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Keywords:

  • fair trade;
  • coffee;
  • agriculture;
  • Guatemala

Fair trade is a form of alternative trade that seeks to improve the position of disempowered producers through trade as a means of development. It has also been celebrated as a contemporary social movement that contests the conventional agrofood system and its exploitative social and environmental relations of production. In this article, I employ the results of 20 months of ethnographic research in Guatemala and the United States to evaluate fair trade's potential as a form of alternative development. The research demonstrates that fair-trade market participation can offer a variety of potential benefits to producers, including higher prices, stable market access, organizational capacity building, market information, and access to credit. However, I also identify several key limitations of fair-trade markets, such as increasing debt burdens, insufficient compensation, the potential for growing inequality, and a lack of cooperative member participation in the fair-trade movement's international decision making and agenda setting.