Bible Studies
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Wednesday, 16 February 2005

Some of the poorest persons on earth are coffee farmers and laborers in many developing countries. The Fair Trade coffee movement attempts to lift them from poverty by increasing and stabilizing coffee prices through cooperative production and distribution of coffee. Read how this works in Nicaragua.


By Jim Jordal

"Coffee with a Conscience." That’s the name given to a recent Lutheran World Relief (LWR) and Equal Exchange travel seminar to study Fair Trade coffee production, processing, and distribution in the Central American country of Nicaragua.

Under sponsorship of the Lutheran World Relief Coffee Project, a faith-based alliance including Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and World Relief Corporation (WRC), and organized by the Center for Global Education (CGE) of Augsburg College in Minneapolis, a group of 18 persons—including Mary and myself--from around the U. S. recently returned from an 11-day exposure to the "inside" of the cooperative coffee business.

Nicaragua is the second poorest (next to Haiti) country in the Western Hemisphere. Many of her small coffee farmers face destitution due to low world coffee prices, which have fluctuated widely over the past few years, reaching as low as 44 cents per pound in 2001.

The Fair Trade movement (there are many branches, with different names but similar goals) attempts a variety of reforms on many fronts. Obviously, the first is to use cooperative production and marketing to raise incomes of coffee farmers to a living level. Fair Trade co-ops guarantee at least $1.26 per pound, with a premium of 15 cents for organically grown beans. As one producer put it: "Before, our village brought coffee to the market and took whatever the buyers would give for it. Now we have an organization to better negotiate prices and to provide us with a living wage for our labor."

And labor it is! On a small co-op high in the hills we spent several hours slipping and sliding on the steep jungle terrain picking and sorting coffee "cherries," as the raw fruit is called. Coffee cherries grow along the entire length of a 3-foot branch, and each must be individually picked by hand, since "raking off" the cherries destroys stems which are the basis for next year’s crop. Since we arrived when the picking season was almost over, we were instructed to pick all remaining cherries, including immature green ones. Skilled pickers working at top speed can pick perhaps 10 small baskets per day, which then must be sorted into several categories (ripe, red; almost ripe, orange and yellow; and not ripe, green) before they can be further processed. We were able to pick far less.

The pulping mill consisted of an ancient, balky, smoking gas engine powering an ingenious system of pulleys, belts, shafts, bins and grinders for removing the outer skin of the cherries. After pulping, what remains is a vat of raw, ivory-colored coffee beans covered with a sweet sticky mucilage, which must be removed before the beans turn moldy.

Then the beans are sun-dried, sorted several times (by hand in the smaller co-ops) to remove beans broken, mashed, immature, discolored, or damaged by mold. They are then poured into 100-pound sacks and trucked to larger processing plants where they are graded, dried some more, graded again, re-sacked, and stored awaiting marketing by a another larger co-op.

But why would buyers pay $1.26 and higher for co-op coffee when they can get it in the same country or elsewhere for considerably less? First of all, coffee grown by these Nicaraguan co-ops is superior because it is shade-grown in the rain forest, picked by hand, and highly selected for quality. One rather modest operation we visited operated by Flora Montenegro won 4th place in the 2004 Excellence Cup Coffee quality contest, and as a result received up to $500 per 100-pound sack. But all the coffee produced by this small operation amounted to only 83 bags, resulting in a coffee income of perhaps $15,000. When you consider that this amount must support not only the Montenegro family but also her 12 employees and their families, you realize that even in a model operation such as this income is quite low.

The ecological system also profits from shade-grown coffee. These small farmers attempt to use everything from the coffee-producing process. They recycle husks into fertilizer and compost; fermented mucilage water into revitalizing spray and insect repellent for the coffee plants; and rejected beans into coffee for local use. Thus large amounts of fertilizer or insecticides are no longer needed, to the profit of birds and other animals. They are also moving toward organic farming, but only slowly, since the process of becoming certified takes several years, and there is little market for "almost-organic" coffee.

These small co-op farms provide a welcome contrast to the vast plantations run by multi-national corporations, where coffee grows in sunlight, spurred by large-scale use of commercial fertilizers and pesticides. This coffee is usually picked by unskilled, very poorly-paid labor, and is mixed with various kinds of marginal coffees so as to produce a large amount at a low cost.

Because of multi-national corporate efforts to hold down production costs by paying low wages and using poor farming or productive practices, thousands of what have come to be called non-governmental organizations (NGOs) proliferate around the earth. We were fortunate to observe some of those producing and marketing coffee, as well as one providing medical care for poor at-risk pregnant women, and another making inexpensive water purification equipment, building materials, and clothing. These small-scale cooperative efforts provide a needed antidote to worker-oppressive and ecology-destroying activities too-often promoted by rampant globalism and its multi-national corporate sponsors.

Oppressed and poverty-stricken people of the earth need our support. We can support them informing ourselves of their activities and by purchasing their products whenever possible.

Last Updated ( Friday, 18 November 2005 )