Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Certifying Coffee Aids Farmers and Forests in Chiapas


April 22, 2007


NUEVO PARAÍSO, Mexico — Miguel Moshán Méndez’s troubles have piled up over the past two years.

Like other coffee growers here in the impoverished state of Chiapas, he suffered devastating losses when Hurricane Stan passed through 18 months ago, tearing coffee trees from hillsides. He lost half his trees, then borrowed money to get by. Now, he must find extra work as a laborer to pay his debt, which will make it harder to maintain his tiny farm.

“I have always fallen to the moneylender, God yes,” he said, sitting in the office of his coffee-growing cooperative.

One source of hope: the increasing number of programs that help growers get higher prices for their beans if they show that they are protecting the environment, investing in community projects and treating workers well.

Most of the programs are run by nongovernmental organizations, or N.G.O.’s, intent on both improving the lot of farmers and the environment in the world’s coffee-producing regions. The N.G.O.’s certify coffee that meets their standards, banking on the notion that consumers will pay higher prices for coffee produced with concern for workers and the environment. They believe that, in turn, will drive up the price that companies are willing to pay the farmers.

Mr. Moshán Méndez’s cooperative sells to Starbucks, which has a similar in-house program that pays higher prices to farmers who meet its standards.

In this coffee region, known as Jaltenango, on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Madre, the programs appear to be making a difference, farmers say. Higher prices for certified beans have trickled down to some growers, and certification has had an environmental impact.

In the past, the area has lost forest when poor farmers cut trees and switched to cattle ranching or growing corn to try to make more money than they did cultivating coffee beans. When the farmers earn enough money to stick with coffee instead, the forest is protected; coffee trees here are traditionally planted under a canopy of indigenous trees.

The rush to certify coffee is now drawing an expanding list of players, including giant plantations and multinational traders, something that seemed unimaginable just a few years ago.

“We have sold the idea to producers that this is life insurance,” said Santiago Arguello, who is in charge of certified coffee programs at Agroindustrias Unidas, or AMSA, the Mexican subsidiary of the giant trader ECOM Agroindustrial Corporation, based in Switzerland. “If we don’t learn to work with the little producer, the whole business will disappear.”

Such trading companies, the middlemen between growers and the corporations that roast the beans and sell coffee, have not been acclaimed for their social conscience in the past. Now as Mr. Arguello, himself a third-generation coffee farmer, sketched plans for his company to sell more certified coffee, he scrolled through a catalog of community projects he is urging importers in Europe and North America to finance.

Pioneers in the certified coffee movement watch the changes with wary approval.

“The good thing is that you see these ideas gaining traction,” said Rodney North, a board member at Equal Exchange, an importer in West Bridgewater, Mass., that has bought coffee under the Fair Trade certification program since 1986.

The most important element of Fair Trade, he said, is that it demands that buyers of the coffee it certifies pay higher than market price, and that the fixed price holds even if the market collapses. Other programs do not set a price, but those who run them argue that trading companies and smaller buyers will pay to assure a high quality supply.

The price for Fair Trade organic coffee has long been fixed at $1.41 a pound and this year it will rise to $1.51 compared with the market price of about $1.08.

But as the certification programs spread, they are drawing large plantations, or fincas, to join, raising worries among small-scale producers who fear they will lose their advantage as the original suppliers.

Rancho Custepec, one of the state’s largest coffee plantations, is one of the newcomers and is working with the Rainforest Alliance.

As part of the certification process, Armando Pohlenz, the grandson of the plantation’s founder, said he planned to put about eight square miles of his land in trust for El Triunfo reserve, a refuge for dozens of rare animals, including the quetzal.

Mr. Pohlenz said he applied to the Rainforest Alliance when he was looking for a long-term contract and a better price for his coffee, and one of his American buyers recommended that program. To get the certification, he also has had to improve workers’ safety conditions at the ranch’s mill.

Sixto Bonilla, the manager at the Cesmach co-op in Ángel Albino Corzo, the area’s largest town, said such competition from plantations would force changes among smaller producers. “If we want to stay in the business, we have to find the way to be more competitive,” said Mr. Bonilla, whose co-op sells under the Fair Trade label.

One morning last month near the end of the harvest, Margarito Robledo Vásquez watched as workers unloaded his coffee from a pickup truck into the Cesmach warehouse.

He had left his house before dawn to make the two-hour drive down the dirt mountain roads. He raked his fingers through the almond-colored unhusked beans in an open sack. “This puts a meal on the table for lots of families,” he said.

Belonging to the cooperative — and selling Fair Trade-certified beans — has paid off where it matters most: his daughters’ education. Two have college degrees, the other two are studying for them.

Over at the Comon Yaj Noc Pic co-op — the cooperative Mr. Moshán Méndez is part of — the farmers have placed their hope in the Starbucks relationship.

The co-op will receive $1.23 a pound this harvest from Starbucks, said Juan Carlos Cameras, a co-op official. (Starbucks pays $1.43 but AMSA, the trading company that is Starbucks’s buying agent in the region, takes its cut.)

With photos in Starbucks’s Mexican stores, the cooperative has become a showpiece for the chain’s Mexican franchisee, which has pledged $150,000 to the co-op’s social projects over the next three years, including a computer center for online high school classes, dormitories for the students and a sports field.

But for all the benefits of certified coffee, the plans have barely begun to blunt the acute poverty in Chiapas, the legacy of centuries of feudal relationships that are only now breaking down. “We should not think that Fair Trade can solve all the problems of inequality here,” Mr. Bonilla said.

