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Empowering the Farmer:
The Root of Fair Trade and Sustainability


A Model Coffee

"What type of coffee do you find when you go to the store?" I asked. They mentioned a few widespread brands which we classified as commercial coffee, explaining that these coffees may not require a high quality bean. We then built on the image of Peet's Coffee to define the Specialty Market. Once both markets were clear to everyone, we proceeded to discuss prices and why they fluctuate. We explored the issues of cropps world supply, natural disasters, speculators, and unavoidable situations that affect the price of coffee. We also allotted a great deal of time for translation, discussion, and any questions that they had.

I paralleled the New York Coffee Exchange (NYCE) with the story of a man who lives far in the mountains that decides to travel two days with his coffee to sell at the town market, since he heard there was a good price. After the long arduous journey, he arrives in the city to find out the price has fallen below the cost of his trip. However, if he had previously contracted to sell his coffee to the market he would have only had to deliver on the agreed-upon date. This simplified version gave them an accessible introduction to the NYCE.

It was clear that there is a market for all coffee, but that opportunities for better prices are available upon separating and improving the product. They voiced the need to take measurements to improve the quality but also that it had to be a unanimous community project. "What good does it do that I work hard on my coffee but another guy doesn't care; he puts his coffee together with mine and we all lose," one man said.

Together they decided to concentrate their energy on improving their product, understanding that it would not happen overnight, but that it would, in the long run, get them a better price and create a consistent demand. I reiterated that with a good product, and some cooperation, we would find the right markets and fair prices.

Each participant received a piece of green paper cut into the shape of a leaf that Jim and Ruth had helped make the day before. They wrote their evaluations, taping their leaf next to their photo so we'd know the faces that belonged to their encouraging comments. I thought that there would be some participants who would not know how to write but to my amazement all of them wrote out at least a few words. All in all, the project was a success. We broke out of our disparate worlds and met somewhere in between to cover the essential details for nuturing a quality bean.

Community as Springboard

Upon concluding the seminar, we celebrated in the popular Mayan way and the participants that came from Cancuc, the adjacent municipality, invited us to travel to their community to meet with the representatives of Cokepec in their region.

The seminar attendees from Cancuc; our translator, Jose, a Mayan from Tenejapa; three of the employees of the organization; and Jim, Ruth, and I got on a 5-ton truck with an open back and began our journey through the mountains. Dusk was approaching and as luck would have it the moon was completely full. Traveling through one long narrow winding dirt road, we stopped frequently to drop off passengers as we arrived at their communities or to let oncoming traffic pass by. On the roadside, hundreds of coffee plants adorned the pathways to modest houses of wood and adobe. Men in the traditional Mayan Cancuc elaborately embroidered hot pink colored shorts outfits and women in long skirts and huipils (long woven shirts) with matching hot pink designs were returning from work.

We came around the last curve, nearing El Pozo. Despite oncoming darkness, we could see about 30 people in their hot pink outfits in the middle of the road, apparently waiting for us. The leader of the group, an older man who spoke little Spanish emerged to introduce himself. We shook hands with everyone and looked at each other for a while until all customary protocol was fulfilled. We were then led into a small room. A single light bulb hung from the ceiling, providing minimal light, filling the room with a soft, warm tone. Long boards were situated on chairs and tree stumps to make benches that aligned the four walls, as many people as possible crammed onto the benches while the others watched from the doorway. A rectangular table was set up in the corner for us to sit at. We drank soda while they prepared a meal for us. The leader of the organization served us our food, bringingt out numerous bowls filled with chicken, rice, broth, and fresh handmade tortillas.

Anxiety filled me as I finished my meal, understanding it was my responsibility as the leader of the visiting group to speak. I asked Jose, "What do you think they want me to talk about?"

"Perhaps motivate them," he responded.

I thought to myself, Who am I, this person so remote from their reality, to motivate them?

Yet, once everyone finished eating, all eyes turned towards me. I stood up from the corner I was nestled in, looked around the room, and began. First, I asked the leaders for permission to speak. Once this was granted, I explained our purpose in coming. I spoke of creating a direct bridge between producers and buyers to improve prices and create a consistent demand.

I talked about infrastructures and programs that needed to be implemented to improve the product so that better markets could be found. They were clear about their objective - to sell directly to large companies, especially outside of Mexico. As much as we wanted change and development, we all acknowledged that the process that we were embarking on would not bring change overnight.

"Let this not be the last time that you come, because many people and organizations have come and gone; here for a while and one day just disappeared, leaving the work undone. We are willing to work but you must be willing to stay in this for the long haul, too," they said.

"I started working in Chiapas six years ago," I said. "I have always returned; and when I come I never come emptyhanded. This time I come with information, something that can never be taken away. The purpose of the seminar was to show you how the coffee market works in the rest of the world. Now, with knowledge that has been shared, you can make conscious decisions and plans about your coffee production."

They committed to continuing their work on improving their coffee and I committed to looking for markets for their product; but perhaps more importantly I committed to returning. And when all questions had been answered, we were told to wait while the leader went out to get something. After a couple of minutes, he returned with three string-tied cardboard boxes, and we knew that the noise and movement coming from within them could only be attributed to one thing: chickens. As I was handed the first box, I stood up, honored and amazed. Then Ruth and Jim got up as they were handed the remaining two boxes. The three of us were speechless. We were then given a 50-lb. sack of coffee each, after which we finally managed to gather the words to thank them. With the road for sustainabilty paved, a true sustainable specialty coffee awaits brewing.

Krystell Maya Guzman is the owner of Kafé Jade, a company which provides consulting on economic and social development projects from the ground up. Kafe Jade also imports Mexican coffees. Your comments and feedback are welcome at (510) 412-1090, or via e-mail at cafeik@aol.com.

Tea & Coffee - April 2000


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