Editorial: Insights from our Guatemala Producer Partners

Written by Cafe Campesino on Mar 1, 2005 in Editorial, NEWSLETTER |

I figure that the best place to start is where I left off in last month’s edition of Fair Grounds, where I summarized what I believe are the three most important themes that emerged from our meetings with our producer partners in Guatemala. For those who did not read last month’s issue, they are: 1) though Fair Trade’s impact has been real and positive, they [our producer partners in Guatemala] continue to face the pressures of the subsistence conditions in which they live; 2) they [our producer partners] are justifiably proud of their ability to produce extraordinarily high quality coffee and want US consumers to understand the hard work and care they invest in producing coffee and; 3) an on-going, open and honest dialogue is the most effective way to develop creative, accurate solutions to the problems they, our producer partners, face.

First and foremost, staying with and listening to our producer partners in Guatemala generated a genuine sense of urgency for me. I have lived and worked among people who endure tough living conditions, but when considering the value of specialty, organic coffee in our market and our producers’ continuing struggles to meet their basic needs, I can only conclude that time is truly of the essence, not only in expanding the consumption of Fair Trade coffee in the US but also cultivating consumer awareness of how purchasing decisions affect people like coffee farmers. US consumers need to “pick up the pace” when it comes to conscious consumption…in this case, maybe we can make an exception and consider impatience a virtue!

While in Guatemala, my sense of obligation to our producer partners became more focused as I saw first-hand the hard labor and meticulous care they invest in producing our coffee. Long days hand-selecting ripe coffee beans and hauling 150 pound bags of coffee up 100 yard almost-vertical inclines to reach waiting trucks shouldn’t end with wondering where the money will come from to pay for a decent meal or medicine for their children. Our producer partners made it clear that while they take great pride in producing some of the world’s best coffee, they know that they are, at the very least, underappreciated here in the US. At one point during a conversation I had with one of the cooperative’s managers, he told me that it is extremely important to him that people here are told about the producers in Guatemala and the sacrifices they are making to produce specialty grade, organic coffee. He and I agreed that if people in the US knew what it takes to produce this coffee and the socio-economic and political conditions in spite of which it is being commercialized successfully, they would place a much higher, appropriate value on it and more aggressively support the Fair Trade movement.

So, our producer partners have asked that we: 1) tell people, as many people as possible, about them — who they are, how they produce the excellent coffee that we drink, and the critical role that Fair Trade plays in their lives and 2) get more people to insist on Fair Trade coffee from their coffee houses, markets and other venues.

While I believe that we can handle this request with your help, the tougher issues to tackle involve our producers’ financial realities and business support needs. Specifically, they need: 1) more Fair Trade contracts and the higher price and financing options that go along with them; 2) more low-cost financing instruments to help them sustain cash flow throughout the year so that they can focus on producing specialty, organic coffee without sacrificing the welfare of their families; and 3) more proactive, cooperative problem solving for the broader scope of challenges they face, including meeting basic needs, accounting and legal support and advocacy at the local, regional and national levels.

Fortunately, the meeting with our producer partners in Santa Anita illustrated Fair Trade’s unique capacity as a forum to address these issues, eliciting not only a better understanding of their specific, financial needs and operating environment but also tangible results. As a result of the meeting, a potential new financing tool to supplement the financing already available to our producer partners was introduced, along with an agreement to pursue answers to specific questions and issues that were raised. For Fair Trade to continue to be effective, innovation and creative problem-solving in cooperation with our producer partners and in direct response to their needs is critical. While companies like Café Campesino are part of the solution, it will take the attention and participation of all parties involved in the process, from crop to cup, to create the conditions for meaningful change in the lives of coffee farmers.

It is the position of Café Campesino that the Fair Trade movement must be inclusive and tolerant of the many different approaches to Fair Trade in order to help our producer partners develop solutions to the challenges they face and, ultimately, in order for Fair Trade to live up to its potential. This is necessary so that the myriad methods and tools offered by its diverse membership can be harnessed effectively to the benefit of the producers. Our trip to Guatemala illustrated that even though our producer partners’ situation is complex, Fair Trade relationships hold immense potential if they can evolve, innovate and enlist the active support of complementary, like-minded individuals and organizations. We are grateful to our producer partners who hosted us in Guatemala and look forward to continued dialogue and the opportunity to work cooperatively on solutions to the many issues we agreed require action.

In this edition of Fair Grounds, we are thrilled to announce our new partnership with one such organization, the Mexico Solidarity Network (MSN), whose mission and grassroots programs are critical to the success of companies like Café Campesino who seek to deepen the impact of Fair Trade. Read our Fair Trade Partner article in this issue to learn more about MSN’s new Alternative Economy Internship program and their grassroots advocacy of Fair Trade and social, economic and political justice for people on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border.

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