by Marike de Peña, Board Chair, Fairtrade International
We’ve all got our own favourite superheroes. Not necessarily the muscle-bound titans of “Batman vs Superman” which has been showing all over the world in recent weeks - including my local cinema in the Dominican Republic.
There are other ways that superheroes can save the world. There are the eco-warriors, fearlessly tying themselves to trees or blocking an oil tanker. There are the fighters for environmental justice - lawyers, campaigners and community leaders who strive behind the scenes. There are the celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio, who has his own Foundation dedicated to environmental issues, and who passionately addressed climate change at the UN and in his Oscar acceptance speech. And of course there are people we know closer to home - maybe a friend who’s given up meat, grows her own veggies and recycles whatever she can.
But what about farmers? Would they feature in your list of green superheroes? Most probably not. In some parts of the world, agriculture conjures up images of massive industrial farms with huge fields of monoculture crops, giant tractors and machines indiscriminately spraying toxic chemicals.
Farming is often criticised for the damage it does to our fragile earth, and agriculture has no doubt played its part in the destruction of the environment. Intensive agri-industrial farming has wrecked ecosystems, polluted soil and water sources, and caused droughts by pumping rivers and lakes dry to irrigate crops. And don’t even get me started on climate change - livestock and crop farming is the second biggest contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions.
But there’s a different way to do farming – one that can feed the world and protect the planet. Farmers, rather than being the problem, should be a big part of the solution.
500 million small farms worldwide - including my own banana cooperative - provide up to 80 percent of food consumed in a large part of the developing world. What’s more, numerous studies have shown that smallholder farming is the most sustainable and environmentally-friendly way of farming. The UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development - aka the SDGs - recognise the pivotal role of agriculture for the future of our planet. For example, Goal Two states: “If done right, agriculture, forestry and fisheries can provide nutritious food for all and generate decent incomes, while supporting people-centred rural development and protecting the environment.”
It’s that phrase “If done right” that really matters. Standing up for biodiversity and the environment is incredibly important for my cooperative and the small farmers I work with in the Dominican Republic. One the one hand, Fairtrade Standards require us to protect the natural environment through strict rules on pesticides, water conservation, soil erosion, GMOs, biodiversity, energy use and reducing our carbon footprint. But it’s more than just about enforcing rules. People are also realising it makes good social, economic and environmental sense. For example, we encourage farmers to plant fruit trees round the borders of their banana plots to protect the crop from storms and winds, and provide lots of lush topical fruit for food. They also grow beans and other cover crops for food and fix to nitrate in the soil and keep bees to make honey which they can sell locally.
With so many farmers leaving the land - more than half the global population now live in cities - we’re focusing on the next generation of farming superheroes. In my banana cooperative, young people get involved through training and education. In school they learn how to produce organic fertiliser, before they themselves go out and train up other farmers.
Of course, it’s not just bananas. In Sri Lanka, tea farmers at the Fairtrade SOFA cooperative work on soil conservation and protection, tree planting and reducing their carbon footprint. They use part of their Fairtrade Premium to encourage biodiversity by distributing seeds and plants to other farmers. At the World Cocoa Conference recently, I heard how Fairtrade cocoa farmers are using old cocoa pods to make organic fertiliser.
It takes time, effort and patience - qualities we don’t necessarily associate with all-action heroes! But added together, the work that smallholders and family farmers are doing all over the world to protect our vulnerable planet is truly impressive. They may not wear their underpants over their tights - but small-scale farmers deserve to be top of your list of environmental superheroes. With our support, they can save the world.