After five years of operations, the Vavuniya North Fruit Growers Cooperative Union continues to grow in its efforts to increase profit. Over 10,000 metric tons of Red Lady papaya has already been exported with another Cooperative and over $ 2 million (Rs. 300 million) has been earned by farmers in export earnings.
In recent weeks, the Cooperative has achieved a major milestone by becoming the First Cooperative in Sri Lanka and probably the first organisation in South Asia to be Fair Trade Certified for Red Lady papaya. The certification process was carried out by the global certifying body for fair trade – FLOCERT. Fair Trade certification is the first social, economic and environmental standard that directly benefits growers and workers. As the name implies, it is about building market systems that provide improved and more equitable returns to producers and workers. The certification opens up new and expanding markets for growers and provides a competitive advantage for small rural farmers.
The Fair Trade movement believes that trade can be a fundamental driver of poverty reduction and greater sustainable development, but only if it is managed for that purpose, with greater equity and transparency than is currently the norm in the open market.
As the cooperative president, Rasentheram explains: “It has taken us five years to reach this point. We could not have done this on our own. It has required the support and encouragement of a wide range of partners. The Australian Government through DFAT supported us from 2011; the Department of Agriculture, Department of Cooperatives, Divisional Secretariat have provided technical support and guidance, the private sector and particularly CR Export of Gampaha has guaranteed markets and made us more aware of quality requirements.”
He further emphasised: “The International Labour Organisation (ILO) through the LEED project which was funded by Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Australia (DFAT), has greatly assisted us to work with all parties, provided us with technical knowledge, encouraged, guided and motivated us to keep on track and balance the demands of running a business with the needs of members. Together we have come a long way since 2011 when we were first resettled after the conflict. The reliable and steady incomes earned by the farmers has allowed all to rebuild their homes, pay off debts and build up savings, send the children to school and overall, improve their welfare. Remember, that most of our members are women, many of whom lost their husbands during the conflict so this stable source of incomes is even more important to those families.”
The advantage of certification is that the farmers obtain a guaranteed price for their produce which is generally much higher than the non certified open market price. However, as Nihal Devagiri, National Project Coordinator of the LEED project explains, “It takes time and a lot of effort on all sides. The time factor is critical, real development cannot be achieved in a two or three year project. It is a process that evolves, adapts to changing demands and really never ends. The continued support and encouragement by DFAT since 2011 has been critical as it has allowed all of us to continue to support and encourage our partners in many sectors across the North to maintain focus and continue to grow, develop and sustain. It is not about opening factories or cutting ribbons but about empowering people and changing mind sets. We at the ILO believe that the best course of action to meaningfully contribute to peace and sustainable development in the country is to uplift and maintain economic stability at household levels so that equitable growth benefits all households to realise their needs and aspirations.”
Markus Ruck, Officer-in-Charge, ILO Country Office for Sri Lanka and the Maldives said: “We are so proud that Vavuniya North Fruit Growers’ Cooperative Society has achieved this certification from Fair Trade. It will strengthen the sustainability of farmers’ livelihoods, create decent jobs and contribute to the national peace building process. The ILO’s role is to facilitate dialogue and cooperation between the Government, private sector and workers to set labour standards, develop policies and devise programs promoting decent work for all women and men. It is about getting the balance right between the demands of commerce and human development. Our work in Sri Lanka is a practical example of how this can be achieved.”