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Farmer from Alang Daom carrying Producer Library tools

As the world pauses this week to celebrate the achievements of generations committed to knowledge and education through the annual International Literacy Day, Fairtrade Australia and New Zealand Strategic Partnerships Manager and designer of the Fairtrade Producer Library, Sandra Méndez, talks about the issue of lack of access to information in small farming communities and Fairtrade’s efforts to address it.

Sandra Mendez

Fairtrade is the world’s most recognised ethical certification. Shoppers know that when they buy products with the Fairtrade Mark they are contributing to a market where farmers are paid fairly and are enabled to contribute to the improvement of their communities through an additional payment called the Fairtrade Premium. However, not many people know about the work that Fairtrade does to address the underlying issues that place small farming communities in a disadvantaged position in the first place. 

One such issue is the educational gap between the global market players who control trade and the farmers and workers who produce the raw materials being traded. Despite education being a fundamental human right (just like access to food or water), 70% of the world’s rural poor struggle to access education or training opportunities. Among those affected are over 500 million farmers in developing countries, whose opportunities to upskill are restricted, heavily affecting their crop yield and quality and market opportunities. 

Fairtrade cooperatives work to support rural communities to access education in many ways. There are, for example, thousands of children around the world who go to school today, or have a teacher in their classroom, because Fairtrade farmers invested their Premium earnings to support these education projects. Just as there are many communities with access to basic information communication and technology (ICT) equipment thanks to Fairtrade Premium projects. 

But, equal access to information and education requires more than the effort to build schools, provide books or install internet connections. Fairtrade’s approach to learning involves translating relevant knowledge often contained in books, into meaningful but practical messages that can be owned and spread by farmers.

The act of learning through traditional methods is a challenge for isolated farmers. Coffee, cocoa and coconut farmers have been provided with the practical and essential skills that allow them to look after the land, but this learning has happened mainly outside the classroom. These skills were passed on primarily through spoken word, stories and body language. The lessons that provided these skills were not given in English nor made available on the internet or in books. Providing the resources to enable this organic style of learning is essential- especially in a world where only one third of the world’s population have access to ICT and internet.

The contradiction here is that in a time where it is common to hear that access to information is being democratised by the internet, isolated farmers are finding information more out of reach than ever. One of the reasons is that even when information reaches isolated communities, knowledge is still presented in formats that do not communicate to everyone, especially not to people unaccustomed to classroom-like settings. As a result, important knowledge on human rights, labour rights, and market opportunities, become foreign ideas to those who can be empowered the most by them; contributing to tangible inequality, which in rural communities translates into poverty and marginalisation.  

At Fairtrade, there are many examples of committed trainers who use innovative methods to make information available to farmers around the world. I would like to share here the Pacific experience, a four-year project called the Fairtrade Producer Library. This project brought together experts in child protection, environmental sustainability, governance, and gender equality, as well as graphic designers, video editors and a small army of illustrators and translators. We had the sole objective of making key information (initially available in English through books and the internet) available to isolated farmers based in the Pacific Islands. 

Alang Daom share resources with their communityThe Fairtrade Producer Library is a compilation of training tools based on stories, which are told through illustrations and presented as games. This methodology gives a voice to trainees (the farmers) by challenging them to share their interpretation of the given illustrated stories, and then using their own analysis, farmers arrive at the relevant concepts. As a result, they take ownership of their new knowledge, becoming storytellers, messengers, and trainers themselves. Sometimes, interpretations wander away from the originally intended message, and the new story brings out insights into the communities’ views on topics such as gender and child protection, which has substantial value in itself.

Throughout the development of the Producer Library, we were continually faced with the challenge of breaking down information, which was neatly presented in academic books, into images that communicate to farmers regardless of their nationality, language, age, culture and social status. The best tool to overcome this challenge and achieve clear messages was to partner with farmers, to consult with them to gain an understanding of their interpretation process. Some lessons learnt from this project are that farmers want to feel related to the learning process, represented and challenged, and that body language and images communicate across cultures and nations better than words.   

The Producer Library is the result of a partnership between a large team of people formed within the traditional education system and a team of Pacific farmers who know how to read the sky, the wind, and people. It is also Fairtrade’s core training tool, currently being used to support 40,000 farmers based in the Pacific and available in seven languages. Recently, the Producer Library has become part of Fairtrade International’s global training resource bank, and is currently being tested by farming communities in India, South East Asia, West Africa, the Middle East and North Africa, and China. 

After four years of progressive development, the Producer Library is now being used in remote areas of countries such as Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste, by farmers with no training background to teach others. Seeing farmers across the Pacific and in Asia taking ownership of knowledge through these resources is a personal joy. Knowing they are full of understanding and are empowered by it, confirms that there is a huge need to demystify complex concepts, to bring them where are needed the most. This way, trade and education can truly become enablers of economic development.