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RIP Father Frans von Hoff – the co-founder of the Fairtrade Movement

March 11, 2024

     By Duncan Green     

Guest post from Kelly Hawrylyshyn, Head of Global Resource Mobilization at Fairtrade International; and Harriet Lamb (CEO WRAP, former CEO of Fairtrade International & Fairtrade Foundation UK)

On February 13th, the Fair Trade movement mourned the passing away of the liberation-theology worker-priest,  Father Frans von der Hoff,  the co-founder of a global movement that now generates over €8 billion in global annual sales of goods  from smallholder farmers and workers  certified as environmentally, socially and economically sustainable.

Father “Francisco” first went through his “school of life” with smallholder Mexican coffee producers, who told him that they weren’t interested in charity, but  wanted a better price for their coffee beans, so they could make a decent living and fend for themselves and their families.  Taking on the campesinos’ cause, and bringing it back to his European roots, Father Frans’ call for social justice to tackle unfair terms of trade was the seed from which the Fairtrade movement grew, with its mission of farmers’ empowerment.

The Fairtrade mission:
To connect disadvantaged producers and consumers, promote fairer trading conditions and empower producers to combat poverty, strengthen their position and take more control over their lives.

The Dutch missionary – who died  aged 84 – was born into a disciplined farming family, the seventh of seventeen siblings. As a student at Radboud University Nijmegen, he became politically active, completing two PhDs in political economy and in theology in Germany. Following the Zeitgeist of good vs evil/ faith and development covered extensively by Duncan in this blog, in 1970, Father Frans moved  to work in the barrios of Santiago, Chile as a community priest. With the  coup d’état against Salvador Allende in 1973, he escaped  to continue his community  work in Mexico City’s slums.

From there he moved to Oaxaca, where he stayed for the rest of his life, getting  involved with  the Indigenous coffee cooperative Union de Comunidades Indigenas de la Region del Istmo (UCIRI). This  was set up by local smallholder coffee farmers, fed up of being taken advantage of, with the aim of bypassing the coyotes (a.k.a. local traders) to secure better prices for their coffee beans. For Father Frans UCIRI exemplified a broader injustice  – the imbalance of power in global trade affecting millions of rural communities across the global south. A handful of multinational companies control the trade in most commodities and they, along with the middlemen, kept the profits, while the indigenous people receive  little for  tending the land and harvesting their crops.

(Watch this great video summarizing the trajectory of the UCIRI cooperative’s fight for fairer terms of trade for their coffee beans.)

The Birth of the Fairtrade Label: The story sounds like something out of a John le Carre novel. In 1985, von der Hoff, on a  trip back home to the Netherlands, met Nico Roozen at Utrecht train station through a mutual friend. Roozen, then responsible for business development at the ecumenical development agency Solidaridad, got  interested in von der Hoff’s work. They explored  multiple ways to win a fair price for the farmers and engage the Dutch public, including persuading the biggest Dutch coffee company to buy a percentage of their coffee on fair terms and setting up their own coffee brand. But finally they hit on the idea of a kitemark open to all companies meeting the standards. Fast forward to  15th  November 1988, when these two Dutch agents of change started the first Fairtrade labelling initiative, called Max Havelaar after a popular novel about the exploitation of coffee producers in Indonesia during the Dutch colonial times.

If you can read Dutch you can still buy this 1860 book or watch the film version here.

The Max Havelaar initiative offered disadvantaged coffee producers who  met  social and environmental standards in their production and governance process a fair price—significantly above the market price, and an additional premium fund.. The first Max Havelaar labelled coffee,  from  UCIRI, was imported by Dutch company Van Weely, roasted by Neuteboom, and then sold directly to world shops (alternative trade shops like the OXFAM shops in the UK) and eventually to mainstream retailers across the Netherlands.

The initiative  was  replicated in several countries  across Europe, leading in 1997 to the creation of  one umbrella organisation,  Fairtrade International  –  bringing together 25 Fairtrade organisations in Europe, North America and Asia/Oceania, together with the three continental producer networks covering Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa and the Middle East and Asia and the Pacific. They agreed – through an (in)tense process of securing common ground among multi-stakeholders with different vested interests– to a common governance framework, later  granting 50% of  General Assembly voting rights to producers in 2012. Now, Fairtrade certified products are sold in over 130 countries, produced by 1,930 certified producer organisations (with over 2 million farmers and workers – 25% women),  generating over €200 million in Fairtrade Premium Funds annually.

 Father Frans was ahead of his time, believing and fighting for initiatives that are:

  • bottom up
  • localized
  • decolonized
  • people centred
  • built on collective action
  • challenging of the status quo
  • strengthening local organisations
  • rights based
  • inclusive
  • fostering a direct democratic relation between producers and consumers
  • promoting a holistic approach to sustainability – encompassing social, political and economic change.

He authored a dozen books including “Manifesto of the Poor, Solutions Come from Below“, “Excluded Today, Protagonists Tomorrow”; and “The Fair Trade Adventure: An Alternative to Globalization”  with Nico Roozen.

A tall, grandfatherly figure, intense but with a wicked sense of humour, he continued to inspire the Fairtrade leaders across the world and to participate in the always fraught debates about  the movement’s future. Feted all across the world, including receiving France’s top Legion d’Honneur, he  kept his focus: “In the academy of the fields and with the coffee growers as teachers, I have learned a lot, more than in the different universities where I happened to have studied and taught.”

He  saw Fairtrade as a long, hard journey and  warned about the perils of success: “We must be wary about moving on to the main road. It may seem straight and fast – but we need to watch it does not take us away from our real destination. I will continue to talk the windy, mountain road.”

Which he did.  Towards the end of his life, he was still asking “How is it still possible, after 500 years, that people are still struggling, still fighting, still trying to survive, for their daily meal? There is a cumulation of forces much larger than language, customs, etc; it is all a spirit of resistance”. Listen to his reflections  here.

As they say in Latin America, “la lucha”-  for fairer trade for smallholder farmers – continua...

For more on the history of Fairtrade, read:

Fighting the Banana Wars and other Fairtrade Battles, how we took on the corporate giants to change the world, by Harriet Lamb, Rider.

March 11, 2024
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Duncan Green
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