The Global Politics of FoodThe Campaign to Humanize the Coffee Trade
The Campaign to Humanize the Coffee Trade
by Daniel Zwerdling
NPR News and American RadioWorks

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Field Notes

Listeners often ask me, "How do you come up with your story ideas?" They usually seem surprised when I tell them, "It's easy—in fact, you probably have a dozen great story ideas every day." Every time you pause for an instant when you hear or read or see something, and you say to yourself, "Hmmm, I wonder why / how / what ..." you've just found the seed of a story.

Be honest: When you drop by your local coffee house...

Coffee Barrista: "Hi, how are you?" you ever think about the farmers who grew that coffee, thousands of miles away?

Coffee Drinker: "I need two, let's see …"

When you pay the bill...

Barrista: "Eight twenty-nine!" you ever wonder: How much of this money will the coffee farmers and their families actually get?

An international network of activists wants you to start thinking about it, because they say they've figured out a simple way that you can affect the global economy and transform the lives of farmers: Look for coffee with the special label marked "Fair Trade."

Coffee Country
Let's go right to coffee country. Let's head to the mountains of Guatemala—where they grow some of the best coffee you can drink.

When we descend the corkscrew road into the village of Santa Clara, the sun's already sinking behind a peak, and farmers are shuffling back down the steep slopes after a whole day picking beans. Some lead pack horses, which sag under the weight of burlap bags. They're mangy animals; you can count their ribs. The farmers tie the reins to trees at the edge of the village, and then they unload their harvest at the village warehouse.

But many farmers can't afford a horse. One man's staggering down the dirt path, bending forward at the waist: He's lugging more than 50 pounds of coffee on his own back. But he says that's nothing. "Sometimes [we carry] 100 pounds or more," he says, through my interpreter. "You see that mountain in front of us? When you're picking beans on those slopes, there's no way you could get a horse in there, even if you had one. So you have to carry the coffee for more than an hour. You come here sweating, really sweating."

You don't have to be an economist to see that growing coffee here doesn't buy much of a life. Picture the farmers' homes on the hillsides: They're shacks. The floors are bare dirt. There's no running water or electricity. The outside walls are thin wooden planks—and it gets cold here up in the mountains.

The world's coffee prices go up and down, depending partly on supply and demand and speculation by international investors. But these farmers are stuck in poverty. They sell their beans to local businessmen whom they derisively call "coyotes," and the coyotes pay them less than 50 cents per pound. At that price, the farmers can barely make a few hundred dollars a year. "To produce coffee, it's expensive," one farmer says. "It's a lot of work, and sometimes we can't even cover our costs."

In fact, one local coyote confirms that "most farmers are losing money" at the prices he pays them. But he says he doesn't have any choice. He says there's too much coffee on the world markets these days, and if he pays the farmers more, he won't make enough profit to feed his own family.

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