Manifesto of the Poor – Solutions Come from Below, By Fr. Francisco Van der Hoff Boersma, Co-founder of Fair Trade. Overview by Janet M Eaton, PhD

Introduction:

Father Francisco Van der Hoff Boersma or Father Frans, as he is familiarly known, is a Dutch worker priest, with PhDs in both economics and theology, who has written an impassioned, highly informed, insightful and compelling Manifesto of the Poor steeped in anti-capitalist social justice convictions and thirty years of knowledge and wisdom gained in the mountains of the Oaxaca region of Mexico working with indigenous farmers or campesinos to create a unique and successful model of ‘Fair Trade’

Although a manifesto can be personal or non political in nature  the most familiar manifestos are political, as for example the United States Declaration of Independence (1776);  The Declaration of the Rights of Man during the French Revolution (1789); The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederich Engels (1848); The Regina Manifesto (1933) by The  Co-operative Commonwealth Federation;).  Political manifestos are essentially official declarations created to make public a set of principles or values, objectives, perspectives and intentions of a political group, or social movement. As such they are intended for a larger audience as a means of increasing awareness, generating dialogue, and engaging the public in its cause. Manifestos are not simply descriptive but rather provide context and a way forward; sometimes they are said to create the future..

Father Frans lays out his case for fair trade and solutions from below within a framework of critical anti-capitalist analysis which shows why and how Capitalism and the present global Neoliberal system have left millions on the sidelines, especially the indigenous peoples of Latin America. He discusses the imperative of transformation to a better world, via bottom up approaches or solutions from below noting the vision, character, behaviour, and knowledge of the indigenous people that are essential in developing his fair trade alternative. While he recognizes that globalization has failed and calls for ‘deglobalization’ he would like to see the globalization of bottom up approaches around the world. At the same time he insists on the imperative of building social movements to achieve economic transformation.

Fr Frans grounds his Manifesto in the values of the poor campesinos with whom he lived and laboured, and whose way of life is inspired by ancestral wisdom, love of life, resistance, never falling into despair and always maintaining hope for a better future. They do not think of revolution or struggle, he says, but rather of evolution of their situation through solidarity which is seen as the social essence of humankind itself. It is from this fundamental ability to survive that the idea of the social solidarity economy came about some years ago.

Based on this idea of the social solidarity economy are the five postulates upon which his Fair Trade new economic paradigm is built:

  • the economy serves the people and not the reverse;
  • development is measured with people and not with objects;
  • growth and development are two distinct concepts, and development, precisely, does not necessarily lead to growth;
  • no economic process can take place outside of what ecosystems provide; and,
  • the economy is a subset of a larger, finite and closed system that is the biosphere. Consequently, infinite growth is an impossibility.

Critique of cataclysmic Capitalism .

According to Fr Frans, poverty does not fall from the sky but is the result of accumulation of wealth, without boundaries, in rich nations.  He says:

The system has created and segregated the poor and kept them in misery. At this time, we continue to produce poverty, leaving the numerous scapegoat victims at the side of the road.. They are indispensable for the existence and development [of Capitalism]..

While Globalist forces promise to eradicate poverty they fail to address the reality of the poor through charity and international aid which are like medicines that get applied after subjecting them to violence and exclusion. Fair trade on the other hand is an alternative to poverty and he notes that they declined all charity, especially that which comes from above, from the wealthy.  He also suggests that poverty can be addressed through the democratization of the redistribution of profits to ensure a more equal distribution between workers, employers and shareholders.

He concludes that Capitalism has lost all moral horizons, the fallout from which has been that humanity has abandoned all intelligence, all critical sense, and given priority to the religion of the unquestioned market:

The damages caused by this savage or unbridled capitalism are incalculable. It is a type of cancer.

While many advocates of economic change do so within the existing system of global Capitalism, i.e. a reformist approach, Father Frans adopts a more radical approach envisioning his version of fair trade as an alternative to global capitalism. He notes, for example that we must entrust ourselves to a different market because of the enormous failures of the global market, especially from the point of view of the excluded.

“Fair trade must keep its distance from the dominant system; otherwise it will become part of its confinement.” 

Beyond his denunciation of poverty, Father Frans develops his critique of global capitalism by i) exposing two of its dominant myths;  ii) by noting that  the power of political elites and corporations has resulted in a tragic  loss of democracy in the world; iii) by identifying the impacts on environment and climate change; and finally  iv) by reflecting upon the failure of political and economic elites to accept responsibility for the failures of global capitalism or Neoliberalism.

