Interviewee: Nela Perle
Interviewer: Martin Mowforth
Location: San José, Costa Rica
Date: 28th September 2010
Theme: Labour conditions and free trade banana cultivation in Costa Rica; organic food production in Costa Rica
Martin began by explaining the origins of the wish to interview Nela – namely, the talk given to ENCA’s last meeting in June this year, by Didier Leitón Valverde in which he told us that there was little or no difference between fair trade pineapples or bananas and non-fair trade pineapples or bananas. Nela had previously explained that the issue was a complex one. So this interview was an aim to try to understand some of that complexity.
Martin begins by asking Nela to expand on this issue, which she did on the second of the three voice files.
Nela Perle (NP): First of all I ask about the recording. The trades unions have a view; the producers have a view; the consumers have a view. I am in the situation that I can see this and this.
Martin Mowforth (MM): Well, I assure you that I will recognise that and acknowledge that and I will not align you with any particular group.
NP: And the other thing is that I’m not the person who can talk to you about the production of fair trade and to compare the production situation directly; I cannot tell you so many details of that – how they are produced. I can just tell you about my view of the fair trade organisation. I know about the struggle between the two unions and the fair trade organisation and I know about critics [1:30] that produce this view in Central America have against fair trade. So this is what I can share with you – my knowledge about that. I don’t have the detailed knowledge. Fair trade produced pineapple is better.
MM: Ok. Given all that, I fully understand that and I won’t misrepresent you. Also, if I use your words in any depth, if I use a lot of them, I will check with you that it’s OK.
NP: For me it’s important because [2:13] anything I say will be treated as something against fair trade or against the trade unions, because it’s so complex the topic. So it’s just the thinking of one person.
MM: OK. The conditions are noted.
NP: The thing is I know about the critics over here and the trade union people – they are quite critical against fair trade production, meaning that from the point of view of the trade unions there is a problem in the sense of, for example, the Agroparena who produce the pineapples, the fair trade pineapples in Costa Rica. These are small producers and they don’t have trade unions of course. There is a different kind of organisation on these farms and they don’t have trade unions. So that’s not the point, but they have to produce so many pineapples for the market in Europe that they don’t have enough pineapples produced on their own farms, so they buy at other farms, conventional farms; and when they buy from conventional farms, there is no trade union. So when they sell part of the pineapples from the fair trade production in Costa Rica [4:03] doesn’t come from these small producers, but comes from conventional pineapple farms that are even worse than the normal conventional farms because the normal conventional pineapple farms at least have trade unions. So this is one of the criticisms that Didier I’m sure he mentioned it.
MM: Yes, he talked about solidarismo.
NP: Yes. That’s the big problem – the solidarismo movement. The solidarismo movement is near to the cooperativas. It’s this kind of organisation, a completely different concept. And I think the concept of cooperativism and solidarismo is not bad. Cooperativism isn’t bad at all, but solidarismo which is linked to cooperativism is not bad per se. The problem is that it was used in Costa Rica to reduce the power of the trade unions and to delegitimise the trade unions. So this is a big problem, and for example, I’m completely suspicious of the solidarismo, but I think that the solidarismo comes from a concept of cooperativism [5:43] , and cooperativism is not bad, but given the way it was used it’s understandable that there is a really big gap …???… and I completely on the side of the trade unions. So this is one point.
The other point is the one I already told you in the exhibition is that – and I think this is really a Costa Rican problem because I can only tell this about Costa Rica – I cannot tell that about other countries. But the way that fair trade is dealt with in Costa Rica, the way they manage it, the way they promote it, the way they interact with the different stakeholders in Costa Rica is really – para mi, es …???… – it’s not OK, it’s a big deficit. [6:45] And this is very personal because it depends on the persons who are in charge here, but I’ve been in two situations personally directly where I could really see how they work and I … – well, if all fair trading works like that, I must say “well, thankyou”. But I don’t believe that. I think it’s really just a problem with Costa Rica. And so that you understand what I am talking about is, for example, there was a fair trade delegation from Austria which was meant to come to Costa Rica, two weeks at the different fair trade productions in Costa Rica. And before this trip to Costa Rica, there was another organisation, Global 2000, an Austrian organisation, an environmental organisation – they were also working on the … issue for Rewe, a supermarket in Austria, and they came to check out the traditional pineapple market in Costa Rica for this environmental organisation.
MM: What was the name of the supermarket?
