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This article is from Issue 53: Sept/Oct 2011

Is Fair Trade Fair?

A look at the movement's actual impact on farmers' lives.

As the truck bumps and groans to a stop in front of a modest, 200-square-foot, painted cement house at the edge of the dusty Dominican village, everyone’s eyes are immediately drawn away from the drab, white-ish dwelling to the brilliant blooms on the pink Shaving Brush tree in the foreground.

Lush greenery and exotic blooms are hardly an uncommon sight, but this tree is different. The large, leafless tree would have looked as dead as an oak tree in the midst of a Midwest winter if it weren’t for hot pink flowers blooming sporadically along the bare branches. What at first seemed to be dead was actually producing unspeakably beautiful life.

It’s an apt metaphor for the home of Mercedes Del Rosario Sosa—a bright spot in an economically barren land.

Sosa pulls out some white plastic lawn chairs for us to sit in and proudly gestures to the one-and-a-half-hectare (3.7 acre) cocoa plantation to the east of her home and tells us it sustains her, her husband, her mother, her five children and her two grandchildren. “For the first time, my children have opportunities and four of my children are going to college,” she says, as her 2-year-old granddaughter climbs into her lap, nearly tipping Grandma into the dirt in the process. “One is studying animal production, another accounting and another law.”

Though the Dominican Republic is often considered Haiti’s wealthier and more fortunate neighbor, it remains largely underdeveloped, and the Central Intelligence Agency reports that in 2010, about 42 percent of the residents in the Dominican lived below the poverty line. In rat-infested slums in Santo Domingo, raw sewage flows freely and people live in overt poverty. Additionally, in the abandoned “sugar towns,” known as “bateys,” undocumented Haitian immigrants have been left behind to scavenge and survive in isolation and indifference.

But in this moment, the future looks promising to Sosa and she is fiercely proud of the plantation, which has been in the family three generations but has never before provided for them. Sosa says her children and grandchildren have grown up beside the adults in the cocoa field, but obviously, with three kids in college, she believes education is not to be sacrificed. She credits the rise of the local fair trade cocoa cooperative for this. “We were never able to get a fair price for our cocoa until CONACADO came along,” she explains.

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