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The Global Politics of FoodThe Campaign to Humanize the Coffee Trade

Reporter's Notebook
Giving Fair Trade Coffee a Face


Daniel Zwerdling
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.

And that's how I decided to do the Fair Trade story. About a year ago, I started reading articles in major newspapers about the Fair Trade movement, and virtually every article was the same: The reporter would declare that American activists had organized a system to pay coffee farmers more money, and then quote those activists describing why the program was such a great success, why it was changing farmers' lives, why it was a model for reforming the global economy. But all the information was second or third-hand: none of the reporters ever quoted a real-live farmer who actually grows coffee and takes part in the Fair Trade Program. It was obvious that all the reporters had written the articles from their offices in the United States.

And I found myself thinking, "Hmm, I wonder how the farmers themselves feel about the program. I wonder how it's affecting their lives." So I got on a plane and flew to Guatemala.

Earning Trust
Of course, it wasn't that simple. Actually, I spent months trying to get in touch with the field inspectors in the Fair Trade system who actually visit the coffee farms—people like Guillermo Denaux, who plays a major role in my story. Think about it: These men and women spend most of their lives traipsing through the back country of countries like Guatemala and Indonesia and Peru, so it's not easy to pick up the phone and reach them.

Once I finally talked with Denaux, it took a half-dozen more phone calls over several months to get him to trust me, so he felt comfortable about letting me observe and record his meetings with farmers. Most of those farmers—most people in Guatemala—suffered terribly during years of civil war: Everybody you meet can name family members or friends who were arrested and tortured or killed by government forces or rebels—or both. So they feel wary of outsiders, and Denaux didn't want some foreign journalist barging into the villages and damaging the relationship that he's built with them over years.

Sure, I might have been able to find some Fair Trade farmers and interview them on my own, and produce a passable story. But without Denaux there to vouch for me, the farmers would never have allowed me to sit in on that remarkable meeting, where they confess that they don't really know what the Fair Trade system is—even though they're a part of it—and they're in effect violating the Fair Trade system's rules by not keeping good financial records. That scene conveys just how much work activists will have to do to educate poor, illiterate farmers who've always been stuck at the bottom of the economic and social scale.

A Long Road
When NPR and MPR set up this unusual joint project, American RadioWorks, the idea was to give reporters and producers the time—and money—to do investigative and documentary journalism. Does the Fair Trade coffee story fit? I think the answer is yes—although it's not "investigative" in the sense that the TV magazines have come to use, where you use hidden cameras and microphones and get hold of secret files. But my story illuminated the Fair Trade coffee movement, it let farmers speak for themselves, in a way that no U.S. media had done before.

I was able to do it simply because American RadioWorks gave me the time and money. For instance: In order to get to that meeting, I just mentioned between Denaux and the farmers—a two-hour meeting—we had to drive for 10 hours over bone-crunching mountain roads. That trip didn't unearth any scandals. But now the Fair Trade coffee movement has a face.

Daniel Zwerdling
NPR News and AmericanRadioworks

Go to The Campaign to Humanize the Coffee Trade>>