages have gone up, Fairtrade needs to respond. In Colombia, the minimum price has risen from $8.5 per box in 2010 to $9.8 in 2014.

Alfredo Zabarain, a Fairtrade liaison officer, led the group through a line by line review of the many different costs that go into getting a banana grown, packed, and into a container bound for Felixstowe. It isn’t just the obvious expenses like fertiliser, packing and transport costs which make up the final figure. The minimum prices needs to be high enough to allow investment for the future, not just the bare minimum to keep the business afloat. So the costs of replacing long-term costs like packing facilities and replacing vehicles were debated too.

Discussions were intense, and sometimes heated. One co-operative weeds their crops more often than the next, so what’s the right average cost of labour? One farmer needs six coils of rope to complete his work, but a neighbour feels he could do a decent job with fewer; one co-operative produces 36 boxes of per hectare, per week, another 38 – the list goes on.

It all means that costs per box vary, even between this group of near neighbours. Invoices and record books were consulted, calculators were brandished, and compromises were reached. Gradually, the average cost to sustainably produce an 18kg box of bananas in this part of Colombia was pieced together. Jose Paredes and his colleagues will now use the results to help decide the new minimum price.

As we’ve been researching the banana industry ahead of Fairtrade Fortnight, one of the questions we’ve been asking is who decides the price? Who gets to decide what a fair, sustainable price for a banana should be? Too often, banana farmers have had to like or lump whatever they were offered. Today, this group got their say.

Tim Aldred is head of policy and research at the Fairtrade Foundation

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