A Cooperative Cup
March 14, 2004 9:00 pm
In the United States, many college students have the opportunity to buy Fair Trade coffee between classes. In rural Nicaragua, many students have the opportunity to go to classes because of Fair Trade coffee. The Fair Trade system is designed to promote social and environmental responsibility and offers small-scale coffee farmers, organized into cooperatives, an above-market price for their product. In Los Alpes, a small mountain community in northern Nicaragua, Fair Trade allowed a group of farmers to build a much-needed elementary school for their children.
For eight years, coffee farmer Adolfo Talavera held classes in a dirt-floored room of his home while he wrote to government officials explaining the need for a school in the area. But no progress was made until he and other members of a Fair Trade coffee cooperative decided to acton their own. The co-op provided land, international non-government organizations donated materials, and parents of children in the community did the manual labor.
"Individually, we have no voice, but as a cooperative we can accomplish things," Talavera said.
Some of those things include clean drinking water, fuel-efficient stoves that reduce the amount of firewood used, latrines, reforestation projects and technical assistance in the transition to organic coffee farming. Many cooperative members in the region received or purchased property during the land reforms of the 1980s, forming cooperatives which later enabled them to join the Fair Trade system.
The difference in quality of life between those involved in a Fair Trade cooperative and those who aren’t is clear in Los Alpes.
From their simple, yet sturdy, wood-slab house, Talavera and his family watch the truckloads of plantation coffee pickers pass by on the bumpy dirt road.
These pickers, not under the Fair Trade system, live in crowded barracks called "campamentos" during the week and are trucked out each Sunday for a day off.
On plantations, the day begins for most at 5 a.m. and earlier for the women who cook tortillas and beans for breakfast. Coffee pickers work until mid-afternoon, filling the baskets strapped to their waists with red coffee cherries. The workers are often exposed to harsh pesticides and chemical fertilizers which, according to Talavera’s brother Antonio, create a dense cloud over the plantation whenever they are applied.
The plantation down the road from his house produces sun-grown coffee, which means that all the native trees were cleared before the coffee was planted, leaving workers exposed to the sun and rain.
The days are long on small-scale farms during the harvest, too.
The family picks coffee most of the day, then brings it to a small wet-processing mill on the property. There, the men and boys take turns cranking the wheel of the depulper, which removes the red shells from the beans. During the peak of the harvest, depulping may stretch late into the night, the mill lit by kerosene torches made out of old Coca-Cola bottles.
Meanwhile, the women complete the similarly grueling task of grinding corn for tortillas. After dinner, the family might find time to play a few rounds of "desmoche," a popular Nicaraguan card game, before falling asleep on wooden platform beds. Then it’s upwith the rooster’s crow to wash the coffee picked the day before, cleaning the beans of their sweet, honey-like pulp. They are then laid in the sun and mixed frequently so they dry evenly. Family members work together to pick out cracked or stained beans so the bags they take to town the next day will be free from defects.
Whether on a plantation or a small farm, coffee harvesting is hard work. But Talavera notes one major difference.
"I work for myself, not for the rich. (On the plantations) they work and work and don’t gain anything. Their kids have to work, and there’s no school," he said.
After the coffee harvest, which lasts from November to February, small-scale farmers are kept busy harvesting other crops such as beans, corn and fruit.
Maintenance of the coffee plants, a labor-intensive crop all year long, also takes time.
But for plantation workers, most of whom are landless and have no other source of income, the nine-month period between coffee harvests is called "the time of silence." According to the Association of Rural Workers in Nicaragua, during this time, 90 percent of plantation workers are out of work, adding to an already high national unemployment rate.
Esperanza Rivera has been picking coffee on a plantation outside of Matagalpa for the past 10 years. She lives in a one-room house with her five children, two of whom pick coffee with her during the harvest. Between three pickers, they earn about $2 a day.
She says in the last few years, since coffee prices started dropping, the work on the plantation has been harder. Because the plantation owners are making less money, they employ fewer workers year-round, leaving the coffee plants poorly maintained. On some plantations, the weeds are taller than Rivera’s 11-year-old daughter, Meicy. The pickers have to dig through vines, wasps’ nests and clusters of "spider houses" to get to the coffee cherries, which are often dry or moldy.
And though Rivera lives just 50 yards from a government-run school, only one of her children attends because she can’t afford the mandatory uniforms for all of them. "What can I do?" she asks.
"When there;s no work, there’s no money for the children."
She says the Fair Trade farmers are better off because "the cooperative is united; they work together. It’s much harder individually."
Plantation workers’ recent efforts to unite have led to little change. Each of the past two years, thousands of unemployed, landless workers have protested in the streets, closing down parts of the PanAmerican Highway and demanding access to land, work, health-care and education.
In July 2003, 17 people died during a 100-mile march to the capital city of Managua, according to the ARW. The government had agreed the previous year to meet many of the protesters’ demands, but has been slow in allocating land.
