A “Prophetic Call” for Fair Trade

Babelmed – 05/04/2007

A survey carried out in 1997 found that awareness of fair trade as a concept in the Mediterranean member states of the EU was very low and that there was a greater awareness and experience of fair trade products in the northern and central Member States. The study claimed that “only 13% of French, Greek or Portuguese citizens had ever heard of the concept of fair trade, and only 3-4% had ever purchased any fair trade goods.” In contrast, the Eurobarometer survey showed that the highest figures were recorded in the Netherlands where 86% of Dutch consumers were aware of fair trade goods, and 47% had actually bought them.” This, in a way, was not surprising, because the first world shop was opened in Brekelen in the Netherlands in the Spring of 1969. One of the first campaigns of alternative trade was supported by the Dutch foundation Stichting S.O.S. Wereldhandel which was set up in 1959 in the town of Kerkrade by young people from the Dutch Catholic Party; in 1967 this organization became the Fair Trade Organisatie.

The Wages of the Labourers Cry Out
In his book on Fair Trade. La sfida etica al mercato mondiale (Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 1998), Tonino Perna notes that it is not surprising that fair trade was born in the country that was the first to “feel the fervour” of Vatican Council II. “Il cosiddetto ‘nuovo catechismo olandese’ […] era il frutto di un movimento di credenti portatori di grandi istanze d’impegno sociale e di libertà di espressione.” Within two years of the opening of the shop in Brekelen, there were 120 shops all over the Netherlands. Sales were so good that branches of SOS Wereldhandel (which eventually became autonomous national organizations) were soon opened in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Belgium. Today fair trade has made significant inroads in these and neighbouring countries. For example in Switzerland, according to Michele Papagna (“Il Commercio Equo tra senso di colpa e bisogni di relazione. L’esperienza di Transfair-Italia,” 2002) more than 20% of all bananas sold come through the fair trade network.

Christoph Stückelberger sees a “prophetic” call for fair trade in Biblical texts such as the following one from the Epistle of James: “Listen! The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out. […] You have condemned and murdered the righteous one.” (James 5.4-6) He believes that “Fair trade is rooted in the faith in God as the enabling creator, the liberating and limiting power and the reconciling Christ. In this point the gender perspective means that men and women are called to strengthen together their faith in this liberating God” (“When Trade Serves God’s Justice… Biblical and ethical flashlights and suggestions,” 2003).

Perna points out that the element of social commitment that has always existed within the Catholic Church has played a major role in spreading fair trade throughout Europe, where it was born, and beyond. However, Michele Papagna notes that while in northern Europe fair trade spread very quickly in the 60s and 70s, it only made its mark on Italy in the 1990s. Papagna attributes this delay to the Catholic Church in Southern Europe (Italy, Spain and France), as compared to the pragmatic approach of the Reformed Church (Protestant and Evangelical) in Northern Europe. He suggests that it is no coincidence that fair trade made its way into Italy through the northern region of Alto Adige, moved towards Veneto through Catholic and pacifist networks, and subsequently spread towards Lombardy, Emilia Romagna and so on. Fair trade is stronger in the more affluent and continental north of Italy than in its more Catholic conservative and economically poorer southern regions. However, it is fair to say that Italy has now made up for lost time and with large, locally and internationally well-established fair trade organizations such as CTM altromercato and Commercio Alternativo, it is one of the leaders of fair trade in Europe. In Spain, fair trade took longer to develop but is now growing relatively fast.

Charity and Justice
In staunchly Roman Catholic Malta, the first fair trade initiatives were directly influenced by what was happening in the UK and Italy, and the Maltese fair trade cooperative Koperattiva Kummerċ Ġust was founded in 1996 by a voluntary organization, the Third World Group, with Catholic social roots. Perhaps Malta’s patriarchal Catholicism, with its tradition of charity initiatives rather than movements for social justice, has not provided the ideal ground for the spread of the more rights-based approach of fair trade on the Maltese Islands. This point must be taken into consideration when exploring the potential for promoting fair trade in the Mediterranean. Another factor that must be taken into account is the fact that Malta is an island and islanders are often not particularly aware of or interested in what happens in other parts of the world. The Maltese are often willing to give to charity but they are perhaps less willing to change their lifestyles to respect the rights of workers and communities thousands of miles away.

