Aired On:
February 16, 2021

From the trans-Atlantic slave trade to present-day trade policies, sugar is a crop that has shaped a lot of the world—and it continues to have very big, real-life consequences for the communities that grow it. This is episode 2 of Nestle’s KitKat Unwrapped, and we’re diving into the world of sugar.

Before sugar made it to Nestle’s (formerly) fair trade certified UK KitKat bar, it was grown, harvested and shipped from Fiji, a small island nation nearly 10,000 miles away from the English factory where it would be used. Why was Nestle going to such great lengths for Fijian sugar? The answer is tangled in the bitter history of both countries. Karen Mapasua of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) helps us understand how this history continues to impact the island today.

Then we speak with Andres Gonzales of the Manduvira sugar cooperative in Paraguay. Here, cooperatively organized, small-scale sugar farmers are bucking the global sugar establishment and making history with a farmer-owned sugar growing and milling operation. The success in their community shows an inspiring alternative to business-as-usual and lights the way toward a sweeter future in sugar.

Since we originally recorded this episode, the island of Fiji was hit by Cyclone Yasa, a category five tropical cyclone. Winds reached 160 mph and heavy rains destroyed food and sugarcane crops for 90-100% of Fijian households. The consequences of the climate crisis continue to disproportionately impact those least responsible. To learn more and support relief efforts, see the link in the transcript.

Find out more and support relief efforts for Fijian communities impacted by Cyclone Yasa.

Dana Geffner:
Take a look at the ingredients in a KitKat bar, or really just about any chocolate bar. Right after the cocoa you’ll see sugar.

In our last episode, Anna talked to Franck Koman & Fortin Bley of the Ivorian Fair Trade Network about Nestlé’s decision to drop their fair trade certification and what that meant for cocoa farmers in the Ivory Coast or Cote d’Ivoire.

She also spoke to author Simran Sethi about both the joy that chocolate brings us—and the corporate greed that drives so much exploitation. If you haven’t listened to that, you can go back and catch up on the story – and the question that got us all started on this. How did Nestlé, one of the most boycotted companies in the world, come to have a chocolate bar that was fair trade certified? In this episode, we’re going to delve into the topic of sugar with Fair World Project’s Political Director, Ryan Zinn, and Campaign Manager Anna Canning. They’ll be looking at its dark history, and an inspiring small-scale farmer project that’s building what could be a totally different future.

Anna Canning:
Most of the time, when we talk about sugar, it’s just an ingredient. Something we talk about more for its nutritional merits or lack of them. But it’s also a crop that’s really shaped a lot of the world. Sugar was deeply linked to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. There are super-specific quotas and rules that dictate exactly how much sugar can go into which country and when. I’m not going to go too deep on the details of trade rules right now. But those detailed rules aren’t just abstract bureaucracy. They have big real-life consequences.

I’m Anna Canning, Fair World Project’s Campaign Manager, and today we’re going to talk about some of those big real-life consequences.

One of the things that I noticed right away when the statement came out about Nestlé dropping the fair trade certification on their UK KitKat bar was that the sugar in that bar came from Fiji. So…a chocolate bar manufactured in a factory in the United Kingdom had sugar that came from a small island nation in the middle of the Pacific, over 10,000 miles away. The sugar from that tiny island got loaded onto a boat, that then sailed past so many other sugar-producing nations before getting to the English factory where the KitKat bars are made.

That hardly seems efficient, right?

So, to get to the bottom of this story, Ryan Zinn, Fair World Project’s Political Director,  reached out to people who know the ins and outs of growing sugar in Fiji. He wasn’t able to talk to members of the Labasa Cane Producers Association, the farmers who worked directly with Nestlé. And notice that just then I said “worked with” in the past tense. Nestlé didn’t just drop fair trade certification, they completely changed where they are sourcing their sugar from.   But he did reach Karen Mapusua. She’s been working in agriculture development in the Pacific for over two decades. And she’s going to help us untangle the story of how exactly sugar from this small Pacific island nation ends up in Nestlé’s candy bars. It’s a story that is tied up in the dark history of both those countries.

Then Ryan also spoke with Andres Gonzalez of Manduvira cooperative in Paraguay. He’s on the other side of the world from Fiji. Their fair trade cooperative runs a sugar growing and milling operation that is building a totally different way of doing sugar.

Ryan Zinn:
Alright. Alright, Karen Mapusua welcome to For a Better World.

Karen Mapasua:
Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Anna Canning:
Karen Mapusua works for

Karen Mapasua:
the Pacific Community based in Suva in Fiji and SPC as we’re known. We support Pacific people to achieve their development aspirations and to live full and healthy lives.

Anna Canning:
And Karen wears a lot of hats.

