This is the first of three parts in a blog series about certification systems in coffee. This post focuses mostly on the 'Fair Trade' certification and my experience visiting coffee growing regions in Mexico. The second blog post will focus mostly on the 'Organic' certification and my experiences visiting the coffee growing regions in Guatemala. The final blog post will draw some conclusions from both trips and from conversations I have had with coffee professionals and customers.
"We saw our production drop by 70% over 3 years; from 40 containers shipped out in 2012 to 15 containers shipped out in 2015." This staggering statistic was shared to me on February 6 in Jaltenango, Mexico by a member of the C.E.S.M.A.C.H. cooperative, which represents hundreds of farmers across Chiapas, Mexico. I took a trip to this coffee growing region in February 2017 to learn more about Fair Trade's involvement in the area. The member sharing this information in regards to a debilitating fungus called La Roya (The Rust) that wrecked southern Mexico, along with their cooperatives production.
La Roya is a blight that has become all too familiar across Central and South America since 2012. Named after the rust colored spots that appear on the underside of coffee plant leaves, La Roya lessens the yield and quality of affected coffee plants. More so, farmers have to spend time and money combating the fungus. These economic stressors not only make it difficult to farmers, they have the potential to destroy livelihoods and communities.
However, the C.E.S.M.A.C.H. cooperative in partnership with Fair Trade USA would not let this happen to their farmers.
For those who are unfamiliar, Fair Trade USA is a third party certification organization that promotes sustainable livelihoods for farmers. They accomplish this by setting a price floor, which is the minimum that a coffee farmer could get paid for their crop. Think of it like an international minimum wage for agricultural producers, where the farmer can be paid more than the minimum, but will not be paid less. Considering coffees not-so-distant history of slave labor, efforts towards paying farmers fair wages is important, and fair trade addresses this issue by instituting a minimum fair wage that farmers must be paid to be certified by their organization. that minimum is currently $1.40/lb or $1.70/lb if the coffee is certified organic, which is pretty good considering the coffee market currently fluctuates around $1.25/lb. Compare that to more dire scenarios such as farmers in Papua New Guinea getting paid $0.20/lb (which my wife and I learned about from a trip there in 2013), and you can see the obvious benefit of a price minimum.
Fair Trade USA also charges buyers a $0.20/lb premium that goes to the cooperatives that represent the farmers. These cooperatives use the premium funds for various community development projects, depending on how the farmers vote.
Now back to our story...
Producers in Chiapas, and in many regions in Central America, are struggling to combat La Roya. Thankfully, the farmers represented by the C.E.S.M.A.C.H. cooperative have a hope. The farmers voted to use their Fair Trade premium towards developing a plant nursery where they could cultivate new varietals that are more resistant to La Roya. The cooperative would then renovate all of their farmers infected plants with new ones that are ready to produce...free of charge. The fair trade premiums are not enough to cover all costs, which is why fair trade helped this cooperative receive a grant towards the nursery project as well. Just three years into the renovations, these farmers have already seen their production get back to where it was before La Roya.
Let me repeat the basic points. 1) These farmers lost 70% of their production. A loss that would shut down most businesses. 2) Their cooperative was able to come up with a solution through the fair trade system's education and funding. 3) They returned to normal production just three years into this project, which is amazing considering new coffee plants take 3-4 years before they produce a decent crop.
This is just one of the many stories we heard while visiting multiple cooperatives and farms. All of the producers we encountered were very grateful for fair trades influence in their area. I, personally, was impressed by the relationships fair trade has with their producers and cooperatives. I imagine a large certification would not be in tune to the on-site specific needs; as if they were more of a 'one size fits all' approach. however the intentionality that fair trade gives these cooperatives was very evident and impressive.
There are some arguments against fair trade, some of which will be addressed in another part of this blog series. However, through my experience in Mexico and research, I have found that the good far outweighs the bad. if nothing else, fair trade USA has promoted the notion that producers deserve more for their labor. Their branding has raised most awareness about the exploitation of farmers and that is worth celebrating.
At Three Tree Coffee, many of our coffees are certified Fair Trade through Fair Trade USA; however, not all of our coffees are. Wonder why? If so, be sure to read the next blog post where I share a very different experience from Guatemala regarding another certification organization.Philip Klayman
Founder, Three Tree Coffee