…Self doubt gets you thinking. I am still thinking through my concerns about Fairtrade and I wonder whether I’ve got it arse over tip.
People who live in the countryside are relatively poor compared to people who live in an urban environment, but is that because there are, firstly, too many people in the countryside trying to eke out an incremental profit from cash crops to keep themselves above water, and secondly you actually are richer and better off just by being in a city or town.
There is a strong argument that workers shifting from rural Amazonia and moving to Manaus (the regional capital of the Amazon region) to carry out industrial activity have taken farmers out of Amazonia and so reduced pressure on deforestation, allowing those remaining in the countryside to farm more efficiently and spread their profits across fewer people, while simply the act of going to a city has improved their personal finances. So rural-to-urban migration is good for everyone financially and great for the environment!
There is a strong case (and made by people much cleverer and knowledgeable than me) that people living in the slums of big cities and the favelas of Latin America are one of the most dynamic and happening economies of the world. These are people getting on with life, generating income and stepping up out of poverty. These places are not the pits of despair that we all once thought and continue to be taught. Okay, they’re not perfect but they’re significantly better than rural poverty. And city dwellers have less children, so women are liberated from their historical rural position as child-bearing machines that must cook, fetch water and bring up children. City life gives them freedom and the creative energy of the fairer sex is a massive force for good and economic improvement.
So should we be encouraging rural-to-urban migration rather than preserving current rural farming structures. Urban living is better for the environment as it is more efficient on the world’s resources. Urban living is better for women. Urban living reduces overpopulation as people living in towns and cities have less children – overpopulation is effectively a rural problem. Finally, when people move to the city it reduces the amount of people living in the countryside and so reduces the burden from humanity on the countryside and nature quickly recovers – yes, the rainforest does just simply regrow when people leave it be.
Lastly, is our nostalgic lova affair with the countryside and rural idyll and farming (I don’t know if it is just an English obsession, and I mean English in this case as I cannot speak for others here) simply wrong and something that just makes us look via rose tinted glasses at all rural farming, believing that this must be a great, wonderful and rewarding life for everyone in the countryside, rather than something most farmers just want to escape from, and be liberated from the back-breaking, never-ending drudgery of subsistence living and would rather become housekeepers, labourers, doctors and accountants or whatever is available in the nearest mega-city. Who are we in the developed world to deny those in the developing world from wanting to live a better life with loads more consumer stuff to ease their daily grind? Who are we (the great polluters and destroyers of the world) to deny the rural poor a new start and free women from the potential prison of a rural life?
I suppose what I am saying is that if farmers cannot make a living wage from growing sugar or tea or vanilla or fruits or rice, shouldn’t we encourage more of them to move to cities so then less people grow these crops, so then there is a relative shortage of supply over demand and then prices will go up until farmers can then earn a living wage or more. Are we not just perpetuating an imbalance of excess supply over actual demand by offering a bit above market prices via Fairtrade?
In stark figures, a rural farming family in Madagascar earns $600 per annum, with Fairtrade vanilla they can earn $2000 per annum, but what could they earn were they to live and work in the capital city of, for example, Madagascar – Antananarivo – and perhaps their family size might also fall*. So isn’t it better to get them to migrate to the cities where education and public services are better and they will have a lower impact on the environment?
I honestly don’t know the answer, but it remains a dilemma that is constantly fighting itself out between my heart that says “yes to fair trade and ethical food” and my head that says “yes to free trade” and reducing levels of rural farming and shifting population towards the cities.
As in everything in life, the answer I suggest is a fudge – we need to trade ethically to ensure that those farming now are not disadvantaged and abused hence Fairtrade, while at the same time providing incentives for people to move from the villages and rural economy into the nearest cities, and then to ensure that cities become as economically vibrant, socially responsible and environmentally sustainable as possible. But I will probably never answer this quandary to my own personal satisfaction, so will remain racked by doubts and indecision.
* I asked The Foreign Office and World Bank for help on numbers here, but the former could not help and the latter never deigned to answer or acknowledge my request. That is a worrying starting position for Madagascar.