Karen Mapasua:
I’m vice president of IFOAM organics international… we work to bring true sustainability to agriculture across the globe based on the principles of organic agriculture, which are ecology, health, fairness, and care.

Anna Canning:
Those two roles give Karen a bird’s eye view of farming on the tiny island nation of Fiji.

Karen Mapasua:
Our farms are really small, across the Pacific they’re small, but for the Fiji sugar farmers, they’re also relatively small. Most are around 11 acres, which is four to five hectares. The amount of cane that is produced on each farm varies quite a lot, although it has been reducing over the years as sugar prices haven’t been so good and markets have been lost. People have put more of their land into other, into other products and other crops. Usually it’s family labor that’s used on the farms. Given being so small and we have large extended families. So with the exception of the cane cutting season, when cane gangs are employed to harvest, because of the small farm size, we’ve got really low levels of mechanization. So almost all the cane is still cut by hand transplanted, transported to the mills by truck or on dedicated little cane railways.

Anna Canning:
Hold up, what? So apparently there are little railroad tracks all over Fiji made just for hauling sugar cane. Once upon a time, the cars that hauled the heavy, scratchy sugar cane off to get processed were pulled by horses along narrow tracks. Now there are trains, chugging along on these tracks that are about half the size of standard size train tracks. Picture them chugging along, the cane hanging way over the sides of little flat carts in bundles as wide as they are tall. It’s an ingenious solution to one part of the heavy hard work of growing sugar cane.

Karen Mapasua:
The farming is quite chemically intensive. Although the fair trade certification has led to more controlled use of particularly some of the weedicides.

Anna Canning:
This is an important point that Karen makes. Fair trade certification isn’t just standards for social fairness, minimum prices, and transparency. In addition, most certifications have a list that rules out some of the worst chemicals. I don’t usually get quite as detailed as Karen did here, but yes, “weedicide” is a word. And they kill weeds just like pesticides do pests and fungicides do fungi.

But outside of cane farming, there actually aren’t that many chemicals used on the island.

Karen Mapasua:
It’s really interesting actually because the Pacific missed the Green Revolution or, or they missed us, I’m not sure which way it happened because they’re the crops of the Green Revolution and all the GMO innovations are not the crops that we eat or grow.

Anna Canning:
This “Green Revolution” that Karen mentions is basically the birth of the not-so-revolutionary idea that corporate agriculture will feed the world. Starting in the 1950s & ’60s, U.S. aid programs started pushing a new solution to poverty and hunger.
[Archive audio:]
“The United States can never produce all of the food that’s needed by the food deficit in third world nations. And so, we’ve got to help them to increase the productivity of their own land.”

Anna Canning:
Hybrid seed, synthetic fertilizer, and loads of pesticides were supposed to increase farm yields and fix everything. This “Revolution” was to sell more of the big seed and chemical companies’ products. And it was funded by—you guessed it, those same companies, as well as wealthy foundations. Meanwhile, traditional farming skills and knowledge were pushed to the side as being “old fashioned.” This is the same narrative that continues now to push GMO corn and soy as the future of feeding our growing population.

The Green Revolution has been catastrophic for many small-scale farmers around the globe. But Monsanto, now Bayer, Cargill and other Big Ag corporations? It has been a profitable run for them.

Listen closely when you hear people talking about farming. When they talk about the future and what is modern, whose interests are they pushing? Is it small-scale farmers and those of us who want to eat healthy food? Or is it something that helps these giant corporate food and farm companies make more money?

Karen Mapasua:
So-called conventional agriculture is relatively new in the Pacific.

Anna Canning:
These big agribusiness companies have been so successful in their mission, that when Karen says “conventional,” it’s their big monocrops, their GMOs, and their deadly pesticides that she’s referring to. That’s what’s considered “conventional” or the norm in agriculture.

Karen Mapasua:
So a lot of the Pacific is still really, you could say, organic by default.

Karen Mapasua:
And if you talk to farmers in the region, virtually everyone will say, “Oh yes, that was what my grandfather did.”

Karen Mapasua:
There’s not a lot of agrochemical use in a lot of our countries, it depends a lot on what the crop is, of course. The big commodities, sugar, palm oil are quite intensive chemical users. The countries that have big horticulture industries like Fiji, where there’s the new or exotic crops, things like lettuce and tomatoes, which we never grew, they have introduced, you know, along with the seeds come, the fertilizers and the pesticides, but much of the region where we’re semi-subsistence growers with traditional crops and traditional practice production systems are very much organic in every sense of the word. Certification is a little bit of a different thing. Certification began here in the late 1990s.

