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Interview with Joachim Milz

„Not controller but communicator“

Since 1999, Joachim Milz has performed seven Hand in Hand inspections for RAPUNZEL NATURKOST in South America. The native-born German works as agricultural consultant and runs his own sustainable agroforest farm in Bolivia where he cultivates cocoa, coffee, bananas, pineapples, pepper, vanilla and oranges. Asked about his work as a Hand in Hand inspector and about food production in general, he gives some unexpected answers.

Question: How did you come to work as Hand in Hand inspector for RAPUNZEL?
Joachim Milz: In 1987, I worked as development aid worker in Bolivia. At the time, RAPUNZEL was looking for organic cocoa. Friends of mine introduced me to Joseph Wilhelm. My approach to combine local ecosystems, social needs and market demands fit well with RAPUNZEL’S Hand in Hand engagement. I see my work for the organic fair trade idea more as a communicator than a controller.

How much time does an inspection at a Hand in Hand partner normally take?
About five to seven days including writing the report and the journey. Sometimes it takes several days to get to a project. The farms are often very remote and only the processing plants are more centrally located. If it rains or if no fuel is available then it may take a little bit longer.

Can you outline the inspection according to RAPUNZEL‘S Hand in Hand criteria?
First, the company informs the partner about my visit. I contact the partner and discuss the inspection plan with the management. Field visits must be organized and transports must be arranged. I try not to come across as some sort of fair trade inspector, but try to build confidence. When I visit the farmers I also give advice and help them solve problems. Naturally, I inform the farmers about RAPUNZEL and the consumers who buy the products, for example about the hygienic requirements that agricultural products must comply with in Germany. At the end of the inspection, a meeting with the responsible persons is held and a report is written and sent to RAPUNZEL.

Where do you put a special emphasis in your work?
The check list with the criteria is only a rough guide for me. I make sure to consider the individual conditions. For example in a place where it takes several days to get to the next hospital, a health insurance is of relatively little use. In places where pension funds are unreliable, it is better to pay the money directly to the people so that they can finance housing. In factories, maternity leave may be a decisive factor or that no school-aged children are employed. For rural, family-run businesses it is totally normal that older children are helping with the farm work. In my report I try to describe everything within the on-site context. This may result in totally new perspectives. The goal of the inspection is to collect as much information as possible. My visit is not considered an inspection, but the partners are looking forward to my visit.

What is the most interesting aspect of your work for you personally?
My motivation is: how can the organic idea grow? I am particularly interested if the projects result in qualitative improvements, both with respect to living conditions and the food products themselves. Sometimes, this may take time. My strongest motivation, however, is the fact that I get access to things that one would normally not see. I can feel if something should be hushed up or if the people are frank and open. One of the most central questions for me is if the employees have the opportunity to organize themselves? My discussions with the laborers take place without management representatives.

What is particularly important for the farmers in so-called third world countries with respect to RAPUNZEL’S Hand in Hand work?
The commitment to purchase the products at a guaranteed price and the long-term cooperation with RAPUNZEL. I give you an example: when the price for cocoa decreased dramatically in the late 80s as new Asian cocoa suppliers entered the market, the farmers from El Ceibo in Bolivia negotiated with RAPUNZEL a price for organic cocoa that was three times as high as the world market price at the time. Moreover, RAPUNZEL agreed to pay this price for several years. In turn, RAPUNZEL was given the chance to market the first certified organic chocolate. This was an incentive for other cocoa farmers to convert to organic farming. It is also great to see how people recognize value in the Amazonas rain forest because they can profit from the forest’s products. When this is the case, they also want to preserve the forest. Organized peasants can fight the destruction of the forest that is initiated by cattle farmers or soy bean growers.

What do you do when the organic and fair criteria are not complied with?
In most cases, the social conditions always comply with the criteria when you consider the local situation. Normally, the farmers and workers in the projects are way better off than the average farmer or worker. If our requirements are transferred one on one and cannot be met by the producers and no jobs are created, nobody has any benefit – neither the people in the developing countries nor RAPUNZEL. Occasionally, farmers have counseling needs with respect to quality or hygiene requirements. The collectors of Brazil nuts once had problems with cockroaches. We solved this pest problem effectively without any negative effect for the organic criteria.

Can you actually see a difference in places that received Hand in Hand funding?
Yes and in these places it is also crucial that the employees have the possibility to organize themselves. For example, processing of Brazil nuts is mainly women‘s work. For the women, a canteen was very important where they could go on breaks and where they could wash their hands. With money from the Hand in Hand fund a canteen building was constructed. Now, what is still missing is equipment and a tenant. In these countries things often only change in the course of several years.

Do the farmers and the workers in the projects know about RAPUNZEL?
They do know that RAPUNZEL is one of the companies that purchase their products. I always try to start a dialogue where I not only collect information about the local situation, but where I also tell the farmers about the demands and requirements of the European consumers. This way, they understand that the quality and hygiene requirements are not RAPUNZEL’S bad intention, but have overriding importance. The partner organizations would prefer if RAPUNZEL would purchase more of their products.

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