He also reminds us that Capitalism, far from being inherent in humankind, with less than a 200 year history, has its own contradictions that no doubt contain the seeds of its inevitable dissolution. Among those contradictions are what he, and many critics of Capitalism, have called dominant myths – especially the myth of the invisible hand, and the self –regulating market and the myth of unlimited economic growth. That the invisible hand will fix everything is, he suggests, an irrational idea especially since it depends more on a belief in divine providence than on science.  Fr Frans uses the example of free trade agreements in particular the North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA] to expose the flawed nature of the self-regulating market. By demanding the reduction under NAFTA of tariffs protecting Mexico’s corn, subsidized US corn imports were allowed to destroy Mexico’s dominant export market and the affordability of their dominant food source around which their local economy was built.

Another myth without any scientific foundation that he highlights is the myth of unlimited economic growth .

“The idea, commonly accepted and shared, that ‘economic’ development is a wonderful thing that is drawn from scientific progress and promises eternal growth is an absolute myth… the most harmful evil that has been unleashed on humanity, because in fact, the planet and its resources are finite. … Every day, more and more, the planet demonstrates its limits, explodes. It cannot take it anymore.”

Father Frans Manifesto also reminds us that two of the founding fathers of Noe-Liberalism, Thomas Hayek and Milton Friedman were fully  aware that they didn’t have proper scientific arguments to validate the Neoliberal system and indeed they apparently stated on various occasions that ‘we have to trust the system in order for it to work!’  For Fr Frans these seem like ample reason not to have any more faith in this system than any other

Globalization from below and how to accomplish it

To accomplish the shift to an alternate political and economic model Father Frans challenges us to rethink our rather simplistic, linear, dog- eat- dog competitive practices which deny our common humanity and destroy the planet. He urges us instead to examine our mechanistic way of thinking and world view that serves to keep our collective heads in the sand.   He recognizes that we are at the end of one dominant paradigm or system and that we must search for a new one built on fair and just principles, and a new way of thinking and questioning. He quotes Joseph Stiglitz:

The legacy of this crisis will be a global struggle of ideas and dreams to envision what might be better for humanity and the entire world.

He is concerned that under the knife of ultra-Liberalism, state responsibility is more and more limited, and unable to introduce a more social, and fair economy and that there is no longer true democracy.  Therefore a bottom up approach where citizens, NGOs, and social movements take things into their own hands, as the indigenous people of Oaxaca have done, may be the only way for immediately addressing the incredible wealth disparity in the world today.  He notes that the poor of the world, so many of whom are indigenous peoples, are furious and demanding an economic and financial shift

This means continued reliance on mobilization of peoples for awakening the social conscience.  For him it was Vietnam, for later generations it was Battle of Seattle and later still, the massive rallies to prevent War in Afghanistan and then Iraq. He notes how Seattle was an important moment for consolidating the anti-globalization movement and international consciousness.  For Fr Frans it is imperative that Fair Trade as a movement continue to merge with other movements and NGOs with related goals. Above all, he says it is at the grassroots level that all these movements must continue to evolve together to recuperate democracy, stolen by the elites and the powers that be.

But perhaps his most profound insight from his lifetime of organizing for change is embodied in a slogan he developed for his community in Mexico:

We keep protesting, but at the same time keep proposing.

From his perspective we must rethink our world and create new foundations for economic systems which leads him to briefly review the concept of Gross National Happiness which has emerged in Bhutan as an alternative to Gross National Product [GDP] . He notes that citizens in the streets of Copenhagen and around the world in general are making constructive proposals to governments which, unfortunately, are not listening.  Therefore, he concludes that popular organizations and movements must be an even more concrete propositional power.

Fair Trade a Solution from below

 Father Frans, goes on to outline an alternative future by sharing his knowledge of fair trade based on his work with the indigenous farmers of Oaxaca. He describes when and how fair trade emerged and the extent to which it has spread around the world today. He lays out the benefits of such an economy for the poor indigenous campesinos and explores a few other related models of bottom up economies particularly in Latin America.

 

His concept of ‘fair trade’ as noted is that of an alternate economy found in solutions that come from below and that flow from a different vision and purpose and therefore cannot be perceived as simply the introduction of a social dimension into the existing world market system.  Fair trade envisions a market where campesinos can  i) benefit from the produce they grow without being exploited; ii) can participate in the improvement of their environment and living conditions for their families; and, iii) above all, organize themselves in production cooperatives so that the efforts, means and benefits are mutual.

One of the major principles of bottom up development is recognizing diversity which means that although these alternatives will follow similar practices they may well differ from one region to the next for indeed as he notes distinct traditions compel the inhabitants of each country and culture to find their own path, a path that is not necessarily exportable. On the contrary the obsession of the global market abuses cultures and differences ruining diversity and hence resulting in a singular top down imposed model of globalization where millions are sidelines and exploited.