It is benefiting the growers economically to move into organic certification. Fair trade is a little bit different. It’s not as widespread. We have fair trade coconut oil in Samoa through the Fair for Life program. Fair trade sugar, coffee, vanilla is also exported from the region. So it’s showing some growth, but not as extensive as organic. I think one of the challenges with some of the fair trade models is the producer group model that is required to achieve certification doesn’t always fit so well with some of our cultures and communities, and raises lots of questions amongst some of the growers about why they’re being asked to comply with a whole range of rules and regulations, when they actually see that the lack of fairness is further up the value chain, it’s not on their farms.

Anna Canning:
There’s a lot of analysis out there looking at fair trade standards and asking whether they actually deliver on the promises they make. Do they raise incomes? Do they protect workers? But this right here is a really key question that doesn’t get asked anywhere near as often. Do these standards actually address “the lack of fairness in the value chain,” as Karen puts it – do they stop that corporate race to the bottom for lower wages and fewer protections? Or do they push for more rules and regulations for the people who already have the least power?

We have to keep our eyes on the real goal. Poverty is a problem of power. No one ever ended poverty by making more rules for those with the least power.

Karen Mapasua:
So it’s a little bit, a little bit more challenging for fair trade to pick up the same traction as organic. There’s quite a bit of crossover. Pretty much all of the fair trade product in the region is also certified organic, apart from sugar, which is still only conventional. I think the future is bright. We see our governments now really engaging in organic and having an interest in fair trade…And I think that’s really positive, a supportive policy framework is really important.

Anna Canning:
And while cane farming is hard work anywhere in the world, farmers in Fiji face some additional challenges.

Karen Mapasua:
One of our top challenges is of course our isolation. We’re very far from markets. So logistical challenges and the expensive logistics for the products from the Pacific is really a constraint for a lot of our small holders. But beyond that, I think that the other couple of top issues are the impact of climate change. Another big one is I think an international problem and our farmers are aging. [Farming]’s not seen as a career… And you know, most people who grew up in a farming family, our parents want us to graduate from that and get a job in town, in an office and not have to work so hard. And so the age of our farmers is getting higher and the number of young people engaged in the industry is slowly dropping.

Anna Canning:
Access to markets, climate change, an aging farm population. These challenges are all common for farmers across the globe. But farmers on the island of Fiji are on the absolute front lines of the climate crisis.

Karen Mapasua:
Here in Fiji, the government’s already identified 80 villages that would need to be relocated inland because of inundation and predicted levels of sea-level rise over the next, you know, 40 years or so. So that’s a really big issue. And of course, the farmlands closer to the coast, they face saltwater intrusion and salinization of soils, which makes it harder to grow our crops. Across a lot of the region, predictions are suggesting that we’ll have fewer tropical cyclones, but they’ll be much more intense. And I don’t know if any of the people listening will have lived through a tropical cyclone, but the incredible power of the wind and the waves that come with the cyclones, we now have, can bring a hundred percent destruction to a community. So if they get more intense, it really is a deep, deep concern. We’re expected to get wetter, with longer and stronger rains and also hotter. So these extreme weather conditions can result in production losses through heat stress, waterlogging of soils, severe flooding, and of course, more erosion. But these changes in rainfall patterns and changes in temperature can also result in new pests and diseases. And we’re already seeing that.

And we’re also seeing new pests increase like merely bugs, bugs and aphids on leafy vegetables. And some farmers are also reporting that there’s a variability in seasons. So we have seasonal planting calendars, both for our traditional crops, but also the introduced varieties.

So we really need to find ways to, I guess, raise the prestige of agriculture. Have it really recognized for the important role it provides in feeding us and nurturing us and the connections to culture and all of those sorts of things I think are important in addressing that issue.

And probably the last thing I’d say, and it connects to that recognition of how important agriculture is, is we need investment from our own governments. But also from development partners and the private sector to help really rebuild this industry. Every government talks about the fact that we are largely semi-subsistence growers and agriculture is our food security and our backbone. But … our government budgets don’t reflect that importance. And while I understand that we’ve got big health issues and so that has to be a priority for the public spend and a young population so education is really important.

Anna Canning:
That’s the big picture of farming in Fiji. There are the regular challenges of farming. And then the additional challenges of being a small island nation. They’re isolated from markets, and climate change is literally lapping on their shores and stealing their land away.

Now, back to the sugar, which is a key crop here. There’s a long history of sugar growing in Fiji, and it hasn’t always been sweet. Sugar didn’t start out as a big business. Instead, sugar has been around for a while.