The Church in Malta and elsewhere can play a vital role in promoting fair trade and ethical consumption, and when individual priests do speak out their communities respond enthusiastically, but for the Maltese Catholic Church as an institution these issues are not a priority and they get none of the attention that is afforded to issues such as divorce and sexual behaviour. The same applies to the other dominant institutions in Malta, the traditional political parties and, increasingly, private media organizations, for whom issues such as fair trade and ethical consumption are non-starters.

In the Mediterranean region there are now fair trade organizations in Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Israel, Malta, and soon in Cyprus, and fair trade producers in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, and particularly in Occupied Palestine. Big fair trade organizations on the northern shores of the Mediterranean are collaborating with producers on the southern and eastern shores and importing their products. For example Targanine in Morocco is a a group of four cooperatives bringing together 450 women who produce organic argan oil. Their activity supports a socio-economic project in Agadir and has positive effects on the environment because it comabts desertification.

In Palestine there are many communities and organizations involved in fair trade, like PARC, Zaytoun, and the more recently established Palestinian Fair Trade Association, and this proves that different communities within Palestine see fair trade as a real way of earning a living and supporting a community in a very difficult economic, political and social environment. PARC introduced fair trade in 1991 through the promotion of the Palestinian house economy projects which were shaped through distributing of chicken, sheep, cows, plants and trees in the most Palestinian damaged areas. These projects gave people self-sufficiency to resist the Israeli occupation. PARC initiated a project to train women how to start their own projects by giving them micro loans. Women mainly dealt with manufactured food like pickles, dairy products, jams and other kinds of food. Through these projects, the women gained additional income to support their families.

Two of the fair traded products sold in Israel by the FTO Green Action based in Tel Aviv are olive oil grown by farmers from the villages of Mas’ha, Palestine, and Za’atar made by Eomen Cooperative from Gennin, Palestine. “Green Action decided to market the olive oil of farmers from Palestinian villages that “suffer from the repercussions of the separation barrier, along with land theft, and the constant harassment of nearby settlers. Green Action supports the farmers by offering counselling and by paying them according to the PFTA (Palestinian Fair Trade Association) regulations; Green Action is committed to continuing transparent and long-term trade connections with the farmers” (www.greenaction.org.il).

The Religions of the Book and Fair Trade
Because the Religions of the Book play such an important role in the lives of communities throughout the Mediterranean, fair trade cannot spread in the region without their support. Tonino Perna says that within the Christian Orthodox Church there is a clear separation between religion on one hand and political and social life on the other and one effect of this separation is that these “national” or institutionalized churches in the Balkans and in the East of the Mediterranean lack the strong social commitment of other churches in the Christian tradition. In the Arab world, Perna believes that the difficulty for fair trade is greater, because although the Arabs were the inventors of trade and that great theatre that is the souk, it is not that easy to introduce an ethical element. In Islam and the Moral Economy. The Challenge of Capitalism (Cambridge: UP, 2006), Charles Tripp believes that, in the main, Islam has not challenged capitalism per se, but there has been an effort “to prevent economic transactions from unleashing a force in human nature which the Islamic revolution was designed to keep in check, partly through ‘excavating’ the fiqh [jurisprudence] for rules on trade, finance, taxation, property, riba (interest) and all related economic transactions.”

However, on the specific issue of fair trade and the unjust system of world trade, at a seminar on how religions in the Mediterranean are responding to the challenge of the global market, leading religious figures, including the president of the Islamic Communities and Organizations in Italy, Mohamad Nour Dachan; Antonella Visintin, representative of the Conference of European Protestant Churches; the Catholic theologians Achille Rossi and Franco Barbero; and Maria Lucia Deluca, from the magazine “Buddismo e Società,” called for respect for the environment, for a sense of restraint and an awareness of our limitations, and for a fair distribution of economic resources (2003). The religious figures stated that religions (a) call for the debunking of the myth of “world trade” as that which should control our life, nature and social relations, and (b) support the idea of greater economic exchange within the Mediterranean based on the respect of human dignity (rather than the zero-sum game for maximum profits). This exchange starts with fair trade (www.bur.it/2003/new).