NP: Rewe. It’s a huge supermarket, also in Germany. And it was [8:07] a little bit like you said with Sainsburys. They buy a lot of pineapples in Costa Rica and they wanted to make sure that the pineapples are produced under fair conditions. So they asked Global 2000, this environmental organisation in Austria, to check the farms. So this organisation contacted us, ASEPROLA, to help them. And this would be another story I would like to tell you about the production and how it works, but it’s another story. So we were already in contact with them, and they, Global 2000 together with Fair Trade Austria, organised this trip to Costa Rica for a delegation of 15 Austrians and Germans. So Fair Trade Austria of course contacted Fair Trade Costa Rica to organise it and at the same time Global 2000 got in contact with me to cooperate also. [9:14]
So Fair Trade Costa Rica, knowing that ASEPROLA is close to the trade unions, they ignored it, they just ignored it, they never took part, because the thing Global 2000 in Austria and Fair Trade Austria us to work together. So Fair Trade Costa Rica didn’t. We thought it was OK. It was easier if they would, but it was fine. But then at the end after the process, after three months, Global 2000 again said to us “Yes, Fair Trade Costa Rica did everything, so thank you very much, but it’s OK. But we would still like you to organise the programme of one day because we want to contrast the fair trade production with the conventional production. [10:04] And then it came out that of course we would do that with the trade unions because if you want to talk about the conditions of pineapple production, you need to talk to the communities, the trade unions, the municipalities. And it was at this point that Fair Trade Costa Rica – and I’m still angry when I think about it – they were so silly and politically incorrect, I don’t know. But they refused to integrate the trade union, not even on this day, because they were so worried about meeting the journalists with the trade unionists. And I think I can understand that it would be a problem if the trade unions would say some bad things about fair trade and then they go back to Austria – I mean the problem I can see, but the way you have to keep it …, I think, is that people from Fair Trade Costa Rica should in the process meet the trade unions, should sit around the table – OK, there were problems in the past, we know that, we are working on that, we are improving on that, you are also committed to that; now here in two weeks or in two months here is the delegation coming, journalists from Austria. Let’s sit together, I ask you please don’t criticise fair trade in front of them because [11:55] they can, you know, they would have done everything the trade unions, but the Fair Trade here just excluded them and in a very ugly way. So of course we had the mechanism – the trade union is even more angry with Fair Trade. It is not the way to solve the problem. And it was a similar situation last year. It was the Forum of CENADE [???] about climate change, which was organised by Fair Trade and which was organised by UICN, Pacto Por la Vida, CONGES – we were involved in it, and they were here. In our inauguration party, everybody small-talking, the Director of Fair Trade, she comes, completely angry and starts to talk around to the people who didn’t know that it was so open and that there other stakeholders participating in this Forum. They wanted that only the fair trade producers and they themselves. There were a lot of international fair trade representatives and again they didn’t want it to have external stakeholders being together with international representatives. And so this is for me, and so either they were not transparent [13:31] and they want to hide something – I cannot say what. But if I do work well and it is transparent, I have no problem, even I am happy that there are other stakeholders around me, CONGES, UICN, Pacto Por la Vida, to share and promote. So you see, I think there is a Costa Rican problem, and I know then after that, after seeing this operation, this escandolo – because it was kind of a scandal because she was really like [funny noise]. She was looking at everybody’s name label and asking what are you doing?
But the other day I was in one of the workshops, and then I could see what was the problem, because there was obviously quite a tension between the administration of Fair Trade Costa Rica and the producers. I don’t know about the details of this, but it’s about costs and certification and the way they do the certification. So they just do this internal fair trade. They do no more, but it was visible for all the external visitors that there was a fight going on between the producers and the administration. So this is very important for Costa Rica. But I want to think that it’s just Costa Rica. I cannot say that in other countries it’s the same.
So, my personal opinion is – and this is something I’ve heard from other people – I think the fair trade idea is good, but fair trade nowadays is too big and the idea cannot be realised at this level of extension [15:35], so that’s the main … because fair trade is as good as the people working there, and now there are so many people – everyone agrees – not everybody – many of the people that I talk to – agree that the head office in Germany, probably they are real hardcore fair trade people and they are to be trusted and they want to change the world for the better. But what then happens in the regional offices and the regional administrations, so there is obviously a big problem … And it’s obvious that the system is too big to be controlled [16:28] in that everybody realises …???… of fair trade. So this is, I think, the main problem of fair trade. So this is one view I have.
The other view I have, and this is just my very personal experience also with my work, I’m here in Costa Rica with EED. EED is the development agency of the Lutheran Church in Germany. So they pay me and this programme that they pay – they pay experts, they call them experts, they pay professional people to support organisations.
MM: And the organisation you’re supporting here is CONGES?
