By Marcela Valente
BUENOS AIRES, Feb 3 (IPS) - With a steady growth in production and exports, fair trade in Argentina is proving that socially and environmentally sustainable practices can be much more than a refuge from external crises.
'One of the advantages of fair trade is the stability of the demand, which has remained steady despite the crisis' in developed countries, Javier González, manager of the Norte Grande Agriculture and Apiculture Cooperative, told IPS.
This cooperative is located in the northern province of Tucumán and has some 130 members, with an annual production of 60 to 100 tonnes of honey, 90 percent of which is exported to the European Union or the United States through fair trade channels.
Norte Grande has been certified since 2007, but as its volume of production is still too low it cannot export directly and must do so through larger companies, which are also part of the fair trade chain.
'This year our honey production will be somewhat poorer due to several local problems, but in 2011 it grew by almost 70 percent in volume as compared to 2010, and prices also improved,' González said.
The producer explained that fair trade offers 'multiple advantages' for his sector.
Argentina is one of the world's leading honey producers and exporters, along with large countries such as China and the United States.
'Apiculture is generally a very competitive sector, and complicated, with a lot of informal (labour), and small producers usually don't stand a chance, which is why fair trade conditions benefit us,' González said.
Fair trade is an alternative and sustainable form of commerce, in which small farmers, artisans or manufacturers, associated in cooperatives or socially-responsible companies, produce their goods under certain certified conditions.
To be certified they must meet a number of standards, such as adequate compensation for their workers or members, decent working conditions, and sustainable water use and eco-friendly pest control, among other environmental requirements.
Certification is granted by the organisation Fair Trade International, following a number of audits. This opens the door to a specific market of consumers committed to the fair trade philosophy.
Fair trade 'originated in developed countries as a form of cooperation', agricultural engineer Mariano Salerno told IPS.
Salerno, who works for Fundación Fortalecer (Strengthen Foundation), a body that provides training and financial aid to fair trade producers, also said that 'Instead of granting subsidies, socially- aware consumers in developed countries, with high purchasing power, recognise the value of this certification and join the circuit, thus ensuring demand.'
According to Salerno, this demand is very stable because it is based on close and lasting ties. 'Recent reports show that fair trade is growing at a slower rate than in previous years, but that it's growing and it's standing firm because it has a specific market niche,' he said.
Salerno said that in order to qualify for certification producers' cooperatives or associations must be managed through a participatory and democratic decision-making process, and they must also comply with environmental requirements.
'Agrochemical use must be kept at a minimum and proper waste treatment must be in place. Those are just two of the aspects that are audited,' Salerno said.
But the efforts pay off. 'In the fair trade circuit, production is more profitable,' he said.
Since 2010, the foundation is implementing a programme financed by the Inter-American Development Bank and the Multilateral Investment Fund, and with its support the sector is experiencing a great boom in Argentina.
There are currently 19 producers' organisation certified as fair trade exporters, and another four have applied for certification. Some 583 rural producers and workers have benefited from this programme to date.
According to a Fundación Fortalecer report released Jan. 31, Argentina is already exporting tea, grapes, honey, and blueberries through fair trade channels. Apple, orange, tangerine, and pear producers are awaiting certification and expect to be exporting this year.
Fundación Fortalecer projects a 40-percent expansion for the sector in 2012 as a result of this increase in the range of free trade certified goods for export. Simultaneously, a number of free trade products are gaining more and more consumers in the domestic market.
These are goods that do not meet the requirements for export but comply with environmental and social sustainability standards. For these products, Fundación Fortalecer created a special certification for the domestic market.
This certification offers advantages for small producers of jams, preserves, wine, olive oil, and honey, who are organised in cooperatives, can access training, and boost domestic market growth.
One of the advantages of fair trade, González said, is the differential price obtained through a 'social premium'. It is a sum equivalent to five to 15 percent of the product's value, which is paid to producers to be reinvested in production.
González also cited the financial benefits, the fair and equal treatment throughout the market chain, the stability in demand, and the participatory and democratic methodology that must be applied in cooperatives in order to obtain certification.