Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista government in Nicaragua may get mixed reviews these days from voters on its commitment to democracy. But during the 1970s, the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua was a romantic crusade against dictatorship that united diverse elements of Nicarguan society and served as a beacon to many young people around the world. During the 1980s, idealists from Europe and the United States flocked to Nicaragua to take part in the revolutionary process and witness for communities affected by a civil war. One of them was a young Yale graduate named Paul Rice.
For more than a decade — and against a backdrop of civil war — he worked to organize agricultural cooperatives with local leaders, including one named Merling Preza. Together, they helped create PRODECOOP in 1993, a pioneering Fair Trade cooperative that is one of the most successful in the world nearly 20 years later. Paul and Merling were comrades then, their values forged in the crucible of revolution and war in the hills of Las Segovias. They remain friends today, but their visions of Fair Trade and empowerment for disadvantaged farmers and farmworkers have diverged sharply.
Today, Paul Rice is the CEO of Fair Trade USA. In that role, he is pushing the organization’s Fair Trade for All initiative, which will rewrite the rules of Fair Trade Certification for coffee in the United States and open the market to two groups that have been excluded from the Fair Trade market: coffee estate workers and unorganized smallholder farmers.
Merling continues to lead PRODECOOP and represents a network of hundreds of thousands of smallholder farmers who oppose FT4All.
In FT4All, Paul sees opportunities — to expand the market for Fair Trade Certified products, end the exclusion of needy groups from the Fair Trade marketplace, and increase the impact of Fair Trade at origin. (Read the summary of Paul’s vision here.)
Merling sees primarily threats — the betrayal of the Fair Trade ideal of cooperative development, disempowerment and unfair competition for cooperatives at origin, and fewer opportunites for cooperatives in the marketplace. (Read the summary of Merling’s vision here.)
Both draw on their formative years at origin and their current relationships with coffee growers. Both advance visions of empowerment at origin. But they are light years apart on what is the best way to get there.