The Other Side of Fair Trade


emma willard student with mayan hands artisans

Our guest blogger Olivia Pintair reflects on her visit last year to Mayan Hands cooperatives in the Guatemalan Highlands. Olivia is currently a junior at Emma Willard School who loves writing, exploring nature and new places, listening, and asking questions in order to shed light on hidden stories. Her biggest hope is to leave the world a little brighter than when she found it.

Most of us see one side of Fair Trade: The vibrantly colored scarves, the adorable woolen animals, the butterfly bracelets, the sweet tasting chocolate, or the little blue and green logo that symbolizes fair trade. While the ideas of the fair trade movement tend to inspire us, sometimes it seems as though we can’t fully comprehend their gravity and understand how much bigger the meaning of “fair trade” is to those on the other side of it.

The roads in rural Guatemala wind steeply around vast mountains, encircling valleys in which villages are scattered. One of these villages is known as Morales, and in it, a dusty street climbs upwards, passing through farmland before reaching a small white building perched on a hillside. This is the home of Manuela Morales, a Mayan weaver with nine children and a lively smile. Manuela is a member of one of twelve different cooperatives, facilitated by Mayan Hands, a fair trade organization that works directly with Guatemalan women to sell their products equitably. In Manuela’s home, there are a few small rooms, each of which has white plaster walls, dusty concrete floors, and a few plastic chairs scattered around. While the home’s hues are bleak, the women who have gathered inside and around it are creating color. Dressed in colorful traditional tops called huipiles and skirts known as cortes, they weave brightly dyed threads into the scarves, table runners, and bracelets we have seen sold at school by the fair trade club.

When I asked her about the most important thing she had learned throughout her life, Manuela responded promptly, “tejer”, which translates from Spanish to, “to weave”. When I asked to hear more about this, she said that weaving and making bracelets gave her the opportunity to work and make enough money to care for her family, which she would have been unable to do without the opportunities brought on by fair trade.

While fair trade does provide work and adequate income, its benefits extend much further for the producers involved. Anne Kelly, co-director of Mayan Hands, says, “We see healthier families due to adequate nutrition and access to medical care, increased confidence among our artisan partners as they learn business skills and take on leadership roles, and less domestic violence in their homes. All of this, while the families continue to practice their rich cultural traditions.”

Fair trade also helps provide the gift of education to a multitude of children, giving them an opportunity to rise from extreme poverty. At a scholarship ceremony in a town outside of Panajachel, many of the daughters of women at the co-ops received and renewed educational scholarships awarded to them by Mayan Hands for their commitment and excellence in academics. At the ceremony, we listened as the girls introduced themselves and spoke about what the opportunity meant to them. Many articulated that if it weren’t for Mayan Hands, they knew they never would have been able to attend school.

Diega Churunel, an artisan from a co-op located in Vasconcelos, attended the ceremony with her daughter, Karen Lily, who received a scholarship funded by Emma Willard School through Mayan Hands. Having had the opportunity to attend some school as a child, Diega said “For me, the most important experience of my life was that I learned to read and write. I completed sixth grade [as a child].” Continuing on, Diega also said, “I am also so grateful that I learned to weave. Thank you to Mayan Hands, for providing us with the opportunity to learn skills like weaving and making [wool] animals, because without those skills we would have had nothing to do and no way to make a living.”

At Emma Willard, members of the fair trade club have the unique chance to delve deeper into the subject of fair trade, appreciate its importance, and contribute to positive change. Anne Kelly says that Emma students in and out of the club can be involved in the movement as well, as the club works to “[engage] members the Emma community, [providing] the opportunity to purchase products that align with [fair trade] values [and] learn more about the impact of these choices.” Mark Van Wormer, faculty advisor of the club, adds to this, saying, “Here at Emma, I have seen various members of our community open up with the hope that comes from seeing that they can actually do something to right a wrong.”

As we continue to realized the importance of fair trade, we come to realize something… Whether one has experienced the impacts of fair trade first hand while visiting Guatemala, or knows very little about it at all, the fair trade movement is something that everyone is capable of learning about and contributing to. When we educate ourselves and recognize the immense hope that the movement brings, we come to understand that everyone can have a part in helping that hope to flourish for the people who need it most.




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