Karen Mapasua:
It does grow wild here. People traditionally used it just to chew or for sweetening, but the first attempts to really commercialize it were in the 1860s. And the first rounds really just didn’t work commercially. And it wasn’t until, I think, 1880 when the Colonial Sugar Refining company or CSR invested in Fiji. And it became a really commercial and viable operation. At one point, there was over 30 mills in Fiji, and now we’re back down to four mills.

Anna Canning:
The Colonial Sugar Refining Company quite literally shaped the face of this island. Remember those trains that carry the sugar cane? That’s when they were built. Fiji was a British colony back when the sugar industry was founded. And when Arthur Gordon, the colonial governor of the island, was looking for workers to harvest the sugar crop, he looked to India. India was a British colony at the time, as was Fiji. To secure cheap labor, the colonial government brought in people from India to work as indentured servants. The conditions on sugar plantations were appalling. This isn’t long ago, forgotten history. Just a few months ago, the Prime Minister, Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama addressed the nation to commemorate an anniversary.

[Archival footage]
“Today, the 14th of May marks 141 years since the first ship of indentured labourers landed in Fiji from British India. That was in 1879 and in the nearly four decades that followed over sixty thousand more laborers who we know as “Girmiteers” would make that same journey. The vast majority of these men, women, and children had never heard of Fiji before. Many had never even been aboard a ship. Most left their loved ones behind based on the lie that they would only spend a few months working overseas before returning home. None of them truly knew what they were in for a journey of thousands of kilometres in slave-like inhumane conditions and all too often no way to return back to the communities they left hoping for a better life. And so, they toiled under the crack of the whip they were often beaten and sexually abused; they never gave up that hope.”

Anna Canning:
Who grows a crop and where it’s grown and how it’s traded often has deep roots. And when we start pulling on those roots, in so many parts of the world, we quickly get to a local history of how colonialism impacted that place.

Let’s fast forward to the present day.

Karen Mapasua:
We’ve got around 77,000 Fijians who directly rely on sugarcane. And then if you look at the whole industry, it’s almost 200,000 people who depend on sugar for their livelihood in some way. And out of a population of around 900,000, that’s a really big portion of our population. So it is very hard for them. And most sugar cane farmers don’t only rely on sugar. They just simply can’t, it wouldn’t be enough to live on. So there is a big focus on diversification. Most growers also grow subsistence food crops, and increasingly they’re also moving into other cash crops. It might be a little bit of livestock or bees, a little bit of horticulture. So they’re trying to diversify so that they can meet the gap and have a little bit of regular income and alternate sources of income to help manage that volatility.

Anna Canning:
That volatility that Karen brings up is something that comes up often when you talk to farmers, regardless of what they grow. You have a good year, so do all your neighbors, suddenly there’s a glut of whatever you grew –  in this case, sugar – on the market.

So, supply goes up, and, just like that graph of supply and demand in an economics textbook, the price goes down. And that’s the simple case. There are a ton of things that influence that price volatility, especially for crops that are traded internationally.

On the international market,  your prices aren’t just determined by whether you and your neighbor had a good year. They are determined by whether sugar farmers in Brazil and India and China had a good year.  In the case of sugar, they’re also influenced by who’s putting it into ethanol and how much they’re using. And, like other so-called commodity crops, these prices are also influenced by traders in faraway countries basically making bets on all these factors. I’m not going to get deep into how futures markets work here.

But one last thing that blows my mind about these markets work is that the people who probably most influence how much that sugar costs are never actually going to touch it. They’re trading it back and forth like a bunch of numbers on the stock market, not actually a bundle of cane or a stack of sugar cubes. And the ones who are most impacted by the price of sugar–those farmers who work hard to grow it–they have very very little influence over that price and how it fluctuates.

One of the goals of most fair trade certifications is to help smooth out those fluctuations, that price volatility. Or, more specifically, to keep those price dips from going below a minimum price. How that has worked out for sugar farmers in Fiji has, by Karen’s account, been pretty mixed.

Karen Mapasua:
So sugar has been certified fair trade in Fiji since around 2012. Initially, we had really good strong sales with almost 50% of the sugar being exported as fair trade. Then we got struck by the end of the European special arrangements for sugar from Fiji.

Anna Canning:
These “special arrangements” Karen mentions were part of a trade deal by which agricultural goods from countries in the Pacific and Caribbean islands as well as Africa could be sold into Europe without the usual taxes, also called tariffs. This was a big deal because sugar is one of those products that has a lot of complicated and restrictive tariff rules. And this was also a part of the answer to that question I mentioned at the top – why would it make sense to bring sugar all the way from a Pacific island to the United Kingdom?

We’re getting an answer. Part of it is that Fiji was once a British colony. And then the next not-unrelated part is these trade rules. But without them,

Karen Mapasua:
So, now we have to compete with the other less expensive forms of sugar, like beet sugar, and that’s led to a loss of markets for us as well. We’re not a terribly cost-effective place to grow sugar. Our small land sizes, relatively low production per hectare, the fact that we’re very labor-intensive, means that we’re not a cheap sugar to produce.

