Students were rockin’ in the free world at Amnesty International’s coffeehouse last Thursday night. An event designed to promote fair trade, the coffeehouse featured organic foods and beverages, as well as a lecture by professor of philosophy and religion Morton Winston, a poetry reading and performances by four bands.
Winston began his speech with a story about when he was teaching in Thailand, a country with many small farmers. He and his students met a poor farmer who had grown organic, multicultural crops all his life.
However, “they were forced to modernize Thai farming,” he said, which meant concentrating on growing only one crop and abandoning the traditional, non-invasive farming methods used for centuries.
This idea failed, as every other farmer grew the exact same crop, causing them to sell their crops at a loss. This happened year after year, as the small farmers, who had made a decent living before the idea of modern farming, was ruined.
The man Winston had originally met, however, soon realized the failure of modern farming and turned back to his old methods. He soon became one of the leading organic and fair trade farmers in Asia and Europe and was elected as a senator of Thailand.
“The only tools he had were pruning shears, a hose and a water pump, for over 600 varieties of crops,” Winston said. “The
problems he had previously were due to the global trading consensus.”
The problem with our global trading system today, according to Winston, is that the small farmer is becoming almost extinct as government and big business are increasingly becoming more involved in farming and trade.
“The rules of trade were rigged in favor of the rich nations,” he said. “Eighty percent of U.S. farm subsidies are paid to big agro-corporate companies.”
Fair trade seeks to assist these poor farmers and merchants by cutting out the middleman of trade and the tariffs they must pay to export their goods, which are often much too expensive for these producers.
Without such tariffs imposed on them, the merchants and farmers, many of whom are from Third World countries, can sell their goods at a reasonable price that can help them support their families.
Fair trade also seeks to improve environmental, labor and societal standards of trade, forcing companies to adhere to these standards before they can label their goods a fair trade product.
“It gives the producer of the product a fair chance,” Winston said. “It’s a chance for farmers to make a sustainable livelihood – I think that’s a basic human right.”
Local companies and goods that are considered fair trade products are the crafts, jewelry and clothing that can be found at the store Ten Thousand Villages in Princeton, which buys goods directly from villages in poverty-stricken countries and sells them, with all of the money going directly back to the producer. Green Mountain Coffee Company, the brand provided here at the College, also operates under this practice.
“Fair trade is involved in giving a hand to people who are much, much poorer than us,” Winston said. “That’s what this is about.”
While some students who attended had a vague notion of what fair trade is, they were soon enlightened after reading the available material spread out on tables and listening to Winston’s lecture. “He certainly covered the overall picture of fair trade and went into the intricacies and differences between free and fair trade,” Chris Ongaro, sophomore elementary education/English major, said.Besides Amnesty International, the event was co-sponsored by the Progressive Student Alliance and Animal Rights New Jersey, with other groups like the Women’s Center and Water Watch also setting up tables with pamphlets
While students snacked on foods like vegan cookies and organic fruit, Jessica Fassel, junior secondary education/English major, read 12 original poems, like “Cinnamon Gingers,” “Fruit Bat” and “Family Plots.”
There were also performances by Calamity Menagerie, David Byrne, The Combovers and The Steamboat Project.
“I liked all the bands,” Shane McLoughlin, freshman journalism major, said. “Especially Calamity Menagerie, they were really different.”
While entertaining, the event maintained focus on fair trade.
“Some people try to understand it, but most are apathetic,” Grace Lee, vice president of Amnesty International, said. “Sodexho uses a fair trade coffee brand, but most students don’t look at the labels. We’re just trying to spread awareness on campus about this pressing issue.”