NP: At first, it was ASEPROLA, which was the region we came to Costa Rica; and now after 4 years my contract ended, and now I’m supporting CONGES. And so EED is an organisation which also supports GEPA. GEPA in Germany is the fair trade movement. EED also supports for example here in Costa Rica CEDECO. CEDECO is one of the organisations that promotes organic cultivation. So there is, let’s say, there is no criticism for this background to the fair trade. [18:35] At the same time, Pan Por el Mundo (Bread for the World), they are supporting the Lutheran Church also the EED, the Lutheran Church Development Agency and they are managing more the money from the state to put it into the projects, and Pan Por el Mundo is part of the Lutheran Church from the bases – the money they also give to the projects. It’s more a solidarity movement. And so Pan Por el Mundo is supporting in eleven countries in Latin America – they are supporting a new approach which is the campesino-a-campesino approach which is more the production for the local market that is sustainable. And if you talk to them, and lately I talked to them, you can obviously see fair trade, as good as fair trade can be, is bad! If you have this other approach, that it is increasing, which is a very important approach at times of economic crisis, in terms of the environmental crisis, you can really see that the fair trade production – although it’s fair in the salaries and in the treatment of persons, but fair trade is always for export to Europe [20:28] and to the States. Fair trade always depends on international markets, on international trade. And so this other initiative which has grown and is increasing, and you can see it in Costa Rica, is more and more criticising fair trade. Of course they’re criticising the conventional products, but it’s criticising fair trade more because fair trade pretends to improve something which in reality doesn’t improve with fair trade. I mean the other they don’t even pretend to improve – the other one’s just business, but fair trade pretends to do something better. [21:19] And so that makes you think OK, I’ll buy the fair trade pineapple, coffee and banana, and so I do. But it’s really stupid, that they’re thinking of more and more sales. So fair trade is a problem because people shouldn’t consume pineapples in Austria and Germany. They should do it once a year, at Christmas, and then they should really pay a lot of money for it and then it should be fair trade. In reality, fair trade is not the solution to trade. It’s just a …???…
MM: Fair trade will still deal with conventional production for export as well because it’s for export, so it’s taking land away from people growing for themselves and for local and national markets.
NP: [22:40] For example, I have been now this weekend, by coincidence we joined a forestry engineer from COOProbalde. They are developing with producers in Costa Rica, but it’s a model which works also in Nicaragua and Bolivia and Ecuador, an agro-forestry model where you produce food but in the wood without cutting the trees. There are a 200 – 300 year old tradition, but they produce everything they would need and everything a whole village would need. But they produce it on this ages old not cutting the trees and not exploiting the soil. And if you have a good year you can produce even for 2,000 …???… And this kind of sustainable agriculture never gives for export.
MM: What’s the name of the organisation which is supporting this kind of …?
MM: Do they have a website?
NP: Probably, but it’s a very small organisation. But if you want to contact them …
MM: Yes. We aren’t going to contact them now because on Friday we both go off in different directions, but I can contact them from England.
NP: Because the forestry engineer, he’s my contact, also like me a cooperante from EED.[24:44] And he worked for many years in Bolivia, and in Bolivia they worked with indigenous people; and I think it’s a group of a couple of forestry engineers all over Latin America. I understand it’s 5 or 10 – it’s really a small group – they are developing it. And Vini, our colleague here, he’s doing it in Costa Rica with Cooprobalde. So you can find it also in Nicaragua. I think where they are perfecting the system, in the sense that they bring from all over Latin America indigenous people and campesinos from Bolivia.
MM: The campesino a campesino approach.
NP: Yes, but in Bolivia it’s also like a demonstration farm. So they bring groups there so people can see and discuss. So Bolivia is – they are the absolute [tops]. The other parts are also developing. And for Costa Rica [26:09] …
MM: Yes, I’ll look out for it, but if you have a specific contact that would be very useful. This kind of approach is being taken by a number of organisations in El Salvador as well. There’s an organisation called COMUS, the United Communities of Usulután, and they have been trying to develop a similar model for the communities that they work with, so that they don’t deforest. They’ve been promoting a lot of fruit trees and integrating coffee bushes with other crops – just trying to get them not to fell trees a lot less than they otherwise would, and to rear their animals and to grow their crops around them. There’s another organisation in El Salvador called IPES, which is the Permaculture Institute of El Salvador.
NP: I think this model goes even farther than the ones I’m talking about because it’s not their fault, because they grow their crops in the woods. So, for example on Saturday, we were doing it, we were putting in beans, rice, bamboo, milpa [27:47], so with this model the system is that you have a terreno and you grow the woods because they also do the madera, and you grow everything together. So the first months the crops grow because the bushes and the trees need more time, so in the meantime you have the crops, and then when the bushes are too big, then you have to move – you have to do it again in another area [28:15], but it’s the same thing. So this is the way you grow the trees, and you have all the things you need.
MM: One of the things which prompted me to tell you about that organisation IPES, is that they have a demonstration plot which they bring farmers to from the communities; and COMUS has not a demonstration plot, but it has a number of demonstration farmers so that other farmers are brought to them in order to spread the idea.