Karen Mapasua:
We lost a big buyer, Tate and Lyle, and the amount of fair trade sugar that was being exported dropped down to only 11% of total sugar. So even though all the sugar certified, we only had a fair trade market for about 11%. Then, we were able to sell to Nestlé for the KitKat bar and sales were going up again to around 21, 22% of the total sugar. We lose Nestlé. And again, that market’s gone and, you know, the, the volume of fair trade sugar drops down quite considerably, which really impacts on our growers.

Anna Canning:
When Nestlé decided to stop Fairtrade certification for the KitKat bar that they sold in the UK, they also announced that they were not going to be getting the sugar from Fiji anymore at all. Not just under a different certification label, as they told the cocoa farmers in Cote d’Ivoire. Not only does that mean that these farmers just lost a big customer for their sugar, it also means that they lost a significant source of investment in their communities.

Karen Mapasua:
The other important thing about the fair trade certification is of course, the premium that’s paid.

Anna Canning:
The fair trade premium is an additional sum of money on top of the base selling price that certified farmer organizations get for their crop—for sugar like they were growing in Fiji, it comes out to an additional $60 per ton. That fund is set aside to spend on projects that the farmer organizations decide are important. It’s a democratic process, something that Franck and Fortin – who represent a national farmers’ association –  really drove home for us in the last episode.

Karen Mapasua:
And since the initial certification in Fiji, there’s been over $21 million US Dollars paid in premiums, which is invested into the community. And a lot of that is around improving the production as well as other community development projects. So we lose that premium and it’s really going to impact on those community development projects. And particularly when we’re trying to help farmers adapt to climate change, and a lot of those premiums were going to work on farm productivity. For example, it’s going to have a, not only just the loss of cash in pocket but a loss of opportunities as far as improving production, preparing for climate change, and the other community development aspects of it.

Anna Canning:
Nestlé’s decision to drop fair trade certification – and Fijian sugar for the United Kingdom version of their Kitkat bar comes at a bad time. Would there be a good time? Probably not, but in the middle of a global pandemic, with the climate crisis looming, seems like a particularly bad time.

Because of the special trade arrangements we talked about, much of the market for Fijian sugar has been in Europe. That’s also where the most developed fair trade markets have been – places that have the demand that initially pushed Nestlé to get their UK KitKat bar fair trade certified. That’s where the energy and the investment have gone. But now…

Karen Mapasua:
We need to find alternatives. So there has been a really strong focus in supporting sugar farmers to diversify and to look at other opportunities. There’s also been some work done at looking at how we, you know, what else we can do for the sugar farmers to improve their opportunities in the marketplace. And one of those things is starting to build those market options in Asia, Asia Pacific. So countries like Korea and Japan, where fair trade is still relatively unknown, but that has the potential to grow are areas that could be explored.

Fiji can’t refine sugar, we only sell raw sugar. So if we were able to add a little bit more value locally, refine sugar, develop other sugar products that might have different spaces and niche spaces in the market, if we could convert to organic, that also would open up some more market opportunities. So that piece around value adding, going beyond just exporting the raw sugar product is probably the place where they’re the most opportunities, I think, for reviving sugar in Fiji and providing opportunities for farmers in Fiji. So, although it would be tough and it would take a lot of investment, I think the combination of diversification, and more value adding at home, are the opportunities that could really give a bit of light and hope to the industry.

Anna Canning:
So here we are again. Once upon a time, the British brought industrial cane sugar production to this island. They forced indentured servants into the cane harvest. That used to be cheap sugar because of the exploited labor. But now there are other options, cheaper options. Maybe I’m being cynical, but it looks to me like Nestlé has dipped out to go get that cheaper option. And once again, small-scale farmers are left in the lurch.

Karen touched on a few ways that cane sugar farmers in Fiji might revive their industry, and get a chance at earning a fair livelihood. Her conclusion: the key would be for Fijian farmers to diversify and add more value to their harvest in Fiji, instead of just exporting the raw material.

An update since we originally recorded this episode. In December 2020, the island of Fiji was hit by Cyclone Yasa. That category five tropical cyclone was the strongest recorded since 2016, and the fourth most intense tropical cyclone ever in the Pacific Basin.

The regional Fairtrade organization reports that strong winds of up to 160 miles per hour and heavy rains destroyed both food and sugarcane crops for between 90-100% of households. Half of families have lost their homes or sustained extensive damage.

The realities of climate change that Ryan discussed with Karen? This devastation underscores just how urgent the crisis is.

