All throughout developing countries, farmers work tirelessly only to receive very little pay for their crops of coffee beans. Due to the unpredictability of the growing season, and the demands of large companies who care little about the people and places their coffees come from, farmers are having to sacrifice everything—including their land and the quality of the beans—to maximize production in order to feed and clothe their families. Though the market is still dominated by such companies, the growing Fair Trade industry is helping to turn this around.
The major difference between Fair Trading companies and large-scale conventional trading companies is the lack of middlemen. Fair Traders buy directly from small-scale farming cooperatives, formed by independent farmers—giving the farmers direct access to the “global marketplace,” and providing them with the opportunity to develop the confidence and skills needed to compete in the world of business. Fair Trade certification ensures that farmers will receive that fair price, according to international minimum prices, and the personal interaction allows for prices to be decided upon by both grower and buyer, through a policy of shared decisions and shared profits. Farmers are also guaranteed the security of advance credit in case bad weather or pests ruin their crops. These small graces allow for a steady living wage for farmers and their families, leading to higher living standards, thriving communities and more sustainable farming practices.
In the conventional coffee trading system, coffee is grown either on plantations, which pay their workers “day rates” for farm labor, or by independent growers who depend on local dealers to find importers and speculators. The green coffee is sent to the importers’ warehouses, and is then sold by the importers to roasters and retailers for up to 14 to 20 times the actual value of the goods and what was given to the grower. Since coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world, traders and speculators have plenty of options when it comes to who they buy from, and they decide on the price they will pay, taking full advantage of the fact that farmers have to take what they can get for their harvests in order to make any money at all. With the Fair Trade guaranteed advance credit, farmers don’t have to worry when, like other commodities, coffee production goes through times of shortage or oversupply. When dealing with conventional commodities traders, however, farmers often have to turn to clear-cutting their land and the use of harmful chemicals in order to maximize their profits. Even so, statistics show that while there have been periods where growers have received a higher price for their goods, for the majority of the time the average price has been below the cost of labor and production. As a result, farmers have even resorted to the growing of illicit plants such as coca, poppies and marijuana for the illegal drug trade—just to feed their families.
Farmers who work with Fair Trade cooperatives can put the profits they earn to good use. A community in East Timor, for example, has invested in a health care program which includes 8 permanent and 24 mobile clinics that provide free services to coffee growers and their families, and deal with more than 12,000 monthly cases on average. In Costa Rica, some of the money has been used to build roads and to pay for a bus service so that the children of the growers can go to school—something they couldn’t do 10 years ago. In a quote from a Fair Trade website, a farmer speaks of the impact Fair Trade has had on his community: “Before Fair Trade, our children were malnourished and many of us could not afford to put shoes on our feet! With Fair Trade we are able to do this and more. With the Fair Trade premium we have renovated a soccer field in town, put a new roof on the local school and paid for emergency medical expenses for some of our members.” Many farmers also put their money towards additional “cash crops” to give their land some diversity and so that they don’t have to rely solely on the sale of coffee beans for an income. The coffee plant itself is a sort of shrub that loves the shade and flourishes when grown under the canopy of diverse tree species. Traditional, or “shade-grown” coffee farms which serve as vital habitats for entire ecosystems—consisting of an array of plants, animals, insects, migratory and local birds and even micro-organisms—by maintaining this shade cover and diversity of trees. These forest ecosystems are one of the most endangered in the world because of the prevalence of modern coffee plantations—where the land is clear-cut and the coffee is not shade-grown—and all manner of wildlife are deprived of their natural habitat. By contrast, farmers under the Fair Trade system are given room to breathe and have time, money and incentive to care for the land and its ecosystems, because they can rely on long-term partnerships in trade which will last through good times and bad. This assures that farmers will use eco-friendly practices and procedures and that they grow products that are healthy for the environment and everyone involved.
Clear-cutting is a process which involves removing all of the trees from a forest or area of land. Large-scale, or “sun-grown” coffee production often stipulates intensive clear-cutting leaving just the coffee plants with the purpose of having room to plant more. This not only deprives wildlife of their home, thereby endangering many species and reducing biodiversity, but it also erodes the soil. The top layer of soil, called humus or topsoil, is rich in nutrients and is essential for plant growth. On traditional farms, the roots of the large trees around the coffee plants help to keep this layer in place—protecting against wind and rain, two of the most common causes of erosion. Without the trees, this layer is soon swept away, and the sun-grown plantations are left with soil that is infertile, and fertilizers are needed to enable coffee plants to grow. In the process of clear-cutting, worms and bacteria which enrich the soil and help protect the coffee plants from disease are also removed. On shade-grown farms, the many species of trees and plants create natural mulch on the forest floor as they decompose and provide all the nutrients coffee plants need—no artificial fertilizers are needed or used.
Large populations of many species of birds inhabit the Fair Trade coffee growing forests, but they are virtually absent from sun-grown plantations because of the lack of trees. In fact, it has been found that almost 95% fewer bird species inhabit these plantations. These birds eat the insects that harm coffee plants and ruin harvests. So, without them, the use of large amounts of pesticides is required. More chemicals are also needed to ward off the diseases which exposure to hot sun makes coffee more susceptible to. All of these chemicals—the fertilizers, pesticides and other toxic agro-chemicals—are detrimental and not only do they kill birds and harmless insects, but they have caused many pickers to fall ill and, in a few cases, some have even died. Furthermore, these chemicals sink into the soil where they infiltrate the groundwater, making it unsafe to drink. Without the large tree roots to hold them back, the chemicals are also swept away by the rain, along with the soil, only to pollute nearby lakes and rivers.
We are warned by a fair trade website which states, “If we use up the resources of the planet with no thought to the future, we are ensuring our own demise.” This is evident in the timber industry, where it was realized too late the effects clear-cutting has on the environment, the land and wildlife. The fishing industry is headed in the same direction. If conventional trading continues to dominate the coffee market, and if care is not taken to protect natural resources and ensure that we are harvesting the land in a sustainable fashion, then the coffee industry will shortly end up the same way. On a positive note, some cooperatives have used their Fair Trade profits to invest in new eco-friendly processing mills which greatly reduce the use of natural resources, and all use methods which will sustain the land for many future generations to come. However, recent studies show that the Earth’s resources are being depleted in unprecedented quantities. A new ethical model for business has been proposed by Fair Trade organizations to “sustain the resources on which it depends and includes a plan for includes a plan for recycling the waste a company generates.” As it stands, most Fair Trade farming co-ops are only able to sell a fraction of their yields to Fair Traders, as the demand for Fair Trade is not enough to consume the available supply. Farmers are forced to sell the rest to conventional buyers for much lower prices. As demand increases for Fair Trade products, it enables certified farming groups to sell a greater share of their harvests on Fair Trade terms. Hopefully, these groups will be able to expand further, extending the benefits of Fair Trade to more and more farmers.
By choosing to buy a cup of Fair Trade coffee, you are choosing to help sustain land for future generations; you are helping maintain a home for an array of flora and fauna; and you are helping to provide basic needs for families in developing countries—things like food, shelter, clothing and a decent education. Now that you know what’s behind the making of your latté, presented to you now with cocoa on top, just the way you like it, would you choose to support the exploitation of resources and the cheating of farmers in developing countries? Would you choose to place them in an uncertain financial situation and force them to clear-cut their land and possibly make themselves sick with the use of toxic chemicals? Or how about contributing to the endangerment and extinction of many species which rely on the ecosystem Fair Trade growing methods maintain? You may not think that buying a cup of conventionally grown coffee every now and then will make a difference, but why not put that two dollars towards a school in Guatemala, or a clinic in Peru?