A Fairtrade trip to the Philippines

In Fairtrade Fortnight it’s great to see all the media coverage about the difference that buying Fairtrade products can make. But I’ve also noticed some articles casting doubts on whether Fairtrade is an effective way of tackling poverty. Fairtrade has added its views to the debate but I was keen to hear from someone who had first hand experience of visiting Fairtrade producers.

So I contacted Jenny Foster, Fairtrade co-ordinator for Bristol who visited the Philippines last year, to hear her story – it turned out that our children are in the same class at the same school. It’s certainly a small travelling world!

The Bicol area of the Philippines that Jenny visited is a mecca for divers and for climbers who visit the active volcane Mt Mayon. Jenny was able to get off the tourist trail and see what life was like for the people living there.

Jenny – how did you come to be visiting the Philippines?

I’ve been a Traidcraft rep for 13 years now and to celebrate my 40th birthday, I’d booked on a Meet the people tour with Traidcraft. The Philippines seemed such a beautiful country, and when the tour fell through I decided to contact APFTI, the Fairtrade organisation in the Philippines directly, and they offered to host my trip to visit Fairtrade producers.

What were your first impressions of the Philippines?

The bus journey through Manila was grim and I sensed more desperation and depression in the people who were trying to eke a living in those shanty towns than elsewhere. They can be moved on at any time by the landowners and lose everything they have worked so hard to build up.
Once we got out into the more rural areas, the countryside became lush and green – the people had more space around their homes and everyone we met was incredibly friendly. Life follows a traditional pattern in those areas – the men often work in agriculture – the main crops are coconuts and rice. The women usually work making handicrafts to supplement the family income, using products like palm leaves, Abaca (a type of grass) or shells. It really felt like a tropical paradise.
 

 

Mt Mahon viewed from Lion Hill
Tell us about the Fairtrade producers you visited

We flew to the town of Legaspi in Bicol province and from there we went out to visit several different Fairtrade co-operatives. Many were making baskets and other handicraft products. With the help of APFTI they had been able to develop their product ranges so that they would appeal to a more international market and would command higher prices than they could get in the local market.

The women spoke of their pride that their handicrafts were now making a substantial contribution to the family income, so they could afford for their children to stay on at school longer – some were even able to go on to study at college, which was unheard of before.

Jenny meeting basketmaker at Bulusan co-operative
With the social premium that Fairtrade pays, one co-operative had set up a childrens’ day-care centre, enabling the mothers to spend time on making handicrafts to generate family income. The co-operatives would also work together to organise transport to markets and negotiate better prices for raw materials.

We also visited areas near the volcano Mt Mayon which had been hit both by a volcanic eruption and three typhoons within the space of a couple of months in November 06. We saw the devastation and the graves of those who had died.

Mt Mahon with graves of those who died in eruption
Those made homeless were still living in camps when we visited a few months after the typhoons, but those who were in Fairtrade co-operatives had been given food-aid and building materials as well as help to buy more raw materials to start generating income again. For them Fairtrade had provided a safety net.

 

 

What would you say to those who question whether Fairtrade is a good way to help people in countries like the Philippines?

I’d tell you a story about a man I met called Jun, who is a capiz shell cutter in Manila. He used to live in the slums, but getting employment with the local Fairtrade co-operative had enabled him to lift himself and his family out of poverty. For the first time in his life he receives a regular wage and the co-operative has provided him a loan which enabled him to rent a secure home for his family.
The people I met were tremendously proud of their work and what their co-operatives had achieved with the help of Fairtrade. They all begged me to tell everyone in the west to buy more Fairtrade products, so that more people can have the same opportunities as them.
 

 

You can contact Jenny Foster for more information about her trip and the Bristol Fairtrade network at Jenny@bristolfairtradenetwork.org.uk

See Jenny’s photos from this trip and other Fairtrade photos on my Flickr site here.

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