"You've got to work harder, come on!" shouts Lola Bey as the workers scramble to pick up beans. It's hot, uncomfortable toil, but they endure her blandishments with good humour - until she tries to cheat them. "The scales are set at zero, aren't they?" she says, weighing the beans. "No, they're not," comes the indignant reply. "They are," she growls back.
Lola, from the Jae Project (justice, arts, education), is playing the part of a farm manager; her "workers" are pupils from London schools who are discovering what life is like for many farmers in the developing world. It is part of one of four educational Chocol-8 summits organised in May and June by Trading Visions, Comic Relief and the Day Chocolate Company, which work together to redress the economic imbalance between the producers of the South and the distributors of the North. The events focus on the chocolate trade because of their links with cocoa farmers: Day, which produces Divine and Dubble chocolate, is third-owned by the 45,000-strong Kuapa Kokoo cocoa growers co-operative in Ghana. The subject matter proves particularly popular because, as summit organiser Louise Mollring explains, "the story of cocoa and chocolate is magical, exotic and exciting, and one that young people can really get into".
The events are part of the burgeoning fair trade movement, whose UK activities are led by charities with a global reach, such as Oxfam, Christian Aid and Cafod. Working with other organisations, they established the Fairtrade Foundation, which trademarks items produced by companies that pay farmers enough to sustain long-term production and invest in development. These products range from tea, coffee and bananas to clothing, stationery and footballs, and are becoming available in major British supermarkets. It is an idea whose time has come, with Nescafe, Tesco, Starbucks and other commercial giants now producing their own Fairtrade lines, and government departments such as the Department for International Development funding fair trade initiatives.
Fairtrade goods account for a tiny fraction of the market, but their share is growing, not least because the campaign appeals to both the charitable impulse and "socially responsible" consumer movement. Crucially, it appeals to the youngest generation of consumers - schoolchildren. "Young people are the backbone of fair trade," explains Louise Mollring. "We've found that their understanding of the issue is incredible, so there's a huge opportunity to get them inspired to do more."
The campaign has thus pushed to have both real Dubble chocolate bars stocked in supermarkets, and virtual bars stocked in Habbo Hotel, the young people's online community. A large amount of educational material on fair trade has been produced, but what engages pupils' interest?
"Before we do fair trade we do unfair trade," says geography teacher Sarah Worth of La Sainte Union Secondary School, Highgate. "We look at the trading practices, and market share, and how companies dictate what they pay to farmers rather than the other way around." In class, she cuts up a Fairtrade banana and an ordinary one, to compare how much they cost to produce, and the share that goes to the farmers. "There's lots of eating,"
she laughs, "but they have to taste the food before they can go home and say: 'I had this amazing banana today, can we buy more in Sainsbury's?' "
Diane Selwood from Lee Manor Primary School, Lewisham, south-east London, brings the issue alive with role-play. "I don't have to talk much," she says. "The growers soon got very irritated that they are working hard and not getting much out of it, while the rich people are getting all the benefits and driving around in fancy cars."
The hardest part is explaining why the world economy is inequitable: "To seven-year-olds, it's completely black and white - fair trade is the way to go. The fact that they can do something by nagging their parents to buy Fairtrade items is empowering. They proudly say: 'I got my mum to buy the coffee beans.' "
Throughout the Chocol-8 summit, it is stressed that by buying more Fairtrade goods, northern consumers could give southern farmers a better deal, and change the world in the process. But do pupils buy it? In the final role-playing session, they become shareholders of the fictitious chocolate company Chocolish. Chief executive "Ms Carter" promises them stupendous profits and holidays in Florida, but conspicuously fails to mention fair trade. The shareholders are then invited to vote for or against. Half oppose her because she was only interested in profits. The other half supported her because she had made the company a success (and a few because they fancied a trip to Disneyland). The future of the fair trade movement will depend upon young consumers like these, and their response neatly sums up the ethical and economic factors that might influence their decisions. In the meantime, the summit provided them with food for thought, and a useful introduction to the debate about consumer choice.
* ActionAid: www.actionaid.org.uk100104educational_materials.html
Cafod: www.cafod.org.ukresourcesprimary_schoolsaid_debt_and_trade Co-op: www.co-opfairtrade.co.ukschools_packdownload.asp Fairtrade: www.fairtrade.org.ukresources_education_packs.htm
Trading Visions, Comic Relief and Dubble: www.papapaa.org