What is Empowerment? Our Principal’s Visit to Fair Trade USA in Colombia
by Ana Zacapa
We often hear the term empowerment, but wonder what it really actually means. When I recently visited Skoll Awardee Fair Trade USA  in northern Colombia, I saw it firsthand.
Landless workers, who used to be the poorest of the poor, with little expectation for improvement, now professional, opinionated, strategic partners of a large farm in the Urabá region. It’s all thanks to their hard work and the connection that Fair Trade makes to markets and consumers willing to pay just a bit more. Called Bananeras de Urabá , it’s a 660 hectare farm employing 580 farmers.
It was reassuring to hear the farm owner, a Colombian woman now in her 60′s, say that certifying her farm was a business decision that resulted in positive returns: economic gains, increased productivity, worker retention, product differentiation and brand. Most importantly, this experience with Fair Trade is making it clear for her how critical it is to have a long-term perspective of sustainability for her business.
Bananeras de Urabá’s workers don’t own land, and don’t belong to cooperatives. But they have benefitted from the production of Fair Trade-certified bananas for more than five years. Conditions in traditional banana farms that I have seen in places like Honduras are harsh: labor intensive work in humidity above 90 degrees, unsafe practices for harvesting and separating the bananas, low wages, and more.
There is nothing you can do about the weather, but everything else was different here – safe working conditions, nice uniforms, beautiful eating areas and restrooms and airy packaging facilities with salsa music playing. While all of this is great, what captured for me the impact of Fair Trade and the concept of empowerment was the hour-and-a-half long conversation that we had with the farm’s Fair Trade Committee, composed of eight members: six worker representatives and two management members (representing the owners of the farm). The discussion was incredible – farm workers strongly stating their points of view, at times different than management’s, and sharing how they manage the Fair Trade social premium for housing, education and community infrastructure projects. It was powerful to see how these social programs are run like companies by a farmer member representative, with criteria, democratic decision-making processes, opportunity cost analysis, budgeting and planning.
Now that I am back in my Skoll Foundation office in Palo Alto, I think fondly on my wonderful journey to Colombia and know that my experience speaks to the potential of expanding Fair Trade to more and more farmers across the world.
Learn more about Skoll Foundation principal Ana Lucia Zacapa at http://www.skollfoundation.org/staff/ana-lucia-zacapa/  and more about the farm at http://www.fairtradeusa.org/producer-profiles/bananeras-de-urab-mi-tierra-madrigal-tagua-cantares