Every aspect of an agricultural community is affected by climate change. There’s the “unpredictable,” like record-bending heatwaves, extended cold snaps, forest fires, prolonged dry seasons, and more frequent, more violent hurricanes and monsoons. Then there’s the long-term average changes in temperature and rainfall.
It’s difficult to see how organisations like Fairtrade can adequately address what is perhaps the defining human rights challenge of our time.
Sure, Fairtrade’s farmer standards include an increasing number of requirements around responsible land and water use, pesticide use and handling, and a variety of other regulations addressing environmental stewardship. They make up at least 25 percent of Fairtrade’s standards, and incrementally become more stringent the longer farms and farmer organisations are certified.
Fairtrade farmer organisations also can and often do choose to spend their Fairtrade Premiums on environmental projects and are encouraged to implement sustainable agricultural practices.
Further, Fairtrade’s trader standards are designed with the intention that farmers get fair remuneration for their crops and can afford to improve their methods.
But climate change is in another class. Greenhouse gas emissions disproportionately come from industrial activities in the Global North – not subsistence farmers in Central America.
This crisis demands partnerships and the sharing of responsibility between different supply chain actors, governments and consumers. And it must be done with input from under-represented members of farming communities.
Fairtrade is increasingly leveraging its network to spearhead these types of partnerships.
Environmental rights as human rights
Fairtrade is aligned with the increasing number of human rights observers, courts and international bodies that see environmental rights as one facet of human rights.
Human beings have a right to a healthy, safe and stable environment. Such an environment is important in itself – and also essential for people to enjoy other rights. For instance, environmental degradation and climate instability can directly impact people’s access to water, food and health. Indirectly, such hardships can lead to reduced incomes and harm children’s rights such as the right to education.
Back to Central America. For more than a century, aromatic Arabica coffee bushes have thrived in the region’s shady, temperate highlands no more than 23.5 degrees from the Equator. It’s a huge economic driver for El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras, making up as much as 40 percent of agricultural exports for some countries.
Still, every decade or so starting in the 1970s, the fungus known as La Roya, or Coffee Rust, would surface. Farmers mostly managed it by spraying plants with extra fungicide. Fairtrade has also worked with farmers to adopt practices like shade management, pruning and other disease management methods.
But 2012 was the start – or at least the realization – of a coffee rust breakout that could not be contained by conventional methods. Weather patterns had shifted. Extreme, unpredictable heat and rain had become the norm, not the exception.
Telltale yellow and brown spots multiplied on the tops of withered leaves. The bottom sides of the leaves were covered with a fine orange dust.
By the Numbers: Fairtrade Coffee in Central America (2019)
Around one quarter of the coffee produced by Fairtrade certified farms was sold on Fairtrade terms in 2019
Farmers pruned their plants, they sprayed them, then removed and destroyed them. But the disease continued to surface and spread throughout Central America and south to Peru. It also crept up, to higher and higher altitudes.
In large swaths of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, up to 70 percent of the coffee plants were affected, according to the Sustainable Coffee Challenge.
This was a devastating blow for the smallholder farmers and communities whose livelihoods – and by extension their health and well-being – depend on the fruit. More than 300,000 smallholder farming households and their workers were affected.
The rust caused more than $3 billion in damage over five years. An estimated 2 million rural Central Americans left their farms in that time. Many were youth seeking a more secure future.
Climate change is intrinsically linked to public health, food and water security, migration, peace, and security. It is an issue of social justice, human rights and fundamental ethics.
— United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
Planting seeds of resilience
Climate change had clearly become a human rights challenge, requiring
all of Fairtrade’s tools. The network launched an integrated effort to
support farmers who wanted to rebuild their farms.
It was built around introducing two million new rust-resistant coffee
seedlings. But simply giving away a bunch of plants doesn’t alter power
dynamics between farming communities and buyers.
Fairtrade sought input from rights holders, experts, and trade
partners to better understand what farmers and their organisations
needed and how to provide it.
“We found that a high number of small farmers struggled because of lack of planning,” says Javier Aliaga,
CLAC’s Climate Change Program Coordinator. “Our members needed tools
and resources to withstand disasters, so we started offering tools and
trainings, a bit similar to how business incubators nurture new
The resulting four-year programme focused on building the
organisational and community capabilities to help farmer organisations
share and train on best practices, develop strategic plans, build
project management skills and increase the participation of youth, women
and other under-represented community members.
The programme was implemented by smallholder farmers’ organisations
in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, supported by the Latin American
and Caribbean Network of Small Fairtrade Producers (CLAC), Fairtrade
International, Fairtrade Finland and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of
In the end, the programme directly benefited close to 18,000 people in 45 smallholder organisations:
• Numerous coffee nurseries and demonstration plots were established to revitalize affected farms, many run by women
• Women and youth launched three organic fertilizer centres
• Fruit trees were planted to provide both shade and sustenance for farmers’ families
• Farmers invested in income diversification like honey production and animal husbandry
• All farmer organisations developed strategic plans
• The vast majority of smallholder farmer organisations developed best-practice manuals, training materials and quality-control systems in operation
• Exchange visits allowed farmers and their organisations to share best practices
• Coffee production more than doubled, and more of it was exported
• Policy advocacy with Central American governments improved
“This project has reached the heart of many producers,” said Isela Vásquez, from the COAQUIL cooperative in Honduras. “We focus more on young people and women so that they can have a stake in the organisation.”
Wonderful progress – but what about all the talk of “shared responsibility”? Climate crises continue, with 2020 one of the hottest years on record and two major hurricanes hitting Central America.
Are governments and supply chain actors in consumer countries doing their fair share? Are they changing the purchasing practices and public policies that shape the dysfunctional supply chains that harm people and planet?
To address this fundamental issue, Fairtrade’s advocacy efforts towards governments and companies have continued to grow since the coffee rust programme. In policy advocacy, Fairtrade pushes for mandatory HREDD, stronger curbs on unfair trading practices, sustainable public procurement practices and smallholder-inclusive climate change adaptation support.
In Central America, CLAC supports farmer organisations’ efforts in proposing solutions to local and national governments on issues related to agriculture and climate change. CLAC offers advocacy and leadership training and, in particular, encourages young leaders to speak up.
Globally, Fairtrade is engaging with coffee companies to encourage concrete commitments and partnerships on living incomes. This has led, for instance, to the Coffee Rust programme being extended with funding from German retailer ALDI SÜD, focusing on badly affected smallholder farms in Honduras.
In the consumer markets, awareness raising campaigns highlight the plight of smallholder farmers and workers, encouraging people to call for responsible business conduct and regulation.
While La Roya has receded for now, it was a major wake-up call. It invited producer organisations and Fairtrade to build farmers’ resilience to pests, diseases and climate change.
“We feel the importance of reconciling ourselves with nature,” explains Juan Pablo Solis, Fairtrade International’s Senior Advisor on Climate and Environment. “To thrive, we must consciously search for a balance between economic, social and environmental aspects of life.”