U.K.: Fairtrade Foundation aims for 'game-changer' campaign

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U.K.: Fairtrade Foundation aims for 'game-changer' campaign

Colombian banana farmer, Foncho Cantillo is the 'face' of a Fairtrade campaign aimed at raising awareness about the struggles of growing and exporting from the troubled South America country where "unscrupulous landowners", lack of water and rising fertilizer costs are just some of the challenges faced on a daily basis. On top of that, cash-strapped farmers are pressured to sell up to big businesses offering to buy their land at cut-price.

Foncho is in the U.K. for Fairtrade Fortnight (Feb. 24-March 10) as part of a delegation of South American farmers helping to convince consumers to opt for fairly produced fruit, collecting signatures for a petition demanding government intervention to stop cheap bananas threatening farmers' futures.

Foncho Cantillo

Foncho Cantillo

At www.freshfruitportal.com we spoke with Cantillo on the first day of his crusade in Britain.

Since the age of 10, Foncho has been farming bananas in his native Cienaga, learning skills and techniques passed down from his father on the family's one-hectare farm in the Magdalena region of northern Colombia.

Like so many others, his life hasn't been an easy one and it's been grueling to carve a sustainable career out of growing the world's best loved fruit in a region blemished by poverty.

Almost two decades ago years ago started a co-operative of banana farmers to secure better deals on the fruit with the power of collective bargaining. Today Coobafrio Co-Operative has 46 members, including 10 women, who employ around 300 permanent and temporary staff.

But the real change came in 2011 when Coobafrio became Fairtrade certified, offering a certain level of price protection for banana farmers. For three years growers have been guaranteed a minimum price as well as a premium that pays for community projects and helps build sustainable practices.

Now aged 44, Cantillo is on a mission to promote Fairtrade bananas in the U.K. and he is the man at the very heart of a high-profile campaign that will be running until mid-March, part of which is to gather signatures for a petition that will eventually be presented to Secretary of State for Business, Liberal Democrat politician, Vince Cable.

"Cheap bananas are threatening farmers’ futures. In the last ten years, a bitter price war has seen the U.K. supermarket sector almost halve the prices of loose bananas while the cost of producing them has doubled. This is trapping many of the farmers and workers who grow them in poverty," the petition says.

"This cannot continue. We call on you as Secretary for Business to urgently investigate the grave impact of unsustainable supermarket pricing practices and act to protect the millions of poor farmers and workers who grow the UK’s favorite fruit."

Cantillo told www.freshfruitportal.com that market prices made it difficult for many banana players to stay in the game.

"As banana growers we face several challenges, one of the biggest being is that big land owners offer to buy land from small farmers and unfortunately some see this as a better option – to sell their land rather than keep growing bananas, because they can’t see a sustainable way of life due to the pricing," he said.

"They see the only viable option is to sell their land, which can cause social problems. From each farm, two or three families are supported.

"The other challenge is the price we are receiving for selling one box of bananas which isn't high enough to give us meaningful return. Because we’re Fairtrade, we have much more stability and security and we can see a future in our business, but others aren't in that position."

According to Cantillo, one way to overcome these challenges is for British consumers to buy more Fairtrade produce, which would secure more Fairtrade-certified farmers in South American countries, improve productivity on those farms, increase stability and ensure that banana prices truly reflect the work that goes into producing the fruit.

"Before it was quite difficult to maintain our crops and much more difficult to have any dreams as individuals and families, especially in respect to education," he said.

"We’ve improved our quality of life and living conditions. We had a bleak view of our future from an economic perspective and were questioning whether we could keep going with banana farming.

"We didn’t have the knowledge and understanding that we now have. Banana growing is a very demanding activity with lots of work every single day. I could see all those people were feeling they were putting in all of this work and it got to the point where they thought ‘there’s no point’ and it was more feasible to sell their land."

He said he and those in the region were lucky to have discovered fairtrade, as it bucked the trend of people selling off land.

Any money put back into banana production in Cantillo’s region are used to train farmers, and not just those who are part of the co-operative; the whole community is taught about best practices, as well as improving infrastructure.

"When I was invited to come to the U.K. for Fairtrade Fortnight campaign I didn't hesitate to accept as I feel very proud of the opportunity to contribute to something that will help the well-being of all banana farmers, in a small way - like a grain of sand.

Winning hearts and minds

During a series of events throughout the country, Cantillo, alongside his farming colleagues will be speaking to the public directly telling them about life in Colombia. Fairtrade has deliberately concentrated on this emphatic approach in a bid to win the hearts and minds of 'as many people as possible'.

Long-term, Fairtrade Foundation wants this campaign to be the start of a 'game-changer¿, with optimistic plans to 'change the entire industry over time'. Currently one in three bananas sold in the U.K. are Fairtrade-certified but the organization aims for an across-the-board change where multinational retailers don't sell anything else.

Most of the country's larger supermarket chains have Fairtrade options, but only Waitrose, Sainsbury's and the Co-operative Food sell 100% Fairtrade bananas. There are an estimated five billion bananas eaten in the U.K per year.

Fairtrade Foundation data shows that typically the cost of a loose banana has dropped from 18 pence (US$ 0.30) to just 11 pence (US$ 0.11) over the last decade, while the cost of living and producing bananas across the South American nations has sky rocketed; Colombia (85%), Dominican Republic (350%) and Ecuador (240%).

"We are very pleased to be celebrating the fact that one in three bananas sold in the U.K. are now Fairtrade because it shows that British consumers and businesses are supporting us," Fairtrade Foundation commercial director Ashish Deo told www.freshfruitportal.com.

"Most people are surprised to learn banana prices have actually halved in the U.K. in the last 10 years while, in contrast, the cost of banana production has doubled over the same period. This has created a risky situation where there is simply not enough money to pay farmers and workers who are the ones bearing the brunt of price wars," he said.

"We want to start real focused attention by getting everyone involved in the supply chain of bananas to recognize that this actually represents a kind of market failure for the industry. We know that things will not change overnight but all our research shows that if we bring these issues to the British’s public’s attention, they will respond."

He added the foundation would like to see a government investigation into price wars, given they didn't seem to serve much of a commercial purpose.

"Bananas are a much-loved fruit and the British public continue to buy bananas even when the price goes up. So, to us, it seems a pointless thing to do to put prices up because the people who really get hurt are the banana growers themselves and they already have a very challenging life," Deo said.

"Through this campaign we want the banana farmers themselves to tell their own stories to as many people as possible because this is a direct way of communicating with the public which can be very effective. If people hear their stories direct from the horse’s mouth as it were, it will have an impact I’m sure.

"Our goal is to start the ball rolling over these two weeks and hopefully we’ll connect with people and keep them engaged over time, because this is a campaign to change the industry. We don’t have to wait around for the government to do something or for commercial sector to change; there are things consumers can do, they can make their own choices."



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