Muslims can respond to the issue of wealth and poverty (using wealth to help those in need), by (a) joining or setting up a Muslim group that tries to promote justice in the world (for example, by protesting against unfair trade or Third World Debt); (b) buying fair trade products (like coffee, tea, and bananas) to give Third World workers a better deal; (c) giving zakah to help the poor (including ill, needy travellers and debtors); and (d) giving sadaqah (to organizations like Muslim Aid or the Red Crescent). For a Muslim, “giving serves the community and promotes justice in the world.” Zakah, the practice of giving 2.5% of wealth to the poor at end of Ramadan, is considered a duty and is one of the five pillars of Islam; Zakah purifies the person from greed (“Moral Issues. Islam.” Greenfield School Community and Arts College, Durham, UK).

Ian Bretman from The Fairtrade Foundation argues that there is an interesting affinity between the particular Jewish tradition of charity and the concept of fair trade, which is all about justice and equality (“Speech at Birmingham Central Synagogue.” Thursday 9th March 2006. http://www.liberaljudaism.org). He notes that the Hebrew word for charity (Tsedekah) comes from the word Tsedek, meaning justice. “So when we talk about the Trade Justice Movement of which Fairtrade is a part, we are promoting a very Jewish sense of moral responsibility and a vision for our society.” The Jewish philosopher Maimonides defined different levels of charitable giving, from “the unwilling donation that we are sometimes shamed into making when a collection box is rattled in front of us, through other forms of aid that might alleviate immediate symptoms but not address the causes of the recipient’s misfortune.” Maimonides says that the highest form of charity is “to help a poor person set up a business so that they are no longer dependant on the community but can play a full part in it and even contribute themselves to those who are less well-off.” That, says Bretman, is precisely the spirit with which fair trade helps poor farmers to “develop their own businesses so that they can achieve sustainability in the future.”

In the same way that the southern Italian NGO CRIC supported the opening of Malta’s first world shop, and CTM altromercato welcomed the Maltese cooperative as its first non-Italian partner FTO, Koperattiva Kummerċ Ġust is now active in the promotion of fair trade in the new EU member states and in the Mediterranean both through its membership of CTM altromercato and related networks and through its active participation in the setting up of the Europe branch of IFAT, the global network of Fair Trade Organizations.

Localization, or Regaining Control
If the religions that influence the choices that people make in the Mediterranean take a clear position on fair trade, albeit separately, and actively support and promote the products and rights of producers in disadvantaged communities, the effect could be well groundbreaking for thousands of people in the region.

We are living in a world that has become, for better or for worse, increasingly interdependent. Perna singles out two vital issues in this regard: (a) the dependence of local communities on sources of food and energy that are located far from them and on which they have no control; (b) the increase in the production of products that have a negative impact on the socio-environmental level. Localization is not about returning to some archaic style of living. In Destra e Sinistra nell’Europa del XXI secolo (Milano: Terredimezzo, 2006), Tonino Perna argues that there has never, in the history of humankind, been such a widespread, conscious participation in the social, economic and political shaping of our world, such vast experimentation with new forms of economy and social organization; there has never been such a strong grassroots network that can mobilize civil society in different parts of the world on important issues.

Together with well-established religious institutions, the civil society and grassroots organizations that have sprung all over the world, even thanks to modern telecommunications systems, have the potential to make a different world possible. Fair trade, with its holistic approach to some of the biggest problems that the world is facing today, is one of the results of this positive vibe among local communities and groups of people in the South and in the North. It is in this context that one can imagine a Mediterranean region in which people and the religious structures that often support them can use trade to actively promote respect for the human being and for the environment.

Note: This article is the result of research done within the framework of the Civil Society Project of the European Documentation and Research Centre at the University of Malta that focussed on “Business Ethics and Religious Values in the European Union and Malta” and was coordinated by Prof. Peter G. Xuereb.

Adrian Grima

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