When hurricane Stan hit Guatemala last month, homes, crops and livestock were washed away in the waters; one entire village was buried under...
When Hurricane Stan hit Guatemala last month, homes, crops and livestock were washed away in the waters; one entire village was buried under a torrent of mud. As aid began to flow into the country, immediate needs like food, water and medical care were paramount. But even while the relief efforts have gotten under way, we need to look to new models to tackle the poverty that has long plagued this region, making its inhabitants so vulnerable to the effects of natural disasters.
And Seattleites have a role to play in this process — not only as a source of disaster relief, but perhaps more importantly as consumers of the product that is the chief source of livelihood in these devastated communities: coffee.
Thanks to the global economy, coffee drinkers in Seattle are inextricably linked to places like San José el Rodeo, a municipality in San Marcos, Guatemala, where University of Washington faculty and students visited a coffee plantation in late August and September. Workers there earn less than $2 a day during the harvest, and even less in the off-season.
When the UW students entered the community’s ramshackle homes, they were greeted by the children, many of them barefoot, who pick the beans that make their way into lattes and double macchiatos. Less than a nickel of the $3 Seattle consumers spend on an espresso drink typically finds its way back into these communities.
But there is nothing inevitable — or unalterable — about this state of affairs. The UW students also visited a fair-trade coffee cooperative in San Marcos. Workers there are also poor by U.S. standards. But thanks to their cooperative structure, they are able to pool resources, cut out middlemen, and channel shared profits into community-development projects. They own their own land; they work hard, but they reap the rewards.
Consumers in Seattle reap the rewards of fair trade, too. Thanks to a rigorous inspections process, those who buy Fair Trade Certified coffee can rest assured that farmers were paid a fair price. Over 80 percent of Fair Trade Certified coffee also meets organic and shade-grown standards.
Although the final prices of fair-trade and non-fair-trade coffees are comparable, the difference lies in whose pockets the profits line. Ultimately, by buying fair trade, consumers can protect our planet and promote the long-term sustainability of communities in places like San Marcos, where without other options, large numbers are forced to migrate, or left to eke out a fragile existence ever more vulnerable to disasters like Hurricane Stan.
Today, virtually everyone, from consumers to corporations, says they support fair trade, and even the largest coffee companies offer fair-trade beans; Starbucks is rolling out a new fair-trade blend just this month. But according to a study just completed by Fair Trade Puget Sound, fair-trade coffee still represents less than 2 percent of Seattle’s specialty coffee market. You still can’t walk into Starbucks or Tully’s and buy a fair-trade espresso or latte — it’s only offered in whole-bean form (and upon request in drip coffee at Starbucks).
And it’s not just the major corporations, either: Only a small minority of independent cafes offer Fair Trade Certified coffee.
Yet, it’s too easy to place all the blame on business. In fact, the problem is not that these coffee companies are opposed to fair trade, but that we, as consumers, don’t demand it. Most Seattleites endorse the concept, but too few actually buy the product. And so the fair trade coffee cooperative visited by UW students still sells about 40 percent of its coffee on the regular, non-fair-trade market, for a lower per-pound price. Why? Because there is simply not enough demand for fair-trade coffee in the global North.
Fair trade is not charity; it’s a market-driven solution to poverty based on voluntary choice. As a city whose very identity is linked to coffee, and a community that values social justice and environmental sustainability, Seattle can redefine its relationship to many communities of the global South by committing itself to Fair Trade Certified coffee.
Now, as the impoverished indigenous communities of San Marcos, Guatemala, struggle to overcome the ravages of Hurricane Stan, Seattleites can help them — not only by sending aid, but more importantly in the long term, by inscribing ourselves in a global economy based on solidarity and sustainability. In doing so, we also help ourselves.
Monsignor Alvaro Ramazzini is the Roman Catholic bishop of the Diocese of San Marcos, Guatemala. Angelina Snodgrass Godoy is assistant professor of Law, Societies, and Justice, and of International Studies, at the University of Washington. She also chairs Fair Trade Puget Sound, a fair-trade-coffee education and advocacy coalition, www.fairtradepugetsound.org