Coffee - Worlds within Worlds
Sit back with a good cup of coffee. You are engulfed in the aroma, taste the acidity and body of the brew. You take in all the dimensions of the cup – yet this is only the surface. Swirling beneath are worlds within worlds of culture, custom, ecology and politics. All of the major issues of the twenty-first century – globalization, immigration, women’s rights, pollution, indigenous rights and self-determination – are being played out through this cup of coffee in villages and remote areas around the world. The coffee trade is immense, second only to oil in its value. It is complex, with levels of middlemen removing the twenty-eight million growers in fifty distant countries far from the ultimate consumers, far from your cup.
There are as many different cultures growing coffee as there are coffee origins. Coffee is intricately intertwined in the culture of some countries, expressed through ritual and custom in daily life. In Ethiopia, farmers like Tasew Gebru start each day with three small cups of coffee roasted on a charcoal brazier; a tacit acknowledgment of the centrality of coffee to their way of life. In other countries, coffee is just a crop – and a poverty crop at that. It's hard to find a decent cup of coffee in most of Central America. The only coffee available in most restaurants is the ubiquitous "Nes", as instant Nescafe is known.
Not all coffee growers look like Juan Valdez, a Latin male with a big moustache and a smile, dressed in clean white linen. Coffee farmers come in all shapes and sizes, colors and genders. There are coffee growers from all Christian persuasions, as well as Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and from an abundance of indigenous religions. There is even a coffee-growing community of Black Jews in Uganda. Underlying the coffee cultures can be profoundly different understandings of the dance of good and evil, of communal responsibility and personal freedom – of the very nature of the gods themselves. Yet what they all share are the common dreams of good health, love, food on the table and an education for the kids – and a great sense of humor.
Most of the coffee farmers I have worked with around the world don’t speak the dominant or national language. Rather, they speak a local dialect or distinct tribal language. In Latin America, many farmers do not speak Spanish. In Guatemala they might speak Tzutujil, Quiche, Cakchiquel or other ancient Mayan tongue. In Peru, many speak Ashaninkas in the south or Kechua in the north. Thus, you can enter coffee villages throughout the Americas, speak fluent Spanish and not be understood at all. In Kenya, the national languages are Swahili and English, yet many farmers I met in the Embu region of the Central Plateau spoke neither well. They spoke Akamba. In Ethiopia the national language is Amharic, which shares its ancient roots with Hebrew. Yet our farmers speak Oromifa. Imagine my surprise when I delivered my well-rehearsed opening speech to the farmers in Amharic on my first visit to Ethiopia, only to be met with blank stares and embarrassed smiles!
Similarly, dress style can differ dramatically, even within the same community. In some places, communities hold firmly to their culture and traditions, and clothing (or lack of it) plays an important role. Many farm families in countries as far from each other as Indonesia and Guatemala weave their own fabric on backstrap looms tied to trees. The patterns may be centuries old and specific to the local ethnicity. They may be old patterns with a new twist, evidence of the strength and flexibility of the culture. Yet in the next house, farmers may be wearing t-shirts with Nike or Boston Red Sox logos that seem absurdly out of place until you realize that much of the clothing we wear is produced in sweatshops in the coffeelands. In mountain villages in the Eastern Highlands of Papua-New Guinea, farmers may be naked or wear nothing more than a penis gourd carved from a water buffalo horn and decorated with beads or strips of old blue jeans. Indigenous growers in Peru wear a bark-dyed shroud and face paint, while their neighbors dress like small-town Iowans. Muslim coffee growers in Sumatra and Ethiopia wear clothing ranging from modern western styles to traditional white woven shawls, with head or face coverings for the women.
Coffee grows in a rich belt of lands from the Tropic of Cancer to the Tropic of Capricorn, straddling the Equator by thirty degrees north and south. The ecology of these coffeelands ranges from tropical rainforests to dry deserts. Since the 1950’s the trend has been towards large, monocultural coffee plantations or “estates”. Although many are well tended, many more suffer from soil erosion and water pollution that are often the byproduct of this kind of agriculture. Highly toxic pesticides are often used by workers who can’t read the warning labels in Spanish, English and German, or who have had insufficient training in pesticide application. However, the vast majority of coffee is still grown on small farms of a few acres. In many countries the farmers are keenly aware of the importance of interplanting and maintaining biodiversity for the health of the land and of their families. "Shade-grown" and "Bird friendly" were concepts well known to small farmers long before international environmental groups took an interest in the coffeelands. These beautiful and varied landscapes can also be subject to nature’s immense fury, as earthquakes, mudslides, hurricanes and tsunamis destroy crops, roads, warehouses and lives.