In Brooklyn, Hipsters Sip ‘Fair Trade’ Brews


April 22, 2007


WHEN Kazi Hossain, a real estate broker in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, telephoned a client recently to describe a house for sale, he played up one of the property’s most desirable attributes. “One block from Vox Pop!” he exclaimed. “You know Vox Pop?”

It seems like everyone in that newly gentrifying neighborhood knows Vox Pop, a cafe and bookstore that, by day, draws young families and office job escapees. But perhaps more important than the knitting classes and band performances that establish the business as a kind of community center is its coffee, proudly described on well-placed signs and on the menu as “fair trade” brews.

“The fact that the coffee is fair trade is certainly more sustainable for the farmers, and having this coffeehouse also helps sustain our community,” said Willow Fodor, 29, a customer who said she moved to Ditmas Park because of the cafe. “I just loved the vibe.”

Fair trade, like more familiar labels such as organic, cruelty-free and sustainable, is another in a series of ethical claims to appear on products — a kind of hipster seal of approval. The fair trade ethic is spreading eastward from the West Coast, where it has been promoted by well-financed activist campaigns and where progressive politics are more intertwined with youth culture. Scott Codey, a member of the New York City Fair Trade Coalition, said the number of retailers in the city selling fair trade products like coffee, tea, wine and clothing has grown to hundreds, from 25, in the last three years.

In general, the fair trade label means that farmers of crops like coffee or cocoa in the third world, or workers who stitch T-shirts in factories abroad, are paid fairly. The label is intended as a guide for socially conscious consumers in rich countries when buying goods that originate primarily in Latin America, Asia and Africa.

Amid the wine bars and boutiques that line Fifth Avenue in Park Slope, Jonathan Coulton, 36, a musician wearing black rectangular glasses, was hunched over a laptop at Gorilla Coffee, where a blackboard proclaims all its coffees are fair trade. It “makes you feel like you’re doing something good just by drinking a cup,” he said.

It may be trendier to advertise clothing as green, or, in the words of a recent Barney’s Co-Op window display, as “insanely sustainable,” but fair trade — and its cousin, “sweatshop-free” — are gaining in popularity. Emily Santamore, a founder and a designer of Moral Fervor — a line of yoga clothing made from an eco-friendly fabric and, according to its Web site, “produced sweatshop-free in Portugal” — said boutiques regularly ask about the origins of her products. For her customers, she added, fair trade assurances are “becoming almost necessary.”

TransFair USA, a nonprofit group in Oakland, Calif., that awards a Fair Trade Certified label to farm products, says fair trade coffee is the fastest-growing specialty coffee in the United States. It claims that since 1999, its programs have put $60 million more into the pockets of third-world coffee growers than they would have otherwise earned. Such goods were once stigmatized as uncool: the weird Guatemalan pants worn by a high school art teacher, or the muddy-flavored coffee served at a student-run cafe. But savvy marketing, and better products, have helped the fair trade label shed its frumpy image. American Apparel, the fast-growing chain that pays most of its factory workers above the garment-industry standard, and which runs advertisements featuring skinny hipsters in provocative poses, has increased many customers’ awareness of labor issues and raised the design ante for products promoted as socially conscious.

Proponents of the fair-trade movement, which began in the 1980s in Europe (and where flowers and even soccer balls are labeled fair trade), say the low prices that most companies pay to producers in economically disadvantaged countries cause widespread misery: poverty, unsafe work conditions and forced child labor.

TransFair USA, founded by a group of activists in 1998, says it audits American companies that receive its certification to ensure that third world farmers of coffee, cocoa, fruit and other crops receive a “fair, above-market price.” The group says the system has improved conditions on farms and that the additional income, subsidized by higher consumer prices, has enabled farmers to send their children to universities and communities to build clinics and schools.

Fair trade has a particular appeal to a generation of consumers that came of age during campus labor protests. In 1996, Kathie Lee Gifford was humiliated on national television by the news that children in Honduras were making clothing bearing her name, and, in the ensuing years, student protesters demanded better conditions for workers making clothing with university logos; some streaked through campus because they would “rather go naked than wear sweatshop clothes.”

After graduating from the New School with a degree in literature in 1993, Sander Hicks, 36, the founder of Vox Pop, worked at a Kinko’s, where he and his fellow workers experimented with union organizing and even a worker collective. Now, he’s proud of his high-quality coffee, but asserts that the fair trade label gives it an additional “karmic kick.”

Not everyone is feeling it.

Some industry observers and journalists have identified labor abuses on farms producing crops that have been certified as fair trade by international groups, like paying migrant workers below a country’s legal minimum wage.

Jean Walsh, a spokeswoman for TransFair, conceded that this was sometimes the case. “But the fair trade system,” she said in an e-mail message, “is the only mechanism that begins to guarantee small-scale farmers the income they need to be able to improve the wages of laborers on their farms.”

(Unlike food, items such as clothing and other non-agricultural goods, when sold in the United States, have no single recognized certification system. Instead, consumers have to trust the wholesalers and retailers.)

And though many people buy fair trade products in reaction to what Mr. Codey of the New York fair trade coalition calls “mainstream commercial culture,” others point out that to make a real impact, fair trade has to become much more widespread, even if that means losing some of its in-group appeal.

Larger corporations, including McDonald’s, Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts, now offer some fair trade coffee, but, “it’s still too limited in the United States, to just a few commodities,” said Kevin Danaher, a founder of TransFair.

“It’s not places like Gorilla that are going to make a difference,” said Janice Allen, 27, a barista at Gorilla Coffee, with a piercing just over her lip and chipped blue nail polish. “Maxwell House going fair trade, that would make a difference.”