logo logo

Prospects for fairer trade in the Mediterranean

ZNet Commentary

Prospects for fairer trade in the Mediterranean

by Adrian Grima

24 April 2007

In 2010 a free trade area will be established within the so-called Euromed zone that will make matters worse for poorer communities in the Mediterranean region. The renowned academic and activist Tonino Perna anticipates that some four million small farmers with less than three hectares of land and small fishermen will be swamped out of business by big companies with big money.

The establishment of this new, so-called “free” trade area coincides in a rather uncanny way with the extraordinary success of the European fair trade movement which has not only made significant inroads in its efforts to place its products and its principles on the shelves of big supermarket chains but has successfully lobbied for and obtained a detailed report on fair trade followed by a Resolution adopted by the Parliament of the European Union (06.07.06).

Although the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership has three declared objectives, many observers, like Rana Izci (EDRC, University of Malta, 2004), note that it “focuses for the most part on trade liberalization with the target of gradual establishment of a free trade area by 2010.” The Partnership calls for the creation of an area of shared prosperity through the progressive establishment of free trade between the EU and its Mediterranean partners and amongst the partners themselves accompanied by substantial EU financial support for economic challenges created by this transition. Officially, the Partnership also aims to:

  1. Create an area of peace and stability based on the principles of human rights and democracy.
  2. Improve mutual understanding among the peoples of the region and develop a free and flourishing civil society by means of exchange, development of human resources, and the support of civil societies and social development.

Izci points out that although the EU reinvigorated the Barcelona Process in 2000, neither the environment nor sustainable development has yet a separate chapter; and there is still no special and stronger emphasis on them especially under the third pillar of the partnership. Both areas are still dealt with within the economic and financial development chapter as one of the priorities for regional economic integration.” The Euro-Mediterranean Partnership “is so far still too focused exclusively on security, traditional economic development, structural adjustment and free trade.” (Nice, 12.01.02)

The 2002 Declaration by non-governmental organizations active in the Mediterranean for the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development, claimed that the region is an example of unequal trade relations that benefit the developed countries and leave developing countries behind. The NGOs supported Kofi Annan’s call for:

1. The removal of trade-distorting subsidies and improving access of products and services of developing countries to the markets of developed countries, in particular in sectors in which developing countries have competitive advantage, such as the agricultural and textile sectors.

2. Assistance to developing countries, in their efforts to fully integrate into the world trade system and participate effectively in multilateral trade negotiations.

The NGOs stated that

3. Global as well as regional trade agreements should focus on strengthening local economies (mainly Small and Medium Enterprises), (i) establishing fair trade with equity and benefit-sharing, (ii) promoting sustainable production and consumption patterns and fighting poverty.

“This also means that the current overwhelming influence of multinational corporations needs to be reduced: We call for the WSSD to recognize the need for a convention on Corporate Accountability in favour of sustainable development. The World Trade Organization (WTO) has failed to establish an international framework for fair trade. The WTO has to be reformed to ensure the full participation of developing countries and civil society actors, as well as to allow for full southern access to markets in industrialized countries.”

Increasing fair trade in the Mediterranean

One of the advantages of increasing fair trade within the Mediterranean area is that the impact of transportation on the environment would not be so negative because of the relatively short distances and the existing communication routes. The Mediterranean is also one of the most populated and popular regions in the world and this provides producers and service providers with a relatively big market. In 2003 the UNEP suggested that the population of the 21 Mediterranean countries could reach 524 million by the year 2025 (Izci); millions more visit the region as tourists. Some organizations have already taken advantage of the popularity of the Mediterranean as the tourist destination to promote “responsible tourism,” which, unlike mass tourism, tries to have as positive an effect on local communities and the environment as possible.

But there are interesting prospects for the production and sale of fair traded agricultural products and crafts within the region that have not yet been adequately explored. In a way this idea of trading within the region is in line with the call by leading activists for localization as a sustainable alternative to globalization. Colin Hines defines Localization, for which he has designed A Global Manifesto (London: Earthscan, 2000), as “a set of interrelated and self-reinforcing policies that actively discriminate in favour of the local” and that “has the potential to increase community cohesion, reduce poverty and inequality, improve livelihoods, social provision and environmental protection and provide the all-important sense of security.” Hines argues that localization’s emphasis is not on “competition for the cheapest” but on “cooperation for the best.”

Talk about localization is not at odds with fair trade. In November 2006, fair traders in India met in order to talk about how to sell fair traded products within India itself. This has many advantages, including reducing costs and the negative impact on the environment of transportation, and facilitating communication and understanding between buyers and producers. Hines himself writes that some long-distance trade will still occur for those sectors providing goods and services to other regions of the world that can’t provide such items from within their own borders. “Such trade would need to be governed by ‘fair trade’ rules and with stable export prices adequate enough to allow local economies to flourish.” Papagna concurs: “con il commercio equo si cerca oggi di valorizzare il fattore autoconsumo locale delle produzioni del Sud del mondo, per evitare i meccanismi di dover lavorare semplicemente per l’esportazione. Si punta, anziché agli aspetti quantitativi, sugli aspetti qualitativi attraverso, per esempio, lo sviluppo dei prodotti biologici.” (Milano: Terrenuove, 2002) Luca Palagi refers to the positive effects of making organic fair traded products that benefit the environment and provide access to a growing organic market in his research on the promotion of fair trade in North Africa and the Middle East. (Bologna 2005)

