Sylvia Blanchet '74 is changing the world, one plant at a time. As president of ForesTrade, the world's largest supplier of organic spices, Blanchet promotes prosperity in developing nations, conserves natural resources, and provides consumers with healthful products.
Though she modestly calls ForesTrade a "little company," it boasts one of the largest Fair Trade projects in the world. Tracking the full impact of ForesTrade, Blanchet believes it directly and indirectly benefits more than 50,000 people and 100,000 hectares of land, both individually and community owned.
Over the past five years ForesTrade's average growth rate has been 84 percent. According to Vermont Business magazine, ForesTrade has been the fastest-growing company in the state of Vermont since 1997. Best of all, in 2002 Fores- Trade received the prestigious World Summit Business Award for Sustainable Development Partnerships, presented by the United Nation's Environment Program (UNEP) and the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC).
Declared in 1992, Agenda 21 is the United Nation's comprehensive plan of action for international cooperation to accelerate sustainable development in developing countries. It outlines ways governments and institutions can combat poverty, change consumption patterns, promote human health and protect the atmosphere and fragile ecosystems. Agenda 21 can be read in full at www.un.org/esa/asustdev/agenda21.htm
Blanchet says ForesTrade invests in the triple bottom line: the potential economic, environmental and social impacts of a business. She and her spouse Thomas Fricke, Fores-Trade's CEO, founded the company in 1996 to outsource directly spices, coffee and essential oils from small-scale organic producers in Indonesia and Guatemala to organic manufacturers and wholesalers in the United States and Europe. ForesTrade grants fair prices to more than 6,000 farmers, training them in soil conservation, non-chemical pest control, and improved planting and harvesting techniques.
Many farms are in the buffer zones of national parks and protected areas that contain rare and endangered flora and fauna. Honoring park boundaries, farmers sign contracts with ForesTrade agreeing to practice responsible agriculture and land restoration. Over time, as the positive impacts from their efforts are realized, some farming communities are inspired to set up private forest preserves for eco-tourism and the sustainable harvesting of non-timber forest products.
ForesTrade fosters alliances between its stakeholders, providing incentives to village associations and cooperatives, local business partners, and national and international NGOs, as well as their customers, investors and staff. "ForesTrade is about creating win-win alliances," Blanchet says. "Governments can't do it alone, NGOs can't do it alone, and Fores- Trade recognizes that we can't do it alone. It takes a coming together of a variety of resources and interests."
In Guatemala, ForesTrade interfaces with Ecologic Enterprise Fund and The Nature Conservancy, NGOs involved in preserving biodiversity in fragile tropical ecosystems. "Our work compliments what these NGOs are doing," Blanchet says. Both organizations provide ForesTrade with working capital loans that are passed on to farmers. "These farmers are in remote areas and have never been able to obtain loans through traditional banking channels," Blanchet says. "For the first time these farmers have money to develop micro-enterprises, and they are able to keep more of their income in their communities. We've loaned out more than $2 million dollars, and to date almost no one has defaulted on a loan."
From these micro-loans, communities have built cardamom and allspice dryers, purchased pick-up trucks to transport their products, and established checking and savings accounts.
Long self-sufficient |
"I was really blessed to have Mary Maples Dunn, MA '56, PhD '59, as an advisor for my major in history," says Sylvia Blanchet '74.
Dunn supported Blanchet's independent study on an island off the coast of Georgia, where she lived self-sufficiently in a tree house, farmed, and was a caretaker for apes in an animal behavior study. She further developed her self-sufficiency skills at the University of Wales in Bangor-also on an island-where she finished her degree in history.
Then, in her first job after college, Blanchet worked at a living history museum near Bryn Mawr, the Colonial Pennsylvania Plantation. In 1976, the Alumnae Bulletin featured her in colonial costume on the cover of an issue discussing the American bicentennial. Her job at the plantation was to ensure that all activities there were accurately represented. "I was plowing behind horses and butchering pigs or chickens for meals," Blanchet says. "Mary Dunn would send Bryn Mawr history students out who were doing research on the colonial life, and they were able to experience with me what it was really like to be cooking for 20 over a fire."
Blanchet gained an appreciation for women in the developing world, whose standards of living were similar, and "a real interest and compassion for the challenges that they had."
Bryn Mawr helped instill her with a fearless curiosity to learn, she says. "I can remember being in class as a freshman, wondering whether I should raise my hand to ask a question. I just decided at that point that I didn't care; I was much more interested in learning whatever it was I wanted to learn, than whether I was going to make a fool of myself.
"And that's been our modus operandi for ForesTrade. In creating this company, my husband and I didn't have any prototypes to follow. We've just been learning as we go, learning from our mistakes. It's been a steep learning curve, but I enjoy the process."
"Ultimately, we are helping to break the cycle of farmer debt and stimulate economic stability," Blanchet says. The loans are a vital, stabilizing force among those who have struggled for years with oppressive governments or ethnic conflict.
In Aceh, a province on the northwestern tip of Sumatra, four mosques have been rehabilitated thanks to the reinvestment of money back into the community. Such rehabilitation invigorates the social life of which the mosques are a focal point; mosques are also a central source for clean drinking water.
ForesTrade links with companies that want to buy products in socially responsible ways. "One outstanding customer has been Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, which has given grant monies to our coffee producing partner, PPKGO," Blanchet says. "This money has helped to build a new office and community center, construct satellite processing plants, purchase mechanical weeders, and create nurseries for traditional coffee seedlings. A number of our customers strongly believe in our company's mission. In fact, two of our customers, Stonyfield Farm and Elan Vanilla, showed their support for our commitment to sustainable development by sponsoring us to attend the World Summit in Johannesburg."
