Not Fair Enough: Historic and Institutional Barriers to Fair Trade Coffee in El Salvador

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University of Texas Press


Why do relatively few Salvadoran farmers sell to Fair Trade certified markets? This article examines the proximate and root causes that limit the participation of coffee smallholders in Fair Trade markets. Drawing upon a historical analysis of rural coffee society in El Salvador as well as Fair Trade value chains and the empirical evidence from two case studies, one in El Salvador's Eastern mountains, and the second in the Western coffee growing region, this study illustrates the practical obstacles to participation in Fair Trade. It also shows how farmers are developing alternative marketing solutions such as direct trade and selling organic coffee domestically. The findings suggest that smallholders currently face at least five barriers to accessing Fair Trade, including: certification costs, economies of scale to cover coffee exports operations, stringent quality requirements and altitude constraints. However, the root causes of smallholder coffee farmers' limited access to Fair Trade are rooted in decades of state-based policies and politics that have undermined rural civil society, discouraged education, perpetuated uneven access to land and debt forgiveness, and repressed the development of dynamic cooperative unions with capacity to export smallholder coffee.