The Pacific islands contribute less than 1% of greenhouse gas emissions to our global total. But they are being disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis that these emissions fuel.

Those parts of the world who contribute least to the climate crisis, and have already been most impacted by colonial exploitation should not be left to pick up the pieces alone.

The Labasa Cane Producers Association were already facing massive challenges when Nestlé stopped purchasing their sugar – challenges only made worse by the pandemic and all the other factors Karen was just discussing.

To help ease the burden, Fairtrade Australia and New Zealand are seeking financial assistance to help address both short-term recovery and longer-term resilience.  See the show notes and transcript on our website for the link to the full statement from Fairtrade Australia and New Zealand’s and how you can support recovery efforts.

Now for our next guest. Karen came to the conclusion that one of the keys for cane sugar farmers in Fiji would be to diversify and add more value to their harvest in Fiji, instead of just exporting the raw material. That’s exactly what our next guest and the small-scale sugar farmers who make up Manduvira cooperative in Paraguay have been doing. By building their own cooperatively-run sugar mill, along with fair trade relationships around the world, they are building a pretty sweet future for farmers and the rest of us.

Andres Gonzales:
My name is Andrés González Aguilera. I am the manager of the Sugar cooperative Manduvirá Limitada located in the city of Arroyos y Esteros, Republic of Paraguay in South America.

Anna Canning:
Manduvira cooperative got its start back in 1975. A lot of things have changed since then…

Andres Gonzales:
We have grown a lot in terms of [sugar] production and we went through several stages in which we were only producers of raw material, that is, we were only producers of sugarcane, but we did not have any access to the market. We were in a somewhat unfavorable situation and we were concerned. We saw that we had no future producing only raw materials, so we united and started organizing.

Anna Canning:
These things don’t happen overnight, but slowly, the farmers who organized the cooperative saw the injustices in the sugar industry around them.

Andres Gonzales:
We realized that only together we could do great things. In 2002, we were a cooperative of only one hundred and fifty members and we had a capital of fifty thousand dollars. But from there we began to grow and become strong.

Anna Canning:
For a long time, farmers had been stuck working with their local mill, even though it would often rip them off. Eventually, the members of Manduvira started hauling their sugar to another mill. Even though it took longer, it was a step towards independence. The next step was to break with the usual system and get their own organic certification. Usually, the organic certificates are held by the mills, which locks farmers in to selling to them, even if the mill is giving them a bad deal.

Andres Gonzales:
Our first concrete step to free ourselves, was taking the sugar cane to another mill and creating competition. What improved our value was getting our own organic certification in 2004. First, we had to break the mental barrier. We were always told that getting an organic certification was impossible, that it costs a lot of money, that this is not for small producers, that it was not for the poor. Come on. They told us that it was just a dream.

But we started negotiating and then we started doing the work. It is not that easy. But it was not impossible. In the first year, we had one hundred producers. We call them the first hundred rebels because they had to resign from the other mill’s organic certificate. That automatically entered them into a blacklist, we could say.

We were rebelling against the industry. And we continued. In 2005 we rented our own facility. Our dream was to manage most of the production value chain. We realized the only way we could really make a profit was by exporting directly. As a small group of producers, we took an incredible leap forward. We went from being simple producers of sugarcane to being producers of sugar and exporters too. Our idea is to produce and to export the sugar ourselves without an intermediary.

Anna Canning:
From being a small group of sugar farmers organizing to get a better deal for their crops, the members of Manduvira took a huge leap. They went from being price takers, selling their raw material for whatever their local mill would give them to controlling almost every step of the process. In addition to organic certification, they also joined the fair trade movement.

Andres Gonzales:
If I could define fair trade in one word it would be: empowerment. Really, with fair trade, the empowerment of small producers can be achieved, and I believe that it is the best alternative to be able to move forward. The best alternative so that small producers can really have hope, so they can continue dreaming of making many projects come true. And that is our experience. It’s true that the fair trade premium is important. But more important than the premium that we receive, is that with fair trade it has helped us open our eyes to see our reality and also see the international reality. That there is a worldwide fair trade movement.

So, we started exporting to Canada, Italy, and Belgium. In Canada, we started selling to La Siembra, a fair trade cooperative chocolate company, and Just Us coffee, both in Canada. They were our first clients. And in Italy, Alto Mercato, a cooperative of cooperatives. And Oxfam from Belgium.

Anna Canning:
Their volume kept growing. From just a couple hundred tons, the demand for their fair trade organic sugar took off. Soon they were contracting with fair trade buyers around the globe and selling thousands of tons. They were selling so much sugar that they were struggling to keep up in their rented mill.

