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Wednesday, March 27,2013

Finding fair trade in E.L.

by Terry Link

This story was corrected on April 1 to say that Jackson Kaguri is a Ugandan activist, not Nigerian. Also, Kaguri is building schools in rural Uganda, not rural Nigeria.

Fair trade or free trade? How many understand the differences between them? As many of you know, I prefer fair trade, buying local when possible and linking the local with the global. Perhaps you’ll see the advantages as I do.

I recently visited Saper Galleries, 433 Albert Ave. in East Lansing, and marveled at the breathtaking art Roy Saper showcases from around the world. Two exhibits caught my eye immediately. One was elegant glass pieces from Hebron, the other handcrafted wood creations from Costa Rica. I asked Saper about his method for finding such artwork from remote places and getting them back to mid-Michigan. The stories are, in typical Saper fashion, rich in detail and a feast for the ears. 

It turns out his venture to Hebron was ostensibly to visit his son Jay, who was doing a semester abroad in that region. He had heard about the glasswork done by some artists in Hebron and had seen a few pieces at Kirabo, a fair trade store a few blocks west of the gallery (see below). So, despite warnings not to travel to Hebron, he and Jay made the journey to find an artist still creating these unique glass works. 

Perhaps more interesting is Saper’s approach to buying art when he visits artists around the world. He asks them what they want for it and simply pays it. No quibbling, no seeking discounts for buying multiple pieces. If Saper likes the art and feels others will, he wants the artist’s trust so he can come back in the future and acquire more. The pieces he brings back may not be “certified” fair trade, but what could be fairer than paying the full price the maker asks?

The woodworker in Costa Rica — whose beautifully crafted boxes and other pieces mesmerized Saper in a market there — was harder to track down. He had to rent a car and drive into the rural areas to find him. Limited language skills prevented an extensive conversation but, again, Saper paid the artist what he wanted for his work. How many of us get paid what we think our time and talents are worth? Saper not only brings our community great beauty and tremendous craftsmanship from the hands of gifted artists, he supports their work and helps make them more prosperous. He links the local and global, as we should.

Gail Catron sells handmade goods from around the world at her East Lansing shop, Kirabo, 225 E. Grand River Ave. Catron doesn’t do nearly the amount of globetrotting Saper does, but she is committed to selling only fair-trade products in which the artisans receive fair wages and treatment. Catron finds and uses suppliers who themselves are Fair Trade Federation members, which requires them to meet a fair trade “Code of Practice.” Gail also has relationships with others she has met, like Ugandan activist and author Jackson Kaguri, who is building schools in rural Uganda. Kaguri provides her with handmade items that she sells at Kirabo, with 100 percent of the sales returned to help fund the development of the schools. Where we shop matters! Adding these beautiful things to our lives from locally owned shops committed to fair trade can simultaneously build a better society here and abroad.

Finally, a little update on the local/global water filter project that resulted from my summer trip to West Africa. The project is expected to commence in the next few months, connecting a Michigan nonprofit, Aqua Clara International from Holland, and several civil society organizations in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.  Ted Loudon, professor emeritus of biosystems engineering at Michigan State University, helped develop the Aqua Clara laboratory and is a board member with the organization. Aqua Clara will send a small team there to meet with local NGOs that will train Burkinabes to construct the filters from locally available materials. Through a small circle of friends we have managed to raise sufficient funds to provide the tools, materials and training resources to produce and distribute as many as 100 biosand water filters. Each filter removes 95 percent of biological contaminants from the water and can serve a family for up to 10 years without power. These filters are ideal for rural, water-stressed areas. The goal is to have the project be self-sustaining in a year while expanding access to clean water and providing employment for a number of local residents. 

If so interested, you can help this Michigan nonprofit distribute its various water filter projects where they are most needed by visiting its website and making a contribution at aquaclara.org. We are really one family, on one planet, sharing a common future.

(Consultant Terry Link was the founding director of MSU’s Office of Campus Sustainability and recently retired as director of the Greater Lansing Food Bank. He can be reached at link@lansingcitypulse.com.)

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