The Global Politics of FoodThe Campaign to Humanize the Coffee Trade

Cutting Out the Coyotes
How? The companies that sell Fair Trade coffee to you at your local cafe buy it almost directly from the farmers who grow it. Denaux says the network cuts out the middlemen who traditionally siphon off farmers' profits. "Their whole lives, they depended on the intermediaries to buy the coffee at a very low price," he says, and he downshifts the car to a crawl because it's just scraped a rock with a loud clunk. Denaux says when a farmer can become independent of those middlemen, and receive the profits that the middlemen usually get, it makes a huge financial difference.

Still, the Fair Trade network can't raise all the money that farmers need just by cutting out middlemen. Consumers have to help, too. You pay at least 10 percent extra for Fair Trade brands at your neighborhood store.

By the time Denaux pulls into the village of Pueblo Nuevo, behind the clouds, he's three hours late. But dozens of farmers and their wives are still waiting in the meeting hall, at the edge of a dirt clearing next to a tiny pink church—they've been sitting there all morning. As Denaux walks into the spare hall, they form an impromptu receiving line, so everybody can shake his hand.

The villagers are Mayan, and the women are wearing their traditional riot of colors: woolen skirts and blouses and jackets, embroidered with orange flowers and pink trees and purple birds. As the farmers and their wives take their seats on makeshift wooden benches, Denaux walks to the front of the room next to a big wooden crucifix, which is leaning against the wall—and he begins the meeting.

"Buenos tardes," he calls out. Silence. Denaux raises his eyebrows and crinkles his face. "Buenos tardes!" he calls out, louder this time, and the crowd laughs, and murmurs their own greeting.

Earning Double
Now that he's loosened up the crowd, Denaux reminds them that he comes from Belgium, but he spends his life traipsing across Central America: He signs up farmers in the Fair Trade network, and then he inspects them every year to make sure they're following the system's rules—which is why he's made the long drive to this village.

The farmers tell Denaux they like the Fair Trade system: They're getting twice as much money for their coffee as regular farmers are getting down the road.

But Denaux will tell you privately that the farmers can't control their lives until they understand how their business works. So he asks the crowd a simple question: "Who here can tell me why you're getting more money for your coffee," he says. And nobody answers.

Denaux begins pacing the room, like a talk show host on television. "Who knows the answer? You say you're getting twice as much money for your coffee as the coyotes are paying other farmers. So how is it possible, you getting double?" Guillermo asks. "Who's paying for you? Who's the fool who's paying more?"

Finally, one farmer speaks up. "The truth is," he says in a soft voice, "we don't know who's paying more."

So Denaux goes to a white plastic board on the wall and picks up a black marker, and he draws the Fair Trade system with circles: Farmers here, consumers there, the Fair Trade network in between. "Consumers who buy Fair Trade coffee in countries like the United States are willing to pay you more," Denaux tells the crowd, "because they want you to have better lives." And that means, Denaux tells the farmers, that they have a special responsibility to grow the best quality coffee they can.

Denaux pauses, and gazes slowly around the room. "And that means you have to run your business right. So one little question," Denaux says. "Are you keeping your books? Or do you work without books?" The farmers sit silently, shifting on their benches. "No, I'm serious," Denaux says. "Do you have your accounting books?"

As it turns out, no, they don't keep accounting books. Traditionally, corruption has plagued every level of business in Central America, and the Fair Trade system wants to teach farmers to fight that. The members of this co-op have elected some managers, and they're the ones who actually take in the coffee money and hand it out to the farmers. "Look," Denaux says, "I'm sure your managers are honest, but you have to be able to prove it. Isn't it important to you, to know your expenses, [to know] where has the money gone? Don't you want to know that?" Some of the farmers nod and murmur, "Yes. Yes, we want to know."

"But nobody knows?" Denaux responds. "You have to know." Just last year, the Fair Trade system kicked out a group of farmers because they didn't keep good financial records.

Finally, the farmers tell Denaux that they understand: They'll ask somebody who's been to school to help them start an accounting system. And, with a big round of applause, the meeting's over.

NEXT: Fulfilling Dreams >>

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