Andres Gonzales:
And maybe so from there we focused on going to the next level, going to the next step because our biggest dream was to have our own factory.

Anna Canning:
It took a lot of wrangling. The co-op had to find funding, lenders, builders, all those details, but finally, in 2014, they opened the factory.

Andres Gonzales:
And from then on, history in Paraguay changes. Until not too long ago, the sugar industry was managed by only 7 families that had a lot of political and economic power. But from then on, we added almost 900 families who are owners of the Manduvirá factory. So, we totally changed the landscape. We are the only sugar factory in all Latin America where the owners are producers. We are small producers. We managed to build a high-tech factory with the most advanced standards in terms of organic production. In other words, an exclusive, high-quality organic factory. So, from there we have been growing and we are positioning ourselves quite well in the global market.

Anna Canning:
I don’t think Andres is exaggerating when he says that the small-scale farmers of Manduvira are making history. They have taken on the establishment, taken on a consolidated industry and turned it on its head. Instead of just selling raw materials, these farmers now own everything it takes to process and export sugar. This isn’t just bucking the establishment in Paraguay – there are few farmers anywhere who are doing this. When I think about fair trade, this is really the stuff that I’m thinking about. Not just a label on a package, but the kind of global connections that can support farmers organizing and building this kind of power.

But let’s be clear about this: these small-scale farmers haven’t become some sort of sugar barons.

Andres Gonzales:
Our average producer has 3 hectares of crops and not all of it is sugar cane. Some have two hectares of sugarcane, they have a bit of a forest reserve, they have their house right there with fruit trees and they also have some crops to feed their families. We take care of ourselves in that aspect. The typical thing here is cassava, they have yuccas, they have different types of legumes, corn and peanuts. Also, vegetables and fruits such as bananas, passionfruit, or papaya and other fruits such as melons, watermelon, pineapples, all with organic certification. That would be a typical farm of a producer. Each family has between 3 to 5 children.

Anna Canning:
These farmers don’t have a lot of land. But what they do have is a rich diversity of crops. And that’s not an accident. The co-op has invested a lot in education. When my colleague Ryan, who did this interview was there a few years back, they were putting on a whole series of what they were calling “agroecology fairs.” These fairs are part farmers’ markets, part public educational spaces. Here members could showcase best practices, connect, and market their produce.

Andres Gonzales:
We work a lot on food security and food sovereignty. We started with the fairs with a group of 12 women. Fairs weren’t very common at the time. At first, people kind of weren’t used to them and didn’t come to buy at fairs. We did a whole awareness campaign for people to consume local and organic products. Now the fairs are permanent. Before it was done every month, then every week and now it remains every day. We already have several groups, more than 20 women’s groups that are working. This model was also replicated in other organizations here in the community. They have seen a very important change in their life. A change in how they are earning money, fending for themselves, progressing, training in personal finance. In marketing to better offer their agricultural products and to produce organic quality fruits, in that sense we have come a long way. It has also helped immensely that we are within this program of fair-trade cities and towns in Arroyo and Esteros, since 2018, which is the first fair trade city in Paraguay. We managed to involve our entire community to obtain this certificate. We work in various areas. We have our gender and youth committee that works with women and youth in trainings and in many other projects. We have our own soil analysis laboratories. We are creating our own liquid fertilizer. There are many, many projects that we are carrying out.

Anna Canning:
Andres and Manduvira aren’t just building the first small-scale farmer owned sugar mill in Paraguay. They are building something much bigger. Instead of being price takers, selling their crop to a middleman, these farmers now control a big part of their supply chain. And instead of being dependent on an export crop, they are also building a whole vibrant local food system that’s controlled by and for the community. “Food sovereignty” is kind of a big concept. I didn’t jump in to define it when Andres said it a minute ago because my definition would have been way more boring. Instead, he basically just defined it—that community-controlled food system they’re building, that’s food sovereignty.

We asked Andres how fair trade fits into this system that they are building.

Andres Gonzales:
Fair trade is really something integral for us. It is the best option. It is not only for the raw material, but it is to create contacts, to create synergy between us, our producers, the people who we know work in stores, for example in France, Belgium or Germany, importers, whether from the United States, Canada or any country in Europe or elsewhere. This is very important because fair trade is not only about buying and selling. It is about a relationship that is much more than buying and selling, it is something long term. There is mutual help, we could say.