Fr Frans describes how the campesinos, being exploited by middlemen [coyotes] organized themselves because they could not feed their families. They came together to form an independent organization, the Union of Indigenous Communities of the Isthmus Region, UCIRI, to obtain a fairer price for their organic coffee production.  With his help they created their own pathways to improvement, self-sufficiency, food security and responsibility with respect to the lands received from their ancestors. They established cooperatives that provided them with an efficient social enterprise that allowed them to generate real added value to their agricultural products and commercialize them in the region where they were produced. They exported the surplus, at a mutually-agreed-upon minimum price, based on quality and a social premium always making it higher than conventional market prices. This enabled them to maintain their customs, culture and social way of life, while resisting the threat of western individualism.

He helped the indigenous people of Mexico to learn about their rights especially the right to organize in cooperatives, and how to draw up their contracts to sell their organic coffee at a fixed minimum price in advance, to ensure a regular income and act as a buffer when coffee prices fluctuated.

To create a market in the north for the fair trade coffee Fr. Frans helped also to create the first fair trade certification label in 1989 in Holland, under the name Max Havelaar5, which allowed the development of a market that included producers, consumers and small businesses.  This fair trade model took on global dimensions as it spread to 56 countries in the South with over a million producers and 22 countries in the North where consumer markets lay. This process permitted the poor to pass from the ranks of the excluded to being actors in an economy that does not exploit them.

Today, their fair trade products of renowned quality are found in coffee shops and supermarket stands in all of the western countries and the entire world knows what these campesinos have achieved and its significance.

Thanks to fair trade, the campesinos finally have adequate housing as well as has access to healthcare, school, earnings and work by the determination and sweat of their own brows not by charity. Fair trade has the potential to allow people to rise from misery and live with dignity as true economic actors with a means to gain true economic, cultural and political autonomy. In this sense fair trade is one of the few economic initiatives that has demonstrated its validity

Before concluding his Manifesto, Fr Frans returns to the theme of emerging social and political movements that seek economic alternatives from below, in particular those in Latin America.  He notes that they were in solidarity with Subcommandante Marcos who championed the Zapatista uprising of the mid 90’s, in Mexico.  The principle demand of zapatismo revolved around the will to live like others with the same rights, ultimately, the same struggle, that  he and the campesinos were involved in, but by different means. He also provides insight into the peaceful revolution in Bolivia where a mass movement led to the election of Evo Morales an enlightened indigenous leader. He also cites the movement in Venezuela that brought Hugo Chavez to power along with significant policy reforms.  Fr Frans notes how all of these revolutions or movements were peaceful placing them within the broader context of the non-violent tradition of Gandhi and the Indian independence.

He considers that he has provided evidence through the evolution of his fair trade model that the social economy exists, and that it is time for it to be officially recognized as an alternative that challenges the dominant economy. Yes, he says a world with more solidarity is possible, supported by an ethic of the common good that cares for planet earth and humanity as a whole.

 He concludes:

This is how we advanced from protests against an unfair market to a true, concrete alternative, the approach of fair trade. To resign ourselves to protest alone will be in vain, if we don’t have concrete solutions in order to change the situation. It is a revolution, but a peaceful one that rests on a constructive proposal that challenges the system….

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Father Frans’ Manifesto of the Poor was  published in 2012 by Just Us, Centre for Small Farms, 11865 Highway1, Wolfville, Nova Scotia.  An earlier French Edition was published in 2010. To purchase a copy call I 800 668  8436   or check out the website for an online order form [this function may take awhile to appear] http://www.justuscoffee.com/node/437

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About janetmeaton10

* Janet M Eaton is an independent researcher, activist, public educator who has taught part-time in several Nova Scotia’s universities most recently at Acadia University in Political Science and Environment and Sustainability. She has served as a consultant to national NGOs , conducted workshops on Paradigms and Paradigm Shifts for provincial and municipal level governments ; has been a leader in the Environment and Peace Movements co-founding a white arm band campaign that went national to try to stop the war on Iraq, was head of Canadian Voice of Women for Peace where she served as a UN rep to the Women’s commission at the UN. She was Sierra Club Canada’s international rep on Water privatization and Corporate Accountability attending the World Social Forum in Brazil. In 2006- 7 she served as Trade Critic in he shadow cabinet of the Green Party of Canada. She is presently the Trade & Environment critic for Sierra Club Canada as well as their rep on the national Trade Justice Network opposing Free Trade Agreements, and Common Frontiers that works in solidarity with South American social democratic countries. She was also a founding board member of the Nova Scotia Food Policy Council. She considers herself a systemic change agent and has recently completed a 12 week intensive online course for "Agents of Conscious Evolution" to become a leader in the field of evolutionary systems theory and is working on a book : Beyond Collapse: Reframing our World. Janet has a PhD in Marine Biology from Dalhousie University but for more than a decade has been involved with the anti-corporate globalization movement and researching and teaching about political and economic failures and alternatives. Before that she worked in the field of Community Education and Community Economic Development at Dalhousie University and before that a number of other things including marine biology. She has two daughters, one an endangered species biologist with Environment Canada and the other an artist and teacher and four grandchildren.
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