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Dissertation Defense for Rebecca Meuninck

April 20, 2017 @ 12:00 pm - 2:00 pm


Date:               Thursday, April 20, 2017

Time:              12:00-2:00 p.m.

Location:        Room 454 Baker Hall

Student:          Rebecca Meuninck

Abstract: This dissertation uses a feminist political ecology approach to explore the “fairness” of Fair Trade certification. I do this by examining the gendered social, economic, and environmental impacts of Fair Trade at COOPFAM, a Fair Trade and organic certified coffee cooperative in Minas Gerais, Brazil. Fair Trade is a third-party certification system that attempts to address social and economic inequalities facing small-scale coffee farmers, through floor prices and social development premiums. In return, it requires equitable labor practices, adherence to environmental standards, and freedom of association and democratic decisionmaking within cooperatives. Fair Trade has grown over the past two decades, due to the liberalization of global coffee markets, and an evolution of consumers’ desires which favor more socially and environmentally just coffees. In light of this growth, it is critical to ask, how “fair” is Fair Trade, is it equally fair for all farmers, and how do farmers perceive “fairness”? I use multi-sited ethnographic techniques to explore the “fairness” of Fair Trade; I followed the “thing” (coffee), and “the discourse” (the negotiation of fairness) along COOPFAM’s international supply chain (Marcus 1995). I conducted interviews with and participant observation among Brazilian Fair Trade farmers and cooperative administrators, as well as foreign coffee buyers, Fair Trade activists, and certifiers. I then analyze the power dynamics in the Fair Trade system at the local level in homes, at the meso level at the cooperative, and at the macro level with their international partners. I argue that Fair Trade is advantageous for COOPFAM and her farmers, because of the assets they leveraged to overcome the common barriers that have stymied other cooperatives and farmers from obtaining Fair Trade and organic certification. Through Fair Trade, COOPFAM farmers enjoy access to international markets and networks of actors in the supply chain that connect the cooperative with social and economic programs. Moreover, Fair Trade provides an economic safety net for the farmers and cooperative to experiment with novel production practices, technologies, and emerging certification systems. However, through an examination of COOPFAM’s experimentation with new certification systems, the challenges of applying global standards to coffee production surface. Standards, first created to meet the needs of farmers in one locale and the desires of consumers in foreign lands, do not always translate well to other cultures and modes of production. Farmers and cooperatives negotiate these standards with buyers and certifiers, but they are on unequal footing. By examining Fair Trade through a gendered lens, we can see that the system is fairer for some farmers than it is for others. Some farmers, particularly poorer farmers, those who live far away from the cooperative, unmarried women, and widows are not as well served by the cooperative or struggle to produce enough high-quality coffee to support their families. My exploration of farmers’ livelihood strategies shows that Fair Trade coffee production alone is not sufficient to sustain farming families. Rather, COOPFAM’s success and the sustainability of Fair Trade as a production system are reliant on farming families’ diversity of livelihood strategies and continual innovation to improve coffee quality.


April 20, 2017
12:00 pm - 2:00 pm


454 Baker Hall

United States