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News: Justice in Your Cup

Your choice of coffee can change lives

By Elizabeth Wu · October 1st, 2003 · News
  Valerie Orth of Global Exchange (left) and Sister Alice Gerdeman hope to make coffee drinkers aware of the plight of Third World farmers.
Jymi Bolden

Valerie Orth of Global Exchange (left) and Sister Alice Gerdeman hope to make coffee drinkers aware of the plight of Third World farmers.

Many North Americans feel strongly about getting their morning coffee. But for many Central Americans -- specifically 600,000 coffee farmers and workers who have lost their jobs -- your choice of coffee is a matter of life or death.

Nearly 25 million farmers in more than 50 countries worldwide depend on growing coffee for their livelihood. Since 2000, the world market price of coffee has plummeted to a 30-year low and now sells for about 50 cents per pound -- enough to brew 40 cups.

Because of a glut in the market, many have been forced to sell their crops for less than the cost of production. For countries that rely heavily on exports, the effects are devastating. Millions of families are unable to afford food, shelter, healthcare, schooling and other necessities. Many are losing their land or abandoning their fields in hope of finding work elsewhere.

First thing in the morning, most people aren't ready to think about social issues, especially ones that affect Third World villagers thousands of miles away. A cup of Fair Trade coffee can clear the cobwebs as well as help provide a living wage for the people who produce it.

During a Fair Trade conference Sept. 21 at Su Casa Ministries, Jovita Hernandez, a young Mexican coffee harvester, described her three years picking "cherries," the bright red coffee fruit that eventually became your cuppa. Her message: Working in coffee fields from 6 a.m. to sundown is backbreaking, dangerous and demeaning.

These fields could be depicted as open-air sweatshops.

Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini of San Marcos, Guatemala, who spoke through a translator at the conference, expressed anger at the disparity between the price of a cup of coffee and the amount paid to farm workers. He said that when he arrived in the United States, he couldn't help but convert the cost of a $4.50 Starbucks coffee he visited to his native currency. The Guatemalan equivalent, approximately 38 quetzales, equals about four to five days' wages for the average harvester -- less than $1 a day.

Ramazzini, who has received both human rights awards and death threats for his work mediating land disputes for the poor, said Guatemala is the poorest country in Central America. He attributes this to the system of export, which he says "has only produced poverty."

Not everyone in Guatemala is poor, however. Ramazzini said 2 percent of the 10 million population owns almost three-fourths of all arable land. Because this land is devoted to exports such as coffee, bananas and sugar cane, many people starve. The country now has to import corn, the very crop its people, the Mayans, have always been famous for.

Ramazzini drew a direct connection between the coffee crisis and the influx of immigrants to the United States. He said that each year for the past four years approximately 65,000 Guatemalans have tried to emigrate to the U. S. looking for work; many have died on the way. Others have sought work in overcrowded cities or tried to cultivate more lucrative crops such as coca, used for cocaine and opium poppies, used for heroin.

What hurts most is that youth age 21 and younger, 70 percent of the population, "don't even have the promise of a better future than their parents or grandparents," Ramazzini said.

Agricultural reform is the only hope for improvement, and the Fair Trade is a good start, he said.

Fair Trade is a system designed to give the majority of profit from coffee and other products directly to the people who produce them. It guarantees a price at least 5-15 percent above the market value -- a minimum of $1.26 per pound of coffee, or $1.41 if it's organic.

Fair Trade prohibits forced or exploitative child labor, provides credit to farmers at low rates, promotes sustainable farming methods, encourages long-term business relationships and organizes farmers in cooperatives. Other products that can be certified as Fair Trade include cocoa, bananas, mangoes, sugar and handcrafted items. TransFair USA, the only third-party certification agency in the United States, created a logo in 1999 to help consumers identify Fair Trade products.

Five years ago only one company, Equal Exchange, was devoted to promoting Fair Trade. Today there are 225 such companies. More than 130 coffee roasters and importers and about 10,000 retailers now sell Fair Trade coffee. Many faith-based organizations are promoting Fair Trade by offering coffee after services and educating their parishioners about the social effects of consumer choices.

Procter & Gamble, one of the world's largest coffee moguls, is preparing to join the movement. The company recently decided to pilot a certain amount of Fair Trade coffee in a new product, Mountain Moonlight.

Sister Alice Gerdeman, coordinator of the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center, says this is exactly the sort of action Fair Trade advocates are pushing: to bring the average Joe a just cup of joe. If Fair Trade coffee is used in already familiar brands, many more people will consider buying it, she says. Furthermore, because of its careful processing, Fair Trade coffee is generally a better quality and therefore will be an easy choice for someone who wants to purchase quality as well as equality, she says.

"If you're buying a pound, it might be more expensive, but if it's a cup, probably not," she says. "Why not make this choice and know you're helping people?"

P&G's cooperation is limited, however. Its Fair Trade product will be available only to consumers online.

Gerdeman plans to rally with Global Exchange, an international human rights organization, at P&G's annual shareholders meeting Oct. 15.

Valerie Orth of Global Exchange will be a keynote speaker during the Globalization Conference Oct. 10-12 at the University of Cincinnati. She encourages those interested in helping improve the lives of Third World farmers to ask for and buy Fair Trade coffee and introduce Fair Trade to church, work or school organizations.

"We call it 'drinking a cup of justice,' " she says. ©



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