The economic situation of coffee communities is varied, as well. The price paid to coffee farmers has little to do with the cost of growing and processing the crop. Nor does the price include a reasonable profit for the farmers to maintain or improve their lives. Rather, coffee prices are dictated largely by the forecasts of financial speculators, banks and multinational corporations in New York and London. One month a farmer may receive a reasonable reward for his or her labors, and the next month the price can plummet. Nothing has changed at the farm level, so the farmer shakes his head and carries on. During the first five years of the millennium coffee prices were often lower than the cost of production, driving hundreds of thousands of coffee families off their lands and into crowded cities or across borders. Sometimes this forced exodus ended in death, with desperate migrant farmers falling off trains in Mexico or abandoned in locked vans in the Texas heat. Well-intended private initiatives and international efforts to provide an ethical alternative to the current pricing system ("Fair Trade", for example) have kept thousands of farmers on their lands, but represent only the smallest fraction of world coffee commerce. Even during the best of times, farm communities have rarely been able to make meaningful improvements in the basics of water, education, health care and housing. Not only does the coffee not generate enough money, but the World Bank, IMF and the international lending community have greatly inhibited national governments’ abilities to assist farming communities by slashing rural health care, environmental and educational budgets under "structural adjustment" policies. Many coffee communities have turned to grassroots, self-help efforts as the only viable means to improve their lives. The projects, wells and health clinics among others, are small in scale but immediate in results.
The coffeelands are often zones of conflict, where war and its aftermath can deeply affect the economics and cultural cohesion of the coffee communities. Almost every coffee country I have worked in is currently or has recently been engaged in an autonomy or independence struggle from a colonizing society, or suffers under the yoke of a corrupt or dictatorial regime. Sometimes the coffee farmers are actively engaged in these struggles, such as in Chiapas. More often, in places like Colombia or Sumatra, they are innocent bystanders with no place to go when the tides of conflict wash through their lands. Hot conflict can prevent farmers from harvesting their crop. Truckloads of coffee representing a year's hard work get hijacked, leaving farmers with nothing. Roads get closed, "tolls" must be paid to one side or another. A farmer's wife disappears in Timor, an entire village is massacred in Guatemala. Even decades-old conflicts like that in Nicaragua can reach out of the past to inflict death and despair. Old American or Czech landmines litter abandoned coffee fields or rise up to the surface after storms. They maim farmers at work or children walking to school. Nobody remembers which side planted them or where they are. Yet zones of conflict may become zones of hope. Longstanding conflicts end, new opportunities for political participation can be created.
Culture and custom, ecology and economics, conflict and creativity swirl beneath the surface of your cup. Ultimately, the differences among coffee communities and between "us and them" are more than the sum of these parts. All of it draws me in. Each trip to the coffeelands is a return to the crucible. Each expedition offers a challenge to some deeply held or unexamined belief, and an opportunity to participate in meaningful change in people's lives on a very personal level. Each visit offers an opportunity to put my skills and heart at the service of the people who grow the beans that provide for my family and result in such great coffee for our customers. That is why I became a Javatrekker.
The Evolution of a Javatrekker
The truth is, 99% of the people involved in coffee commerce, from roasters to baristas, have never been to a coffee village. They get their information about the lives of coffee farmers from the advertising and imagery put out by major coffee companies. Ergo, Juan Valdez. Even among the handful of coffee company execs or employees who get out to the coffee countries for a short visit, very few of them spend more than a few hours in the field, and none that I know of sleep in the homes of the farmers. When I was arguing with one well-known environmentalist-coffee retailer about the existence of malnutrition in southern Mexican coffee villages, she snapped "Don't you think I know that? I’ve flown over those villages!" Yet a small band of intrepid, engaged coffee people exists to whom coffee is more than commerce. Their businesses are also the means to immerse themselves into the deeper worlds of coffee. These are the Javatrekkers, and since 1987, Javatrekking has been my life.
Although I have been a coffee roaster for over a dozen years, I came to the world of coffee via a circuitous route. I was a lawyer and an activist, with one foot in the mainstream legal world and the other in indigenous rights and environmental issues at home and abroad. I thought law would be a great vehicle for social change. It is, but I did not have the constitution for it. I couldn’t stand the paperwork, the legal maneuvering and, frankly, the stacked deck of corporate power and money within the justice system. At one point I was working on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana, trying to get the U.S. and state governments to require an environmental impact statement for the world’s largest cyanide heap-leach gold mine (never happened!). During one really rough patch, Charlie, a long-time Indian activist, asked me how long the reservation could survive if there were no jobs for the young people. But if the only jobs were dangerous, low paying and disruptive to the local culture were they any better than no jobs? We both came to realize that until businesses changed their fundamental operating principles, our efforts would only amount to putting out brushfires started by corporate greed and lack of awareness.