NP: Maybe just to close, it’s so difficult to talk about fair trade because of course if you ask me what do I think in Costa Rica, because you can buy fair trade here in Costa Rica. For example, I don’t buy fair trade coffee here. Obviously I buy coffee from the producers because it’s much better; but if I go to Austria I still buy the fair trade coffee. So it’s not the solution. It’s important that the consumers cannot be …???… with the fair trade, but it’s still better than nothing. It’s really a difficult issue for a person that needs to talk about it, because I don’t want to discredit [30:09] fair trade people because I know they want to do good things, but in the end, talking honestly, I think they don’t. But of course I don’t want to go around …; but also the trade unions are also …; in the end I also have to say, you are trade unions with conventional monocultures, and if we don’t eat the conventional monoculture crops I would take away the workers’ livelihoods. It’s a very difficult issue.
MM: Yes, it’s problematic, and problematic for the consumers in our countries as well [31:05], especially if you get this kind of insight into the problems. What do you do? I agree with you that pineapples and bananas are not our natural products, so if we have them, as you say, we should have them once a year as a special treat. We should be eating and growing our own fruit.
Then more thanks from Martin, plus promise to check with Nela if I use much of her words.
A final part of interview with Nela Perle – an extra – (on the third file).
NP: … to contact us for all the information we had, and so we worked together, and I think she also made it transparent to Rewe, the supermarket in Austria, that she was working with me because of the language, and so I was helping her with translation. And for Rewe it was completely OK. And the thing is, Rewe – I think it’s the biggest supermarket in Austria – and Rewe buys from a Spanish retailers, San Lucas. So Rewe wanted to make sure that the pineapples they buy from San Lucas are produced under acceptable conditions. So Rewe contracts Global 2000 to take her around. So this person starts with me to get the basic information, and she also gets in contact with San Lucas, the retailer, and together we build up a whole programme. She tells me exactly which fincas she’s going to visit. She will be coordinating a little bit in terms of questions. And Rewe was completely informed, and it was no problem for them. [1:33] And then it came near to do the visiting to the fincas, and then the heat started because it was obvious that I recommended them to her also. I said “I think it’s great that the supermarket wants that, so let’s do it.” Really good. So you go, but you need to have someone with you from the trade union; you need to have someone with you like a second pair of ears and a second pair of eyes because while you are talking to them, somebody else may … We really tried to do a good full picture. And she made the proposal to San Lucas and she said “there is coming this guy from wherever, this guy from wherever, this guy from wherever.” And San Lucas didn’t say a lot. And then when it came to the visit, 2 or 3 days before, they would prefer that nobody from the trade union visit. I don’t remember what was the explanation that they … So she wanted to have a good ambience still, but I don’t think it was a problem – it was just the three of us – it would have been me and another colleague from the university – he’s independent because we suspected that they wouldn’t want to come because they would know ASEPROLA. [3:04]
So this other guy, from New York City had no links. And then Rewe said this guy shouldn’t come because – the relationship they made up – they said he was a neo-Nazi. They said he had neo-Nazi connections. Can you imagine a neo-Nazi in Costa Rica? But ‘neo-Nazi’ of course goes through everybody’s alarm sounds. So probably they found a neo-Nazi in Austria. It was completely …???… So he was out.
Then we found another colleague from university, a philosopher. And then in the end they said the girl and the philosopher could come. And the morning of the visit, they said no, there is no space for a philosopher. And they mentioned . [ASEPROLA?] You see all the process – we really did good. And it was San Lucas, the retailer; it was not Rewe, it was San Lucas. But in the end, they [4:26], well this one was the trade union, the other one was the neo-Nazi, I was ASEPROLA, and then in the end for the philosopher there was no space. So this is how they manage, and of course it was classic – she could go to the workers only when the boss was around. She was shown only certain …
MM: That’s exactly how Didier explained the visits from Austria, from other countries in western Europe – they are stage-managed, so that the inspectors come over and get a very stilted and tainted view of what is happening without any kind of criticism.
NP: In this case it was so impressive to see how they managed in the process to – because of course at the very beginning they wouldn’t say we don’t want you to come with the delegation, we don’t want you to do it this way. They just managed to do it slowly, and in the end they came through with it, because in the end Rewe was not interested at all in the inspection. In the end they just bought it. In the end it was just er … They made a good intent, I guess. They wanted to have …???… The result was just …???…
MM: Thank you for that information, and that does support …
NP: For the Rainforest Alliance one of the criticisms is that when they started their standards for pineapples they also approached ASEPROLA. ASEPROLA refused. They [ASEPROLA] said OK, we’ll check it, but we don’t want to be mentioned with you. But in the end the standards were not so bad. There were some complaints. There was some discussion about meters – would the Rainforest Alliance have enough meters from the acuiferos, and some of the communities said no, it should be more. But in the end the main problem is that the standards may be good, but if they are not checked regularly when they go there, they do an inspection, and then nobody does any monitoring / follow-up. [7:10]