Article: Sustainable Development: A Community Effort

Written by Cafe Campesino on Dec 1, 2002 in Article, NEWSLETTER |

The coffee industry may finally be catching on! This month’s coffee industry journal – Tea and Coffee – features an article entitled, “Peeling back the Layers of Global Sustainability.” The cover of the Specialty Coffee Associations bi-monthly Chronicle leads with the article “Roads to Sustainability.” Our prolific Fair Grounds writers Nate Wayman and Nubia Perez examine this concept of sustainable, grassroots development and the fair trade model.

What exactly is sustainable development? For the past decade or so, it’s been a buzzword phrase for environmentalists, developers, economists, government officials and social workers. However, wrapping our minds around the concept and more importantly, determining how it can be put into practice can be rather complicated.

The United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development defines sustainable development as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Another perhaps more accessible way to think of it is that sustainable development is about “ensuring a better quality of life for everyone, now and for generations to come.” In essence, sustainable development is one generation’s gift to the next.

The concept of sustainable development is central to Café Campesino’s mission as a company. The fair trade model of coffee production and distribution we embrace is directly concerned with sustainability on both the environmental and human levels. By working directly with the farmer cooperatives, we’re able to ensure that coffee is grown in an ecologically renewable and sound fashion, without the use of pesticides or other chemicals. Also, by receiving a substantially higher-than-market rate for their coffee, the farmers are better able to meet the needs of their families, whether through increased educational opportunities or healthier homes and villages. Now let’s take a look at the specific role of communities in effective sustainability.

In practice, the central notion of sustainable development at the community level is that the people of a community play a major role: in the planning, execution, and later evaluation of the project. Community members are consulted in each aspect of the process, rather than have outside development professionals arrive in a community to assess and determine what THEY think is most necessary. After the project has been implemented, the community is again engaged in a participatory evaluation to assess the progress. The role of the non-profit, government agency or other development agent is to be the catalyst, providing the resources, ideas, encouragement and excitement.

The projects themselves can be referred to as community-based initiatives, indicating that the ideas and procedures are decided as a community. This model encourages and promotes collaborative efforts, which later yield a sense of ownership by the people in the community. Promoters of sustainability believe in the notion that when people have a sense of ownership, they are more willing to work on projects to their fruition.

How are community-based initiatives achieved? One way is through the appreciative inquiry methodology, in which the local people are consulted, involving them in the process from the very beginning. As obvious as it sounds, many organizations continue to forget that those who actually live in a community are those who best know its strengths and needs. There are two basic ways in which an outsider may assess a community. The more progressive organizations are steering away from the outdated need-based method to a more respectful and effective asset-based model. The traditional need-based practice operated under the assumption that the development organization was the repository of all knowledge, and was there to “fix the problem.” Perhaps the easiest way to illustrate the difference in approaches is with the following example:

Consider this example. As an international development aid worker, you walk into a rural community. Your first thoughts may be: “This area lacks many resources, unemployment is high, and there is a poor sanitation system and inadequate medical facility.” This assessment is consistent with a narrow NEED-based view of development, which focuses on the limitations of the community. Conversely, an ASSET-based approach would focus on what a community already has established, and build potential solutions from that foundation. Walking back into the community under this new framework, you may note: “This town has a very dynamic school teacher. Perhaps we can work WITH HER to form a youth group that will give skits on the importance of dental hygiene. Also, there is a university in the main city 30 km away, with whom we could form a partnership that allows medical students to practice their skills by teaching young mothers the significance of breast feeding.” This lens through which to view development will not magically create panacea solutions, but will greatly enhance the value of any project, in no small part by encouraging the community to continue the project as they have now become its leaders.

First-hand experience has demonstrated to us that people in economically disadvantaged communities are quite capable of helping themselves, when provided with the resources to do so, or sometimes even just confidence and encouragement. They are constantly being reminded by their governments, by powerful nations, by the elite, that they are poor, that they are and always will be on the bottom. What has been shown over and over again is that they don’t all want hand-outs. They do not want to become dependent on outside assistance, and they definitely do not want outsiders telling them what is best for them. In the context of sustainable development, you are not helping them; you are instead working with them in their own initiatives.

This is the beauty of the relationship between Café Campesino, our importing organization Cooperative Coffees, and the farmer cooperatives that we partner with across the globe. By connecting the farmers directly to Northern markets, links are built that help connect them with the resources they need to manage their own projects. Returning a larger share of economic power to those currently without it is the reality of the fair trade model and one of the foundations for future development that is both sustainable and just.

Sustainable development is organic, it is grassroots, and it works. One key is that the community must be involved in every step of the process. Every human being deserves to be treated with respect, dignity and equality. Sustainable development serves as our guide for bringing these values into reality.

More Information:

Cooperative Coffees
Coffee Kids

Nubia Perez is currently living in Houston, TX working part-time for AMIGOS de las Americas, a non-profit that promotes youth leadership and the implementation sustainable community projects in Latin America. She hopes to attend graduate school next fall. She can be reached at

Nate Wayman is a caffeine addict who’s currently studying non-profit management in southern Vermont, and can be reached at

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