Rivera doesn’t know if she will join the protests this year if they occur, because "it’s a big sacrifice, especially with young children." But if the government makes good on its promises, thousands like her may find themselves in the same situation as many Nicaraguans 20 years ago – owners of small parcels of land with the possibility of forming cooperatives.
Until then, Rivera says she and her family will survive the "time of silence" by consuming little but "air and bananas."
Coffee "crisis" and Fair Trade
Having always fluctuated, coffee prices used to be regulated by the International Coffee Organization. But when the United States withdrew from the agreement in 1989, the market was left open to increased volatility.
In 2001, due largely to corporate consolidation, which gives buyers more power, and huge increases in coffee production in Vietnam and Brazil, the world coffee price fell to 42 cents per pound, the lowest in over 100 years after adjusting for inflation.
The drop has been devastating to countries like Nicaragua that count coffee as a main export crop. Though the market price is up to 74 cents this year, that’s only about 8 cents higher than the amount it costs to produce a pound of coffee in Nicaragua, according to the World Bank. And in most countries, the cost of production is even higher.
The low prices have forced small-scale farmers to abandon their farms or work harder for less money and have forced many plantation owners to scale down or cease production, leaving thousands of rural workers unemployed.
Meanwhile, retail prices have not reflected the drop; consumers haven;t seen lower coffee prices in stores or cafes. The continued low market prices, a crisis for the world’s 25 million coffee workers, is anything but for large coffee importers and roasters.
A rapidly growing sector of the coffee industry, FairTrade guarantees small-scale farmers at least $1.26 per pound for their coffee and a chance to compete in a market dominated by large corporations.
More and more coffee drinkers are willing to pay a few extra cents for a cup of Fair Trade, whose producers are given the chance focus on quality, not quantity. "The concept of Fair Trade coffee is quality," says Fatima Ismael, the general manager of Soppexcca, an organization of Fair Trade cooperatives in Nicaragua. "Quality as much in the cup as in the quality of life of those who produce it.
" One way Fair Trade enables farmers to make improvements affecting the quality of their coffee is by guaranteeing them access to low-interest credit.
In Nicaragua, Fair Trade also gives farmers access to cupping laboratories. In the labs, professional cuppers, or coffee tasters, evaluate coffee samples based on aroma, acidity, body and flavor.
Cupping labs let potential clients sample coffee before they buy it and allow farmers to see – and taste – the end results of their labor.
"The producers know everything about picking, depulping and washing coffee. But we should also know what the coffee we export tastes like," said Talavera. Knowing how their coffee tastes gives farmers a chance to improve.
Coffee beans have to be sent to the dry mill soon after they are processed on the farm, a challenge for many small-scale farmers. Private vehicles are hard to come by in rural areas, and the gasoline, chickens and other smelly cargo common on public buses can contaminate coffee.
"Last year, we had a farmer whose coffee tasted bad because of inadequate transportation. You can taste that in the coffee. So this year we fixed the transportation problem, and his coffee is much better," said Ismael. Through the cooperatives, problems like this can be solved. And farmers don’t have to rely on high-charging middlemen (called"coyotes" in Central America) to take their beans to the market.
Removing the middlemen allows farmers to have closer connections to the people who buy and drink their product. And because the Fair Trade system promotes long-term relationships between producers and buyers, farmers have the chance and incentive to keep quality high.
Certification and organic farming
According to Fairtrade Labelling Organization, the international Fair Trade umbrella organization that certifies producers, about 800,000 farmers in 45 countries are involved in Fair Trade. And in communities like Los Alpes, even families not in the cooperative benefit from projects like the elementary school.
FLO’s criteria for maintaining certification include environmental protection efforts and progress toward integrated crop management.
On coffee farms, this means coffee is grown under the multi-level shade of banana or other native trees. The mix of crops provides natural protection against pests and disease, a home for migratory birds, and additional sources of food and income for farmers.
On Talavera’s farm, orange, banana, guava and avocado trees shade the coffee plants and provide a welcome supplement to the typical diet of beans, rice and tortillas. FLO also encourages farmers to use fewer chemicals and work toward organic certification, a benefit for the environment and for farmers, who get 15 cents more per pound for certified organic coffee.
"Organic is more work, but it’s worth it because there’s enough demand that we always sell all of it," Talavera said. That’s important because, due to demand, only about 25 percent of coffee produced by Fair Trade certified cooperatives worldwide is sold under Fair Trade terms. At Cecocafen, a group of cooperatives in Nicaragua, increased organic production and a focus on quality have enabled it to sell over half of its coffee within the Fair Trade system.
Demand for Fair Trade in coffee-consuming countries is still lagging behind the supply, but even for the farmers hoping for the Fair Trade price for their coffee, money isn’t the system’s only benefit.
"Of course the better price is important," Talavera said, after walking through his densely forested coffee farm to visit a fellow cooperative member. "But what is also important is to protect the environment. To protect the health of my children, of the people around me, and of the forest."