Comercio justo. Fair trade. What comes to mind when you read those words? A bag of coffee at your local health foods store with the picture of a smiling brown child, a llama wool hat sold at a table at a food festival, a collection of decorative pots on sale after your church service; all of which cost slightly more than what you’d normally pay but cause you to say “oh well, I guess it’s going to a good cause”. Sure, but what does it really mean?
I was contemplating these questions myself when I had the opportunity to travel to Nicaragua with Esperanza en Accion. As a Spanish major in college with a background in economics I figured that this trip would be a good way to gain an on the ground perspective of the economic and cultural climate of Latin America with plenty of opportunities to connect deeply with the people and surroundings. Whatever expectations I may have had were quickly blown out of the water.
While I have had a positive experience traveling as part of a tour group in the past, I have often returned to the States with the feeling that I perhaps missed out on having a “genuine” experience by visiting mostly tourist locations, and having the majority of my experiences carefully planned and managed. Traveling with Esperanza en Accion provided the exact balance that I was looking for. During our short time we covered a lot of ground, visiting a variety of locations both within Managua and around the country, meeting many different artists, while including information on history and contemporary culture in order to provide a contextual backdrop to our experiences.
I cherished the opportunity to meet and converse with many different Nicaraguans. By entering into their homes and hearing their stories directly gave me a more authentic view into the daily lives and concerns of Nicaraguans. I was able to ask questions, share experiences, and make real connections with the people that we met. I also truly enjoyed the travel time between locations, both within Managua and through the rural areas. Riding in the back of our truck I was able to contemplate the conversations and experiences we had had while soaking in the vibrant city life and tranquil sweeping country sides.
So to return to my question of Fair Trade, how were my impressions changed by this trip? I felt as though Esperanza en Accion is part of a larger group of non-profit, innovative groups that is finding ways to do things right in the midst of so much that is being done wrong. Despite the economic, environmental and political problems which are in large part a result of the tumultuous and violent historical past, Nicaragua possesses vast potential for future growth. Fair Trade in general, and Esperanza en Accion specifically, is focused on reversing the prevailing culture of deference and dependence, encouraging people to take charge, become organized, and provide for themselves. By promoting collective action, offering education courses, and providing micro loans and saving plans, Esperanza en Accion better prepared the artisans with whom they worked to produce products that will be of higher quality and competitive in a larger market.
In a country where work is difficult to find, and people often struggle to provide for their family, fair trade provides an empowering alternative for people to use their creativity and artistry to grow their businesses and support their families. By meeting the people whose lives have been positively impacted through fair trade, I gained a better understandings of the potential which fair trade offers as an instrument for positive growth in under developed countries, as well as the role in that development that those in the first world can play as responsible consumers.