As for the producers, Fair Trade has changed the lives of many people. We give scholarships to members’ children. There are 10 full scholarships each year. This year there are 30 young grantees who are studying for a university degree, so that later they come back to their community to work. We want young people to be interested, which is a problem in many organizations in which the members are already a little older. It is important that the youth are interested and can take the lead. We give them a lot of participation and for us, fair trade is democracy. It is participation, it is transparency, it is payment of a fair price. It is non-discrimination whether for religious, political, gender or whatever reasons, and care and respect for the environment. One of the most important things for us is saying no to child labor. We have partnered to create a program for all children under 15 years of age. They are provided with everything they need from the fair-trade premium. Everything necessary so that they can be in school, in college and we follow up with a strategic alliance with educational institutions. Of course, now everything has changed a bit due to the pandemic, but we continue to monitor, to make sure that all girls and boys, all those under 15 years old, are in school.

Anna Canning:
But the members of Manduvira cooperative are doing more than just working to prevent child labor. Around the globe–including here in the U.S., where I am–we see that people living in rural areas and farming are getting older. Fewer young people are staying on to work in the fields.

My colleague Ryan asked Andres about this when they spoke. How are the farmers that he works with tackling this issue? Are they worried about the next generation?

Andres Gonzales:
We are concerned, but we are busy. One of the objectives of the sugar processing mill is just that, to give greater value to our legacy.

All over the world, the work of a small producer is not highly valued. But when that small producer has the capacity, or the possibility, in this case through our cooperative, to be an industrialist, to be able to add more value to his product, to be able to sell better, this increases his income and improves his quality of life. Due to this, some children of producers who had to emigrate to Argentina or Spain or the United States, have returned and are working here with their parents. They are taking the lead. And of course, within our industry, we have created more than 200 jobs. So, the young people help their parents, they are also working in the sugar factory. There are more options available. Whoever wants to work in the field can work in the field, whoever wants to work in industry can work in industry. Now they can also work in the sugar processing facility, they can work in the [organic] fertilizer factory or they can be in the laboratory.

There are currently 30 young people who are studying thanks to the Manduvirá scholarship. Every day the sons and daughters of our partners get more involved in all the work. It is not just working in the fields. I believe that this is the key to moving forward. We must offer young people opportunities and hope and a promising future so that they are encouraged to get involved in the work of their parents and family.

Anna Canning:
Andres and the members of Manduvira are building something pretty impressive here. And as he tells me about it, I’m reminded of what Fortin Bley of the Ivorian Fair Trade Network said last episode. He stressed that this move by Nestlé to drop fair trade was a move to undercut farmers’ democratic organizations—and that it would undermine the whole future of cocoa farming in his community. I can’t help but contrast that to this. The members of Manduvira are here, and they are building a whole future for themselves and their community. And they have plans for how it will continue on to the next generation.

Ryan then asked Andres about Nestlé, and what his perspective is on multinationals as they both enter, and drop out of fair trade.

Andres Gonzales:
Historically, multinationals did not want to enter into fair trade. But when they saw the market grow, they became very interested. They used fair trade to wash their faces, to have a better face, a cleaner face before consumers. Now that they have positioned themselves, they want to create their own fair trade system and we believe that this is not right. We believe that the system, as it is, is not perfect, but what we have is the best. In fact, it is quite a blow to the producers.

Nestlé’s decision to drop fair trade does not affect us directly, because that multinational was not buying our organic sugar, they bought conventional sugar. But we understand that things are going to recover in some way, and we believe that fair trade still has a lot of work to do. It is very strong. It has so many stories to tell from producers around the world. From small producers who, like us, have also been able to get ahead, have been able to make their dream come true, have been able to change people’s stories, communities. Fair trade represents all this. Multinationals come and go, just as Nestlé has left. There will be other multinationals who will come along and to do the same thing.

But what we hope, is that the conscientious consumer will stop buying those products and choose products that have a stronger social and environmental commitment. This is achieved when the consumer buys a real fair-trade product. This benefit is achieved, and it also allows the system to reach a small producer in a country like Paraguay or any other developing nation.

Anna Canning:
I really like that metaphor from Andres. Corporations are using fair trade to wash their faces and look good to their potential customers. I’ve often used the term “fairwashing” to describe that, but face washing is a good visual.

All this isn’t breaking news. We’ve been talking about it for over a decade—how corporations are using fair trade as yet another marketing campaign. Meanwhile, farmer organizations like Andres’ Manduvira cooperative are doing something much more multidimensional than a label. They’re using fair trade buying relationships as a springboard to fund a real shift in their local economies.

So much of the money to be made in food is in the processing, not the growing. By building a farmer-owned sugar mill, they are keeping those dollars in their communities. And they’re building up a robust community-controlled local food system at the same time. I’m looking forward to seeing where the next generation takes this, because it’s clear they’re getting ready.

That’s it for this time. Thank you for listening to For a Better World podcast. Be sure to catch our next episode where we’ll talk about palm oil, the next ingredient in a KitKat bar.

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