David Cameron’s trip to Jamaica this week was meant to “reinvigorate” ties between the UK and its former colony...
This was the first visit by a British Prime Minister in 14 years, but it has been overshadowed by calls for him to apologise for the transatlantic slave trade and Cameron’s refusal to do so. Just a few days ago he was in New York, signing up to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which call for a new partnership between rich and poor countries to end poverty and fight inequality. So, what’s going wrong?
The PM is right to look to the future. Speaking to the Jamaican parliament he said, "I do hope that, as friends who have gone through so much together since those darkest of times, we can move on from this painful legacy and continue to build for the future." He is also right to identify the UK’s role in ending the transatlantic slave trade, and he can be rightly proud that his government has championed the new Modern Slavery Act to try to drive slavery from the world.
But the lessons of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa show that it is not always possible to “move on” without first recognising the past. The legacy of slavery and the impacts of colonialism are still keenly felt in Jamaica – especially on the sugar plantations. The Jamaican sugar trade was built on the backs of African slaves and fuelled the British Empire like no other commodity. By the 18th century, sugar was the most valuable import into Britain, earning vast fortunes for the trading elite. Cameron’s predecessor, William Pitt the Younger, recognised this: Jamaica was described as a “necessary appendage to our present refined manner of living”.
Earlier in the year I visited sugar cane smallholders in Jamaica. Even now, there are 165,000 Jamaicans directly depending on the sugar cane industry. For many people sugar is the only business they know: the Worthy Park Fairtrade co-operative that I visited has been in continuous production since 1670. When a local mill was closed recently, the effects were devastating: crops were unharvested and families went hungry. Some farmers disappeared, joining the nameless numbers of economic migrants to look for a livelihood somewhere else. Worthy Park has fared better thanks to Fairtrade sales into the UK. They have only been Fairtrade certified for a couple of years but already they have started to build stronger businesses and invest in their communities. Productivity is up and, until recently, so were incomes.
That’s now at risk because the UK government is supporting changes to EU sugar quotas that are causing the price of beet to crash, and rendering cane sugar from Jamaica and other ACP countries too expensive. That might be real world economics, but the impact on sugar cane farmers, in Jamaica and elsewhere, will be huge. Whilst there has been some political hand-wringing in Brussels, and some money voted in compensation, farmers themselves have seen little support. Clearly, for the UK government, Jamaican sugar farmers have been out of sight and out of mind. That pattern of indifference has a long history. Even after the abuses of the slave trade have ended, the injustices of the sugar trade remain.
Trade, like everything else in life, should be built on ethics and values. Fairtrade is an attempt to put those principles into practice: values of partnership, dialogue and respect. We know from producers around the world that the aspect of Fairtrade they value the most – after the guaranteed minimum price and premium – is the sense of empowerment, of having a stake. Fairtrade is the only such scheme in the world to be co-owned by the producers. This is no governance gimmick: as West African cocoa farmers have told us, “Fairtrade makes us players.”
Real partnership is what good trade relations should be about. It costs nothing to admit that our trading histories have been unequal, sometimes shockingly so. Cameron should acknowledge the appalling consequences of the British slave trade. But if he wants to build a better partnership with Jamaica, consistent with the SDGs, he should talk to Jamaican sugar farmers. Then he would see the enormous human consequences of abandoning them. He would take up their cause in the EU and win concessions so that farmers have the time and investment to identify their competitive advantage in sugar, or diversify into other crops. Then perhaps we could all ‘move on’.
CEO Fairtrade Foundation