Also remarkable is ForesTrade's cultural diversity. Its 200+ employees are for the most part indigenous, speak the local dialects, and are acquainted with local interests.
"Our field staff recommend farmers who are well respected in the community," Blanchet says. "They create a dialogue that way. They know the cultural morays and what these communities need and want, so they can adapt the way we work to what fits. What our company is about is allowing diversity to flourish and finding a way that works in various locations. That's critical criteria for successful sustainable development, and something that was talked about a great deal at the World Summit: How can you involve indigenous people more in the economic system and in the decision making process? It's something that we really try to do. We cultivate initiative within our staff to use the democratic process. In the countries we work, empowering employees on this level is a new model."
Blanchet and Fricke first met at a conference on sustainable development. In the ensuing years, while working to preserve rainforests, they realized the importance of showing that forests are more economically viable if left standing.
In the 1990s, Fricke was approached by the World Wildlife Fund to help save a very large tract of rainforest in Sumatra, on which farmers were encroaching and clear-cutting. "If we could link these farmers to the international organic market and develop a team of agricultural extension agents to provide training on how to harvest cassia cinnamon sustainably, then they would be making higher incomes, and chances would be good that they would agree to stay within the boundaries of their farms and not keep clear-cutting and moving on, clear-cutting and moving on," Blanchet says. "The key was to link these farmers to a value-added market and get them organically certified. This was the beginning of ForesTrade."
ForesTrade involved a few dozen cinnamon farmers, and the local village associations were thrilled; erosion caused by clear-cutting was beginning to wipe out the rice fields below the cinnamon farms. "Farmers began to make significantly more money because we were helping them diversify their crops and market them," Blanchet says. "Soon we had hundreds and hundreds of farmers wanting to join, and other conservation groups approaching us and asking us to set up similar projects."
At that time, the Indonesian government planned to clear-cut certain islands for oil plants and palm plantations. "There, the indigenous people were clove and patchouli farmers," she says. "We started marketing their cloves, and we proved that it was far more economically viable to do that than to clear-cut."
ForesTrade then struck partnerships in Guatemala, where local farmers had abandoned their lands during the 35-year civil war. Before the farmers fled, the Guatemalan government had given them cardamom plants in an attempt to dissuade them from joining the guerrillas. Since the signing of the peace accords in 1996, peasants and refugees have returned to their lands, and organic cardamom has become a meaningful source of income.
ForesTrade would not be successful without consumers who "are willing to vote with their dollar, who realize that their purchasing power really does make a difference," Blanchet says. "If it weren't for those consumers who are willing to pay that bit extra for organic and the Fair Trade products, we wouldn't be able to make the impact we do."
Blanchet and Fricke soon expect expansion in Grenada, Sri Lanka and Central America. This year, they hope to operate in East Africa. But to move forward, ForesTrade needs financing. Its high growth rate indicates "how much people want to support this kind of business activity, and that the organic and Fair Trade movements are growing," Blanchet says. "We're looking for investors who want to support this kind of company."
Fair Trade and organic|
Fair Trade farmers receive a fair price for their harvests, are given access to affordable credit, and use sustainable farming practices. TransFair USA, an organization that licenses Fair Trade companies, calls Fair Trade the nexus for meeting both environmental and economic considerations of indigenous peoples, re-balancing the trading relationship between the hemispheres, and building a link between U.S. policy and public policy to a larger world community.
Most family coffee farmers struggle to make ends meet because of fluctuations in international prices for their product. With limited access to credit and markets, their basic needs frequently go unmet. Fair Trade allows farming communities around the world to dramatically improve their quality of life. Fair prices give farmers greater access to health care, education and housing. Their children eat better and stay in school longer. Greater income allows farmers to reinvest in their farms, families and communities and improve the quality of their coffee harvest.
Fair Trade is also good for the environment. By encouraging small family farmers to grow organically and cultivate under the natural forest canopy, Fair Trade helps protect the natural habitat for songbirds and wildlife. Plus, small farmers are stewards of their own land who prevent the development of larger, clear-cut estates. Coffee is not the only product that can be Fair Trade certified; the license is being extended to farmers of corn, beans, tea and bananas in many parts of the world. ForesTrade is pioneering the certification for vanilla and for spices. To learn more about Fair Trade and TransFair USA, see www.transfairusa.org.
Organic food must be produced without the use of sewer-sludge fertilizers, most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, genetic engineering, growth hormones, irradiation and antibiotics. Accredited certifying agents ensure that organic farms document and sustain compliance with applicable regulations, maintain records concerning the production and handling of their products, and have had no prohibited substances applied to their land for at least three years prior to harvest. "In my opinion, organics reflect the true cost of producing food," Blanchet says. "With conventional prices, you do not see all the costs that we absorb due to such things as the polluted ground water or the negative health impacts on many people."
Non-organic spices receive the highest doses of radiation permitted on any foodstuff, Blanchet says, and before ForesTrade there were very few organic spices on the market. "People didn't realize then-and they probably still don't-that about 90 percent of the conventional spices sold in the United States are fumigated or irradiated, not to mention the herbicide/pesticide issues," she says. "It's taken a lot of education of the public to get them to realize that there is a real difference between conventional and organic spices." For more information see www.forestrade.com, www.theorganicreport.com and the USDA's web site.
Addressing the world
"It's been difficult to find sources of working capital for our company or our farmer groups," Blanchet says. "And although it is a requirement for Fair Trade customers to provide prefinancing for the producers groups, this too has been difficult to procure."
During the WTO conference, a symposium on sustainable trade proposed an alternative concept of globalization-"one that considers the interests of small producers when decisions are made and grants all participants equal respect and rewards," Blanchet says.
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