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Who's Paying For Your Fix?

Kate Duncan

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 day.

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 movement.

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 income.

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 better markets.”

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.”

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