Articles From Whole Latte Love

Fair Trade Coffee: Social Consciousness by the Cupful.

Posted: 01/24/05
Woman sorting coffee
A woman spends her day manually sorting coffee at the Oromia Coffee Cooperative Union, in Ethiopia.

Farming has always been a hard way to make a living, but with the advent of corporate farming, it’s become near impossible. In the United States alone, small farmers have been getting overrun or swallowed up by giant corporate farms for years. The problem is that small, family-run farms don’t have the resources or crop size to sell directly to big buyers, so they are often forced to sell their goods to middlemen who buy from small farmers for pennies on the dollar. These middlemen then turn around, combine stock (a multitude of crops from a multitude of small farmers), jack up the prices and sell to the larger buyers. They make a hefty profit, while the small farmers are left to try to meet operating and overhead costs, usually finding themselves operating for years on end at a deficit. But this epidemic is neither limited to a particular crop or country. In fact, outside of the U.S., the conditions small farmers are forced to endure are even worse.

This dilemma is brutally apparent when we look at the small coffee farmers around the world. Operating at a year-end deficit is the least of their problems. Getting pitted against powerful, corporate mega-farms such as the large coffee plantations and estates, and the greedy, opportunistic middlemen, these farmers barely make enough to keep food on their table and a roof over their heads, not to mention medicine for when they’re sick or an education for their children.

The Origin of the Fair Trade Movement

It’s these horrendous conditions that have continued the evolution of the Fair Trade movement. But it all began in the late 40s, when churches in Europe and America formed alternate trade organizations (ATOs), for the purpose of raising money to help third world nations by making their handicrafts available to more developed countries. These ATO

Picking coffee
Costa Rican Co-op El Dos member Alba Luz picking ripe coffee cherries.
made it possible for the artisans of these relatively obscure countries to reach a global market and get a fair price for their wares, thereby helping them achieve a better quality of life.

The movement of these ATOs into the agricultural sector was a natural progression. As the world became "smaller," people became more aware of, and concerned by, the plight of the farmers and farm workers in these underdeveloped nations. In fact, in 1986, Equal Exchange, a U.S. based ATO, was formed to import Fair Trade coffee to the US market.

The Fair Trade movement helped small farmers and artisans organize into co-ops, giving them strength and unity, and making it harder for corporate farmers and middlemen to push them around or take advantage of them.

Fair trade means that farmers, workers, and artisans are primarily small-scale producers that have been organized into democratic co-ops in order to have support and strength in numbers. (However, the Fair Trade movement is working hard to encompass farm workers so they can receive a decent living wage and have the power to bargain collectively for fair working conditions and treatment). These farmers and artisans cannot use abusive child labor or forced labor and must produce their crops and products using environmentally responsible methods.

In return they are guaranteed to receive a sufficient price for their crops and wares under direct long-term contracts. This money not only helps guarantee them the money their crops are worth independent of Wall Street speculation and options trading, but it also provides them money for healthcare, education, environmental stewardship and economic independence.
Coffee Farmer
  Jesus Morales, 91, is a coffee farmer in El Salvador and a founding member of APECAFE. Started in 1997, this cooperative has united 560 small coffee producers and helps them sell their coffee on the international market. It has made it possible for them to get equipment, resources, training, and marketing opportunities that they’d never access independently.

Today, there truly is a coffee crisis. Prices paid to farmers for their beans have dropped over 50% in the last four years. On average, a $3.00 latte at a coffee house returns less than 2 cents to the farmer who grew the coffee for it. But with more than 800,000 farmers organized into 300 plus cooperatives in 25 countries in Central and South America, Africa and Asia fair trade is helping more and more small farmers around the world. And seeing how small farmers grow over 50% of the world’s coffee, as this movement continues to grow, so do the number of farmers who benefit from it, leveling the playing field against the corporate giants on a global scale. In fact, according to TransFair - the U.S.-based Fair Trade licensing organization - licensed Fair Trade importers pay a guaranteed $1.26/lb for coffee ($1.41/lb if organic) to Fair Trade coffee cooperatives which makes it possible for these organized farmers to earn up to five times more than they would independently.

The Environmental Aspect

As corporate farming and government initiatives began to take hold globally, the environment began to suffer. Chemicals started to get used on large farms. Crops, such as coffee, that were originally shade grown in harmony with nature, were developed to grow in the sun. This meant enormous areas of land were cleared so the crops would be easier to maintain.

The effects on the environment were detrimental. Birds and other wildlife lost their habitat. Land was basically strip mined, leading to erosion and a loss of rare plant life and vegetation. Thanks to chemical fertilizers and pesticides, crops no longer needed to be mixed or rotated, thus destroying the soil and the eco-systems that depended on it.

But the Fair Trade movement took notice and added provisions for environmental protection to its tenets, making it an even more encompassing global watchdog.

The Evolution of Certification

Springing from the tenets of the Fair Trade movement came the idea of certification. In the late 80s, coffee prices virtually plummeted, leaving small coffee farmers barely able to exist. So, the Fair Trade organizations in the Netherlands decided to do something about it, Named for a fictional Dutch character who opposed the exploitation of coffee pickers in Dutch colonies, they established Max Havelaar, a standardized criteria for Fair Trade coffee production. Any small grower co-op that met this criteria would have their coffee brought to the market with a Fair Trade certification label. This label not only guaranteed that this coffee met certain environmental and humanitarian standards in its production. It made it directly available to the large roasters who had been purchasing most of their coffee from middlemen. In turn, this gave these small farmers greater world exposure on the world market, and brought their plight to the attention of a global audience.

Labeling caught on worldwide. In 1996, TransFair was formed in the U.S., as our country’s only non-profit Fair Trade certification organization in the United States. And in 1997, the Fair Trade Labeling Organizations International (FLO) was formed to unite all the Certification organizations of various countries - including TransFair - together - setting universal criteria and standards. Aside from standardized labeling practices, this organization is also extremely active in promoting awareness and education about Fair Trade practices and benefits, and bringing Fair Trade coffee (and other Fair Trade products) to more and more mass marketers.
New Land Cooperative member Ramirio Espinosa teaches fellow Nicaraguan coffee farmers about quality control. The Oxfam-supported cooperative is 540 members strong and located in the Boaco region in southwest Nicaragua. The coop teaches small farmers business practices, growing techniques to help them increase their production on top of making it possible for them to market and sell their coffee in the global marketplace.

Where to Find Fair Trade Coffee

Fair Trade Certified Fair Trade coffee is now widely available in the U.S. Just look for the label. You will find it in many independent gourmet coffeehouses and big coffeehouse chains. You will find it from big roasters and small gourmet roasters alike. We carry Java Joe’s Fair Trade coffee, so you can pick it up online. Some of your finer local grocery stores are even carrying it. So pick some up, and the next time you sip on a cup of this fine elixir, know you are helping so many of the people who work so hard their entire lives producing it for you.