I took a Fellowship at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, researching and lecturing about the impacts of development on indigenous communities. I continued to provide free legal work to indigenous peoples in the areas of environmental protection and human rights. Word-of-mouth among those communities brought me meaningful opportunities for service and adventure in several countries. In 1987 I gave a lecture at the University of Rhode Island on the real causes of rainforest destruction. Afterwards, I was approached by Professor David Abedon. He asked me if I could talk to a friend of his who had a coffee shop and wanted to create an organization to help coffee farmers. Since the vast majority of coffee growers are indigenous peoples, doing focused development work in the coffeelands seemed like a good combination of my skills and interests . We met and the three of us immediately founded Coffee Kids, the first development organization dedicated to coffee communities. Bill Fishbein, the coffee shop owner, would raise money from the coffee industry to support our efforts. I would go into the villages, meet with the farmers and their families, assess needs and evolve programs and strategies to address the problems identified by the farmers. I was delirious. I had the perfect job (even though neither Bill, David nor I was getting paid for it). We set up microcredit banks for women in Guatemala and Mexico, a water project in Sumatra and several other initiatives. It was solid, grassroots development.
One day something shifted. I was thinking about a well project in Guatemala. A charity-minded coffee company would give us five thousand dollars to build the well. The company would take the pictures and the story and trumpet their good works to the consumer. But the company would continue to pay very low prices to the farmers. Nothing really changed. In fact, the consumer would be getting a false impression that things were fine in the villages, that the industry was "taking care of its farmers", as one corporate executive put it. I wondered what would happen if the company simply paid the farmers real money for their coffee – maybe the farmers could afford to build their own well and would not need the "charity" of the company. What would happen if the company took a level of responsibility for the conditions it found in the villages it was buying from, became involved in the lives of its suppliers through direct development work and other forms of support to the community? Could the dynamics of poverty endemic to coffee growing be challenged and overcome? Could the company still be profitable? If so, what excuse would other companies have to behave otherwise? Dean’s Beans was born.
I started with a little roaster and eight bags of coffee. I was teaching part time, a little law on the side. I would only buy organic coffee because I was aware of the impact on the third world environment and farmer’s health from pesticides used on coffee – many of which were banned for use in the U.S. I would only buy from small farms and cooperatives that were largely made up of indigenous peoples trying to maintain their cultures and dignity in a hostile world. Development assistance and activism would be an essential part of the relationship. This would be our acknowledgment that the price and structure of the world market reflected a century of unfair dealings that left coffee communities in a state of underdevelopment. And I would travel and continue my life-long love affair with the lands and peoples of the planet.
The ideals of Dean's Beans and the quality of our coffee soon took hold. We grew slowly, steadily and conscientiously. Many people said we would be "the Ben and Jerry’s of coffee", but that company was transforming rapidly into just another big business owned by a multinational with rich but disgruntled founders. No thanks. I wasn’t doing this to become a "grow it and sell it" millionaire. Nor did I want to cash in on my “social responsibility” as the new owners kept the public personae but hollowed out the core principles of the business – a frequent dynamic with “progressive” businesses these days. I was trying to prove a new business model based on respect, ethics and justice, support my family and employees, and have a good time doing it. The model had to be flexible, as well. We needed to be able to change our approach to development, pricing and any other aspect of our relationship with the farmers that time and experience revealed might need adjustment. This approach drove my mainstream business buddies crazy, as flexibility and being more dedicated to the process than the ultimate dollars of the bottom line clashed with their world of plans, projections and growth targets.
I began to meet other people in the coffee trade with whom I felt a kinship. In 1998, seven of us got together in Atlanta to form Cooperative Coffees, the world’s first roaster’s cooperative. We joined forces for two reasons. First, to enable us as a group to buy coffee directly from the farmers under Fair Trade terms and to work to improve that system. Second, we found that we were fellow travelers on a path combining business and social justice in an industry where such a combination was rare. I had discovered fellow Javatrekkers.
As Javatrekkers, we became deeply involved in the struggles of our farmer partners. Each of us has our own level of involvement and manifests our beliefs in justice and engagement in our own ways. There are other Javatrekkers out there, as well. There are progressive and caring brokers, importers and roasters scattered amongst the many for whom coffee is business as usual and for whom farmers are just a means to a very profitable end. Over the past decade it seems that the industry as a whole has been evolving. The Javatrekkers impact is being felt. But that’s another story.
Now I invite you to get a second cup of coffee (the first is long gone or cold by now). Are you ready to enter the worlds within worlds inside your cup? Come with me to coffee communities around the world. Experience their customs, cultures, their struggles and hopes. Learn how a Javatrekker participates in the lives of the farmers and their communities. The tales you are about to read are sometimes uplifting, sometimes sad. Some are humorous, some sobering. And all of them are whopping good travel yarns.
Drink deep. Your coffee will never taste the same.