CTM altromercato is particularly interested in the Mediterranean and it has done research about fair trade in Muslim countries in the region: “la nostra scommessa come Consorzio, da cui è partita la ricerca sui paesi musulmani, è che il fair trade aiuta la nascita di legami profondi, sia sul piano umano che culturale, e quindi aiuta la conoscenza tra le culture che abitano le varie sponde del Mediterraneo e può migliorare le relazioni tra i popoli.” Luca Palagi, who carried out the research on behalf of the Italian fair trade consortium, acknowledges that this may sound very utopian, but he points out that years of exchange with communities in Latin American, Asian and sub-Saharan countries have shown that fair trade does indeed create strong relationships between different people and different cultures. The 2005 research project led to CTM altromercato importing three new fair traded products from the Mediterranean: argan oil from Morocco, almonds from Tunisia and soap from Palestine.

The promotion of fair trade within the region would also facilitate access to the wider European fair trade market, with its estimated 60% to 70% of global fair trade sales and potential for further growth. (European Parliament (06.06.2006) Luca Palagi observes that over the centuries, trade between Europe and the Middle East has left its mark on the cultures of the Mediterranean and this exchange and trade will continue to mix, mediate and hybridize, “soprattutto se fondato su regole di equità e paritarietà.” CTM altromercato aims to create networks based on an economy that favours solidarity (“economia solidale”). The network of solidarity channels products; creates and deepens relationships between democratic organizations; facilitates the exchange of commercial practices based on transparency, fairness and continuity; and creates profound and lasting interpersonal relationships. The research projects focused on 12 countries in the Middle East and North Africa: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, and Iraq, and 100 organizations were contacted. 23 organizations in 7 countries (Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq) were found to have commercial potential. The products were foodstuffs (7), crafts (11), and cosmetics (5). When the ethical evaluation was carried out, at least 12 of the 23 organizations were found to respect the criteria of fair trade. The commercial evaluation of some of these 12 projects led to the identification of the three new products from Morocco, Tunisia and Palestine mentioned earlier.

Tonino Perna argues that fair trade must be able to offer alternatives to some of the millions of small farmers and people in the fishing industry (“butteranno fuori la pesca artigianale”) who will be most at risk of losing their livelihood when the free trade area is established in the Mediterranean in 2010. One of the problems here is that many communities in the region produce similar products, like olive oil, honey and herbs, and therefore exportation to neighbouring countries may not be the best solution. One area worth exploring may be responsible, agri- and cultural tourism - there has also been talk of fair trade tourism. Preserving local agricultural production, on the other hand, would help combat desertification, which is a serious problem in the region, and improve the natural environment of local communities. Moreover, the Mediterranean badly needs to shift from mass tourism, with its negative impact on cultures and the environment, to different forms of sustainable (or responsible) tourism. Perna also highlights the problem of small local banks, with whom producers may have built a relationship of mutual trust, being swept out of business by big international banks (albeit with a glossy CSR policy), as has happened, according to Perna, in the south of Italy. One of the important advantages of fair trade is that the importer and producer establish a long-term trade relationship and the fair trade organization makes part of the payment in advance to allow small, disadvantaged producers to buy whatever they need to make a quality product and plan for future.

Localization, Or Regaining Control

We are living in a world that has become, for better and for worse, increasingly interdependent. Perna singles out two vital issues in this regard: (a) the dependence of local communities on sources of food and energy that are located far from them and on which they have no control; (b) the increase in the production of products that have a negative impact on the socio-environmental level. Localization is not about returning to some archaic style of living. Perna argues that reducing dependence on outside elements is necessary not only for ecological reasons and to guarantee essential resources, but also to defend one’s health and to guarantee “a liveable future.” Localization is not about closing oneself completely to contacts with the outside; it’s about choosing not to be totally dependent on raw materials and technology. Communities must find the right balance between self-sufficiency in strategic and vital areas and openness towards the exchange of ideas and flows of people. (Destra e Sinistra nell’Europa del XXI secolo, Milano: Terredimezzo, 2006)

There has never, in the history of humankind, been such a widespread, conscious participation in the social, economic and political shaping of our world, such vast experimentation with new forms of economy and social organization; there has never been such a strong grassroots network that can mobilize civil society in different parts of the world on important issues. The civil society and grassroots organizations that have sprung all over the world, even thanks to modern telecommunications systems, have the potential to make a different world possible. Fair trade, with its holistic approach to some of the biggest problems that the world is facing today, is one of the results of this positive vibe among local communities and groups of people in the South and in the North. It is in this context that one can imagine a Mediterranean region in which people promote respect for the human being and for the environment through trade.

Note: This article is the result of research done within the framework of the Civil Society Project of the European Documentation and Research Centre at the University of Malta that focussed on “Business Ethics and Religious Values in the European Union and Malta” and was coordinated by Prof. Peter G. Xuereb.