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.
On the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, lush greenery and exotic blooms are hardly an uncommon sight, but this tree is very different.
The large, leafless tree would have looked as dead and desolate as an oak tree in the midst of a frigid Midwest winter if it weren’t for hot pink flowers that sprang sporadically along the bare branches. What at first glance seemed to be dead was actually producing unspeakably beautiful life.
The same could be said for the home of the Mercedes Del Rosario Sosa—it is a bright spot in an economically barren land.
Although the Dominican is known as 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 poverty oppresses. And in the abandoned “sugar towns” known as bateys, undocumented Haitian immigrants have been left behind to scavenge and survive in isolation and indifference.
But as Mercedes pulls out some white plastic lawn chairs for us to sit in, she 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.”
One has to wonder if she realizes these professional titles will likely lead her children off the plantation and into the cities where unemployment is rampant even among the well educated. But in this moment, the future looks promising to Mercedes, and she is fiercely proud of the plantation, which has been in the family three generations, but has never before provided for the family.
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.
The National Confederation of Dominican Cocoa Producers (Conacado) helps about 10,000 of the country’s 40,000 small-scale cocoa producers earn a liveable wage through fair trade certification. Not only does fair trade ensure economic and environmental sustainability, but it also prevents the use of child labor in the cocoa industry.
Child slavery on cocoa plantations is a problem worldwide. Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana provide more than 60 percent of the world’s cocoa, and according to a recent UNICEF report, there are nearly 300,000 children working in Ivorian cocoa farms, many of whom are unpaid, receive no schooling, engage in hazardous work and are not free to leave.
“Child labor is a huge issue in Ghana, says Amos Safo, program communications manager, with Compassion International’s Ghana field office. “Currently, Compassion Ghana provides advocacy training to parents and church leaders in order to create awareness about child protection,” he says.
Conacado stands against unfair labor practices including child labor and returns profits to its members, and at the end of the harvest season, growers receive more than 90 percent of the global market price. The cooperative also makes significant community investments. “We ask for a minimum of $1,600 a metric ton from our buyers, and about 10 percent of that goes back into the community,” says Hector Romero, a tour coordinator with Conacado. “In this community, for example, we have built a school, a medical center, a water utility, streets and sports facilities.”
The success of the cooperative hinges on the acceptance of fair trade, and many contend that followers of Christ need to be at the forefront of this movement. “In Isaiah 65, there is a passage that says, ‘Behold I am making new heavens and a new earth.’ This talks about how it is important that people enjoy the fruits of their labors. People should have a share in what they harvest, not merely to labor for the benefit of others,” says Jeff Williams national secretary in Wales for Christian Aid, which was has long been one of the Christian organizations at the forefront of the fair trade movement.
Western consumers have the ability to drive up demand for fairly traded goods, but Williams concedes there will always be consumers who are not prepared to pay a small premium and who feel loyalty to other brands. Others, however, are becoming increasingly faithful to a fair trade label.
“If I can help only one farmer through my purchases I would rather do that than oppress hundreds,” says Maureen Colledge, a suburban wife, mother and registered nurse who is a devoted supporter of fair trade certified products. “I believe we are called to care about the well-being of all of those around us, that doesn’t stop at the North American border. Love is explained in first John 3:17 as an action, we need to take physical steps to love those who are being oppressed and that includes the farmers and laborers in the developing world who are being crushed.”
Just as growers in underdeveloped countries are coming together to demand fair trade, so are developed communities. Fair Trade USA reports there are now almost 1,000 Fair Trade Towns throughout the world including London, Rome, Barcelona, Boston and Chicago.
Although the Sosa family is finally enjoying the fruits of their labors, only time will tell if any of the children remember or return to the plantation that sustained them, because the truth is the future in an underdeveloped country is always at least a little precarious and usually very volatile. The futures of each member of the Sosa family remain as potentially beautiful—and vulnerable—as each bloom on the lonely shaving brush tree.