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World Fair Trade Conference in Peru - Part 2

World Fair Trade Conference in Peru - Part 2

Conferences are often weird and so is this one. Daybreak is ushered in by the sound of panpipes ... that turn out to be small doves who, from vantage points around the grounds, call to one another du pa-pa-du pa-pa-du pa.

Breakfast is happening in a large hangar that is open on two sides. I pass hotel staff painting the leaves of two large bushes in a luxuriant deep green.

The day brightens and a startling landscape emerges. We are in a small oasis; lush lawn, tall trees and birds. Beyond the manicured and watered hotel grounds is a dead desert of sharp hills, dry as an undertaker’s sense of humour. (A desert is an area that receives less than 250 mm of rain a year; Lima gets just 10 to 30 mm!)

350 delegates from nearly 50 countries breakfast then troop into a large hall where we learn that the world is changing and Fair Trade has to adapt to survive. A generational shift is taking place and those who created the movement sixty years ago, in late 1950s America, could not imagine how things look today.

In the early days it was all about handicrafts, fair trade coffee and sugarcane. The battle cry was ‘Trade not Aid’. Customer bought gifts, that might or might not be useful, to support crafts and livelihoods in another part of the world.

The world has changed. A decade after the banking crisis a new generation of adults lacks the spare cash to throw at trinkets, they buy things that are, first and foremost, useful. Pointless but well-meaning ethnic ornaments are out; fair trade must adapt to survive.

Two hours of workshops about social media later, I step outside and climb the hill to see what lies beyond the hotel grounds. Beside the steps dust crusted plants clinging to the stones, their roots fed by a long winding hosepipe. A couple of trees are in bloom, bright magenta flowers erupting over a grey sea of brittle leaves.

Where the hosepipe stops the living world terminates. A small bird flies out towards the bare rocks then changes its mind and returns. As I climb I see no lizards or insects of any kind. Reaching the top of the hill I stare out toward the next valley at one of the bleakest landscapes I have ever seen. A hillside village squats in the rubble, partially lost in yellow cloud, not a single plant or tree in sight.

Turning round, beyond the hotel grounds a hundred metres below, another bare hillside. The perspective is strange. There appear to be blocks of flats at the foot of the hill. Using my camera I zoom in and discover they are not flats, not for the living anyway. This is a cemetery and I am staring at the stacked tombs of the deceased, presumably the ground is too hard to dig a grave.

Back in the hotel grounds, delegates are renewing or forging friendships, exploring business opportunities, talking money, and inspecting products that have been driven across Latin America - chocolates, clothes, toys, baskets, ceramics, recycled bottles, musical instruments, jewellery.

There is no escaping the growing focus on environmental issues and the dilemma it poses for fair trade; how do we square our desire to help small traders and artisans in far-flung countries without contributing to climate change? How can we ship products half way round the planet without the environmental impact of our activities adding to the problems of the poor?

It is relatively easy to see that buying a product for, say, £5 from a land-locked country and then paying £3 to fly it to the UK makes the product too expensive to sell. Of course we would rather pay money to the artisan or producer group than to an airline but, even if we find a way round that challenge, what about the carbon cost? Before we leave Lima, to complete our 22,000km round trip, the WFTO will be looking again at its mission statement and its priorities. Not before time.

Back at the food hangar, it turns out the staff weren’t painting the leaves, they were peeling a thick grey skin of dust. I should have guessed.

Created On  22 Sep 2019 10:25  -  >>


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