Coffee, Fair Trade, and You
Walking home from the school bus stop in St. Paul, Minn. I am reminded of San Marcos, Guatemala. At this time of day there, a thick blanket of fog will cover the rural community.
Here, I am bombarded throughout the day by media: billboards on the street corners, television, newspapers, magazines. It's inescapable. But for the children living in San Marcos, walking alongside the road looking at the candy-colored tombstones of the cemetery, it is stimulating enough.
Last July, I was privileged to spend time with the people living in San Marcos, helping to construct 25 homes for families living outside of the town. Many of the families were living in what we would consider poverty, although they were probably unaware to what extent. In fact, 60 percent of the Guatemalan population lives below the poverty line, and the majority of them live in rural communities. They lack access to health care and many are malnourished.
The 1996 peace accords ended 30 years of civil war in Guatamala. But, for many who live there, life is still a struggle. For many rural farmers, the amount of money they receive for their crops do not provide livable wages. Like in many third-world Nations, the distribution of wealth in Guatemala is uneven. The wealthiest 10 percent of the population lives on 50 percent of the total income.
It is inexplicably difficult as a young person to feel connected to the struggles of people living thousands of miles away. Since visiting Guatamala and witnessing first-hand, the way the farmers live to produce products that they, themselves cannot afford to buy, all this has changed for me. I have learned that even though it may seem like we have no role helping people earn livable wages, the opposite is, in fact, true. It may sound insignificant at first, but I've learned to connect the dots between myself and other youth (who do things like drink coffee and eat chocolate) and the lives of the families I met in San Marcos. Sound far- fetched? Let me explain.
In our global economy, we have the power to incite change through what we buy as consumers. Our purchases send messages to the businesses we choose to support and to the companies whose products we reject. These simple actions can have a profound impact on the global market.
Coffee shops have become a cultural meeting place for young people across America, and the coffee we choose has a major effect on the farmers who produce it. But how often do any of us actually think about the harvesting and roasting process coffee beans go through before they are made into our iced mochas or decaf caramel lattes?
The majority of us do not understand the repercussions of the free trade market we live in, because the ramifications are outside the realm of our experiences. Those of us who come from working class, middle or upper income families, benefit from free trade. However, the workers who create what we consume don't necessarily make a living wage even if the profits are significant.
So then, are we responsible for the economic consequences? No, but we ARE responsible for the products we choose to purchase, and we are responsible for the impact of these choices. Typically, students are not taught about the global economy and the impact of free trade on underdeveloped countries. We are encouraged to remain oblivious to the influence of our choices as consumers.
Following my trip to Guatemala, I became involved with a local Minneapolis company that sells fair trade, organic, shade-grown coffee to local grocery stores and coffee shops in the Twin Cities. The fair trade component of their company is what distinguishes them from many other businesses. Fair trade coffee companies like this work with small, democratically organized farming cooperatives in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Ethiopia and a number of other countries. They provide livable wages for the farmers, and up to three times as much income as the average coffee producer.
These wages allow farmers to provide for their families, increase their quality of life and continue to work on their farms. During the past four months I have organized an effort at my church selling Fair Trade. Surprisingly, the response has been enthusiastic. Many people will support the idea of fair trade, when the option is provided, even though it costs more.
What Can You Do?
In thinking about global issues, it is best to begin at a local level. Don't underestimate the power of simple actions. Seek out fair trade, organic coffee -- and other products like chocolate, tea and bananas -- when you can. Encourage your local coffee shop to consider making the switch -- or, at the very least, to feature a day a week where they serve fair trade coffee. [Speaking of part-time fair trade business: Visit the Global Exchange site to Send a free Fax to demand that Starbucks brew Fair Trade Coffee of the Day every week!http://www.globalexchange.org/economy/coffee/starbucks.html]
When you cannot buy fair trade, realize that you are sustaining companies that are not paying farmers enough to live on. This is not to suggest that you should obsess over every cup, but always be aware of whom you are supporting. When the public continues to buy coffee from major corporate conglomerates it sends the message that we accept their trade policies. As long as these companies continue to make money, they will not reevaluate their trade policies and the cycle will continue. If there are shops near you that sell fair trade coffee, support them.
Help to raise consciousness about the issue and let coffee producers know that you are aware of their trade policies.
When you finally drink your first cup of fair trade coffee, take a second when you are savoring it to appreciate the distance traveled and the hands the beans have passed through to reach you. And remember that by purchasing from the fair trade market, the effect of your purchases are not insignificant -- you are making a difference in people's lives in another part of the world.