If you’re reading this while drinking your morning coffee, put down your mug and think about this: How much did you pay for that cup? If you made it at home, maybe you paid $6 for a pound of roasted beans. If you bought a cup at the coffee shop around the corner, you may have paid as much as $4 for it. Of course, the supermarket and shop owner made a bit of profit. But how much did the coffee grower make?
The world price of coffee hovers around 50 cents a pound, and often, farmers make as little as 10 cents a pound – not nearly a living wage, or the amount of income necessary to feed, clothe, house and educate a family. But Rich Niesenbaum, associate professor of biology, is doing his part to see that coffee growers begin to see a fair price for their hard work.
One in a group of Fair Harvest volunteers, Niesenbaum spent two January weeks in Nicaragua, living with a host family and working the Fair Trade coffee harvest in the Yasika Sur region. The Fair Trade price of coffee ranges from $1.26 to $1.41 a pound, considerably higher than the world average, an increase made possible by the volunteers who help to harvest the crop and spread the word in the United States about the importance of Fair Trade.
“I lived the life of a Nicaraguan coffee grower,” says Niesenbaum, who woke at 4:30 each morning and picked coffee until noon, then spent afternoons washing, drying and sorting the harvest with his host family and touring the area. “I now have a deep appreciation for the incredibly hard work, artistic skill and care that is behind every cup of coffee I enjoy each day.”
Niesenbaum and the other volunteers joined the Nicaraguan communities of El Roblar and La Corona, both of which are members of the Organization of Northern Coffee Cooperatives. The local farmers, in conjunction with the organization, are building local economic initiatives to promote organic production, enhanced quality control, better marketing and an effort to move away from export production into ecotourism. Cooperatives allow farmers access to education, healthcare and credit. Fair trade supports small family growers that use environmentally-friendly techniques, though not necessarily “certified organic.” In contrast, large “haciendas” that mass-produce and sell coffee to the big brand companies exploit the environment and the people who pick coffee, says Niesenbaum.
“The best purchase choice is certified organic, shade-grown, fair-trade coffee. This does the most to protect the environment and preserve social justice in coffee growing communities,” says Niesenbaum, noting that the “shade-grown” method is an important tool in conservation biology because it allows farmers to grow and harvest coffee while maintaining some of the forest habitat. “It has been demonstrated that numerous species of animals, including birds and monkeys, occupy the tree tops that are left to produce shade for the coffee,” he says.
Organic, fair-trade and shade-grown coffee is increasingly available at supermarkets and specialty stores, and can be found easily online. Niesenbaum recommends www.globalexchange.org/campaigns/fairtrade/coffee/index.html and www.equalexchange.com/.
“Fair trade is a way for small-scale farmers, buffeted and bankrupted by the depressed world price of coffee, to get a fair price for their products,” he says. “When you buy fair-trade products, you make a difference.”