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The Global Politics of FoodThe Campaign to Humanize the Coffee Trade

Worlds Apart
These farmers are the poorest and most powerless part of the global coffee trade. And it's a massive industry: The world trades more coffee than any commodity except petroleum (and illegal drugs). But the farmers say they don't know what happens to their beans once they sell them to the coyote. They don't realize that he sells them to a processor, then the processor might sell them to an exporter. The exporter ships the beans to an importer in another country, like the United States. The importer sells them to a roaster. The roaster sells them to a coffee shop, which sells the coffee to you, and everybody makes a healthy profit along the way—except the small farmers who grow it.

When I ask the farmers if they have any idea how much stores in the United States charge for high-quality Guatemalan coffee, they shake their heads, they have no idea. When I tell them that a typical coffee shop in Washington, D.C., sells Guatemalan beans for more than $9 per pound—compared to the 50 cents they get for growing it—the farmers just stand there, looking puzzled. Then one of them pulls a calculator out of his hip pocket—it's so dirty and scratched, you can hardly see through the screen. My interpreter, Xenia Barahona, helps him convert dollars into local quetzales.

The farmers gasp and start murmuring when they hear the price.

"They're just amazed at how much a consumer pays for it," the interpreter says," and they keep just saying, '6,600-something-something quetzales!'—they're repeating it over and over again. It's an enormous difference from what they actually get. It's a huge amount of money."

A New Version of Global Trade


The Fair Trade label
Now activists have devised a cure that they call the "Fair Trade System." They say it can help farmers make more money than ever before and flex some power over their lives.

On a recent morning, I joined one of the system's organizers, a man named Guillermo Denaux. He's heading to a meeting with some Fair Trade farmers to see how things have been going. And that means that his four-wheel-drive car is straining to climb an insane, rocky path next to a cliff, way up in Guatemala's mountains.

"See that peak?" Denaxu says, as he points to a range that's lush with jungle and partly hidden by clouds. It's an unnerving moment when he takes one hand off the wheel, because if the car swerves only two feet, it will plunge down the side of the mountain. "The farmers' village is in those clouds. It's the end of the world," he laughs.

A group of European activists founded Fair Trade in the late 1980s. The program spread to the United States a few years ago. Here's how it works:

  1. First, they've signed up roughly 300 groups of coffee farmers in countries from Indonesia to Kenya to Peru. They'll only sign up small, family farmers who market their coffee together in community co-ops—no corporate plantations allowed.
  2. Second, they've figured out how much money a typical farmer needs to support a family of five: decent food, clothes, kids in school, health care. And then the system basically guarantees that the farmers can sell their coffee for enough money per pound to achieve that.

NEXT: Cutting Out the Coyotes >>