Good to the Last Drop? Crisis for Coffee Growers Mandates Consumer Response

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Since returning from Nicaragua I have closely followed the news from that region. The news has not been good. During the summer of 2000, I stayed with a family in Matagalpa who lived in a small wooden shack set in the thick green mountainside. The juxtaposition of extreme poverty alongside rich, fertile land stood as a vivid reminder that the legacy of colonialism and its modern manifestation, corporate exploitation, continues to severely constrict the lives of those living in Latin America today.
In the mornings I would walk with the children to a nearby river, and carry buckets of water to pour over rows of coffee plant seedlings. The children told me that it would be four years before the plants began to produce a crop. I wondered what, after years of painstaking care to produce this first crop, would be the compensation for their labor. From all I have read and seen, suffering and starvation may well be their only reward.
On Tuesday, August 28, 2001, a headline in the Seattle Post read, “Weak from Hunger, Nicaraguan Peasants Flee the Fields.” The article traced the journey of 480 campesinos who, fired from their jobs at Los Milagros coffee plantation, joined hundreds of others in a mass exodus from coffee-dependent communities. Across the country coffee refugees, without work and desperate for food, congregated in makeshift camps and wondered what to do. Despite promising rhetoric during the recent Presidential elections in Nicaragua, little has changed for the coffee growers.
Coffee is the second largest US import after oil, and the United States consumes one-fifth of the world’s coffee, making it the single largest coffee consumer in the world. But few Americans realize that agricultural workers in the coffee industry often toil in what can be described as “sweatshops in the fields.” The average coffee farmer earns less than $3.00 per day, less than what most Americans spend on coffee per day, and often less then the cost of growing it, forcing the farmer into a downward spiral of poverty and debt.
What has conspired to create this crisis? Many factors are at work. One that stands out is the push by the World Bank to invest heavily in Vietnamese coffee, which has in turn created a surplus in the market and left wholesale prices for coffee in a tailspin. In 1996 the wholesale price for Arabica coffee (high-grade coffee grown in Nicaragua) was $3 per pound, while today a pound sells for 51 cents. Worldwide wholesale coffee prices are currently well below the cost of production, causing massive unemployment and starvation among growers. Yet the average retail price for roasted coffee remains high. What gives?
Under the “free trade” economic model, so-called “developing” countries that are desperate for money appeal to the World Bank for assistance. Loans are granted, but only if certain conditions are met by the recipient country. These conditions include cutting social spending, privatizing the economy, eliminating regulations on foreign ownership of resources and businesses, eliminating tariffs, and re-orienting the economy from subsistence to exports. The “free trade” system is based on the mythology that if a country makes itself as hospitable as possible to foreign investment, even when this means weakening environmental and labor codes and prioritizing export commodities over food security, economic growth will occur. Unfortunately, the only thing that generally grows is the wealth of the multinational corporations, many of whose annual sales are greater than the entire Gross Domestic Products of the coffee-producing countries. “Free trade” is a bankrupt model that has led to greater economic inequality, environmental degradation, and social unrest throughout the world. Not surprisingly, George Bush’s administration continues to promote this failed policy with the Central American Free Trade Agreement. So long as our nation’s leaders continue down this misguided path, it is up to us as ordinary citizens to propose, create, and demand an alternative. Fair Trade offers us the opportunity to do just that.
As an alternative to unregulated “free trade”, a Fair Trade certification system has been developed which assures consumers that the coffee they drink was purchased under specified Fair Trade conditions. To become Fair Trade certified, an importer must meet stringent international criteria: pay a minimum price per pound of $1.26, provide much- needed credit to farmers, and offer technical assistance such as help in transitioning to organic farming. Fair Trade coffee is grown by approximately 300 farmer cooperatives in over 20 countries across Latin America, Africa, and Asia. According to TransFair, a non-profit third-party certification organization, in 2001 more than 550,000 farmers and their families earned a decent living in democratically-run Fair Trade certified cooperatives.
Wishing to support this effort, the Common Ground Food-Co-Op, a program of the Illinois Disciples Foundation, began work on a local Fair Trade Coffee Campaign in February of 2002. Since then we have produced a brochure to educate community members about the importance of Fair Trade. We are also in the process of creating a Champaign-Urbana Fair Trade Coffee Guide, which will list the addresses of local coffeehouses and bulk suppliers who offer Fair Trade Certified coffee. Equipped with this guide, both consumers and retailers will be empowered on a local level to participate in the creation of a more just global economy by purchasing only Fair Trade Certified coffee.
In addition, we will be sponsoring an educational forum on Fair Trade at the Illinois Disciples Foundation on May 1, International Workers Day. Keynote speaker for the event will be Jim Goetsch, a longtime Fair Trade activist with Friends of the Third World. Jim attended the first Alternative Trading Conference in 1977, helped found Three Rivers Co-Op in Indiana, and in 1983 helped organize the first importing of “fair trade” from Nicaragua as a protest against the Reagan/Bush embargo. Jim continues to work with Friends of the Third World, which partners with 80 grassroots cooperatives in 40 countries.
As you can see, we have ambitious goals for the upcoming month and hope you will join us in promoting this campaign. If you would like to learn more about how you or your organization can become involved in the local Fair Trade movement, please call 352-8721 and ask for Jill, Meridith, or Jamie.

Meridith Kruse is the Executive Director of the Illinois Disciples Foundation

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