Fair Trade makes it to Florida
Daniel McCombie
July/August 2005

Picture this. It's the middle of the Arizona desert. Nobody around for miles. The sun-scorched landscape runs off into a rocky mountain horizon, littered with cactus and dirt. Beyond it lies Mexico. You think you're alone. Who else would be out this far, strayed from trails and tour guides. But then a hoarse, scratchy voice from behind you is calling out. You turn to see a lone Hispanic man, crawling on hands and knees toward you, begging for water. He traveled illegally across the border in a desperate attempt to find work in the United States. The smuggler who brought him thus far has abandoned him. The other immigrants who made the trek with him have died under the hot desert sun.

Oh, and you're also an Immigration officer.

This story is no exaggeration. In 2001, six coffee farmers out of a group of fourteen illegal immigrants were found dead in the Arizona desert. A survivor managed to catch the attention of an immigration officer after days without food or drink. One need only switch on the news to realize immigration is a prominent issue facing our society. Closing our borders or heightening security can only be so effective. To combat this issue, the source of the problem needs to be identified. What caused these desperate men to abandon their families? What drove them to give away what little money they have to smugglers and their supposed promises of a new life?

Coffee is grown through the world along the coffee belt located slightly under the equator. For countries in Latin America, Africa and India, it has turned into a liability. The sorry state of affairs in coffee growing nations can be attributed to several factors. New coffee farmers entered the market when Brazil experienced a temporary frost in the 1970s. These new farmers aspired to make a profit with the lack of supply meeting the world's demand. Other countries that had not dealt with coffee previously, began entering the market at an explosive rate. Vietnam, prior to the 1970s had no experience with coffee but its government encouraged it to engage in the coffee industry at an unparalleled rate. Now it is hailed as the world's second largest producer next to Brazil. Then in 1989, the International Coffee Organization, a regulating body for the market collapsed. Coffee farmers who in the past were subject to quotas now were free to produce however much coffee they chose. With the oversupply from new competitors in the market and no definite quotas, the world price of coffee dropped to a record low.

Once resigned to a substandard price, coffee farmers faced many unforeseen difficulties. The price paid for coffee fell as low as 40 cents a pound, not enough to cover the costs of production. Money for food and supplies became scarce. Children were pulled out of schools to work with their parents. Some farmers decided to head for the border. Others who stayed abandoned coffee altogether and switched to more profitable crops such as coca because of its similar growing conditions. But switching crops, especially for those farmers who had generations of family experience, found the transition not only costly but that it fell short of the usual profit brought in by coffee. The twenty-five million farmers and families directly involved in this industry were not the only ones affected. Governments that had previously relied heavily on the revenue from coffee production were now cutting support of education and healthcare to fill in the deficits.

With the way the current market is set up, farmers take their raw coffee beans to "Coyotes." Coyote is the nickname given to any of the local middlemen in the market chain who buy coffee beans from the farmers at an unfair rate. These coyotes can be bankers or shopkeepers in the area with monopolies over the local transportation system, giving them the ability to take advantage of a farmer's lack of access to credit, transportation and information. The farmers are helpless against the "take it or leave it" price given to them. The beans then move from the middlemen to any number of exporters or brokers, each seeking to buy for the lowest possible price and resell at the highest. By the time the beans have reached the retailer the growers have captured less than six percent of the price paid for a bag of grocery store java.

Fair trade is no new concept. Coffee is only an offspring of a larger Fair Trade movement which deals with everything from coffee and cocoa to flowers, soccer balls, crafts and clothing. It is rumored to have started in America with an organization called Ten Thousand Villages who began buying needlework from Puerto Rico in 1946 and SERRV who began to trade with poor communities in the South in the late 1940s. Oxfam created the first official Fair Trade Organization on 1964 after selling crafts made my Chinese refugees in their stores. Recently America has been moving forward in its support with such accredited universities as Harvard, Yale, Cornell and Berkeley providing fair trade coffee through their campus dining services.

North America is the largest coffee consumer worldwide, with an average of 3.2 cups per person every day. Obviously, the United States has a great stake in the market and a lot of weight it can move around. The natural question every consumer asks is "What are my dollars doing for me? Am I getting my money's worth?" Fair trade has traditionally asked consumers to take a sympathetic approach, provoking questions like: "What are my dollars doing to the rest of the world? Who is my money affecting?" Fortunately, it is not as black and white as sacrificing the taste of your java in order to be socially responsible. Companies are increasingly recognizing how caring for the taste of your coffee or the quality of your purchase is the best way to care for those who brought it to your table. Alternatives Global Marketplace celebrated "Fair Trade Day" Saturday, May 15th. Along with their usual selection of incense, clothing, and imported crafts from charitable cooperatives they offered the public free samples of Equal Exchange and Sweetwater Organics coffee. Sweetwater Organics is Florida's first 100% Organic fair trade coffee roaster and with Alternatives, represents this new breed of business bringing together the best of both worlds. And why is this possible?

Fair trade is a commitment to excellence. Anywhere the Transfair fair trade seal appears ensures a product meets the following requirements:

  1. The worker received a fair, living wage for his product. With the price he receives he is able to meet the costs of production and can invest his profits back into his community and his business.
  2. Workers have organized into democratic collectives. Through these collectives they can invest in better technology, access information regarding the market previously denied to them by Coyotes, and use collective bargaining power to receive a fair value for their product.
  3. The workers have access to credit. Typically farmers do not have cash off hand and rely on the revenue brought in by coffee from a previous season to sustain them. By being granted access to credit these farmers have the start up capital readily available to support their livelihood, without having to wait for the previous season's revenue.
  4. Companies buy coffee directly from the producers, establishing long term relationships. By communicating with the companies buying their coffee, farmers can ensure them they are receiving the best selection of their product possible while companies can view their investments directly instead of working through a chain of middlemen.
  5. A set of environmental and quality standards are being adhered to. Coffee is shade-grown under a natural canopy of trees, unlike the slash and burn farming technique of conventional coffee. Grown this way coffee requires pesticides, fertilizers, and agrochemicals to produce an efficient yield. In contrast, fair trade coffee provides a natural habitat for birds, combats deforestation, and demands a reduced amount of impurities.

Paul Rice, president of Transfair USA, openly states that fair trade is 'democratizing globalization,' not through aid or charity but business skills and market access. Financial aid will not simply solve the problem. Fair trade was founded on the principles of partnership, dialogue, transparency and respect. It is not a handy price floor perpetuating the oversupply of coffee and the crisis millions of farmers face. It recognizes the demands of the market and industry and resolves them in sustainable methods. In short? It just tastes better.

For more information regarding fair trade: Oxfam America, United Students for Fair Trade, Make Trade Fair Students Making Trade Fair-UF organization

Locations that offer fair trade products:
Alternatives Global Marketplace, 4203 NW16th Blvd (352) 335-0806
Sweetwater Organics, 1202 NE 8th Ave. @ NE12th St. (352) 372-8432
Ward's Supermarket, 515 NW 23rd Ave. (352) 372-1761

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