Who's Paying For Your Fix?
Sidebar: Bringin' Fair Trade Home
Unless your morning latte was a fair trade blend, it probably
cost more than what the farmer who picked the beans earns in a
Conventional coffee prices are at their lowest in a century, even
below the cost of production. Farmers have been leaving the fruit
to rot on the tree, pulling the kids out of school, abandoning
the family land and pouring into the cities to find non-existent
work. That’s why, as the most heavily traded commodity after
oil, and the most common beverage after water, coffee is a major
focus of the fair trade movement.
If your morning latte was a fair trade brew, it means the person
who farmed the beans is earning enough to support his family. This
is all well and good, but the way fair trade is usually explained — with
prices, numbers and statistics — ignores it’s lasting
benefits. The true point of fair trade is the cultural, communal,
and environmental stability it bolsters.
A farmer who sells through fair trade is a member of a cooperative
that is a vehicle for community empowerment. And not just a neighborhood
watch: The people typically organized via fair trade are those
whom the free market has filtered to the lowest economic stratum.
Rather than maneuvering them into a position where they’re
forced to take what they can get, fair trade recognizes farmers
as equal partners, a platform from which they can command more
control over their business and lives.
“Fair trade is a different kind of business relationship
between the producer and buyer, which has been an inspiration to
help these communities pull together instead of caving to the pressure
of all the things trying to blow them apart,” says Monika
Firl. Monika heads up producer relations for Cooperative Coffees,
and as such, led half a dozen coffee roasters and me (as a grateful
representative of Idyll Development Foundation, one of Cooperative
Coffee’s funders) on a buying trip to farmers’ co-ops
in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Mexico in February, where we were
able to see the effect for ourselves.
Through Cooperative Coffees, 15 North American roasters combine
their resources to purchase beans from small farmers who combine
their harvests to sell in bulk. Much of the business is taken care
of personally at annual meetings between the co-ops. In this way,
Cooperative Coffees and other fair trade organizations build long-term
relationships with farmers that both parties can depend on. Support
for organic certification, sustainable farming practices, access
to affordable credit, and consumer education to create more demand
for fairly traded coffee are also priorities of the fair trade
Mut Vitz, centered just east of San Cristobal de las Casas in
Chiapas, Mexico, is an astonishing model of a farmers’ co-op.
Its list of 560 members can be cross-referenced with that of the
Zapatista movement for cultural survival and self-determination
of indigenous peoples in Chiapas. Most Mut Vitz farmers are living
on their father’s father’s father’s land, which
they intend to keep. This, not the price of coffee, is the root
cause for their organization. But coffee helps keep them going.
Democratically run by volunteers, Mut Vitz unites the livelihood
of 22 indigenous villages, with a reach beyond the coffee fields.
Fair trade income leveraged by the co-op helps pay for a community
health clinic and autonomous, bilingual (Spanish/Tzotzil) schools.
Mut Vitz’s model motivated women in the communities to form
weaving, gardening, and bread-baking co-ops, which have built shared
ovens and community gardens. These supply the villages with fresh
bread and organic vegetables, and earn the co-op a little extra
In contrast to the growth of Mut Vitz’s fair trade sales
(from 20 tons to 200 tons in three years), Maya Vinic in Chenalho,
Chiapas is just getting started. Like Mut Vitz, Maya Vinic has
strong roots in a movement for indigenous rights, but their group,
Las Abejas, are conscientious objectors to the armed civil war.
In 1997, 45 members of Las Abejas, mostly women and children, were
murdered in a prolonged attack by paramilitaries while praying
for peace in Acteal, a Chenalho refugee community. “The timing
of the massacre was obviously planned to coincide with the coffee
harvest,” says Monika, “and many people benefited,
both economically and politically, at the cost of the Abejas members
who were too terrified to harvest their coffee that year.” The
fear was augmented by the fact that the murderers were neighbors
of Las Abejas families. In the wake of the massacre, then, “Las
Abejas decided to turn inwards and create a new organization comprised
of their own members in an attempt to channel their products toward
In 2003, Acteal is breathtakingly unified through the lens of
the Maya Vinic Cooperative. Six-hundred thirty-two farmers have
an interest in the co-op. During introductions between Maya Vinic
and Cooperative Coffees, each question posed by a roaster was directly
answered by a different farmer depending on his knowledge, without
being prompted by a leader. A perfect day of growers and roasters
tromping together through fields exploding with bright coffee cherries
(it helps that they’ve been organic for ten years) led to
the signing of a contract for Maya Vinic’s first 10 tons
of fair trade coffee. A throng of people in the village of Yaxgemel,
one of Maya Vinic’s 33 communities, turned out to attentively
witness every translated word and watch every stroke of the pen.
We all quivered with excitement.
This solidarity and stability to plan for the future is the end
to which fair trade is a means. Price does play a crucial part
in fair trade, but it is only one method. “We’re trying
to pay decent wages that don’t cause compromises to have
to creep into the system,” says Bill Harris, President of
Cooperative Coffees. “We’re trying to do something
that gives people options of maintaining their cultural identity
if they want to. The main thing we do is allow people to do what
they’ve always done and to make a living doing it.”