When I left New Hampshire, bound for Mexico, it was three in the morning and snowing. In the rush, I barely stopped to think about the routine filling of my coffee mug, except for the momentary relief the hot beverage provided from the cold.
As I trudged through the snow, grasping my warm beverage, carrying all my belongings for the week on my back, I never realized that I was about to say goodbye to something. After this trip, my relationship with coffee would never be the same.
Mexico or Bust
The minute my feet hit solid ground after a very long day of flights, my appreciation for coffee had already grown tenfold. The sheer distance we had traveled was exhausting, and we still weren’t at the coffee farms! Our mission in Mexico seemed simple enough: meet with our sister cooperative—a partnership project set up by Equal Exchange—and learn about the process of coffee. I thought, “I know what to expect. I’ve seen videos and pictures of coffee being harvested.” In a very small way, I was right. The physical processing of the coffee is pretty straightforward—very labor intensive, but straightforward.
I was very wrong about the rest of the story. Coffee farming is complicated and surrounded by a web of influence that pictures and videos can’t describe.
A History of Injustice
Before we ventured up into the mountains, we attended a series of meetings to learn about the history of the area and the ongoing struggles coffee farmers face. Understanding the past was crucial to understanding the people we were about to meet and the challenges surrounding our new business partners.
Many of the economic and political struggles traced their roots to the natural resources of the region. The state of Chiapas is rich in natural resources, making it very desirable to a number of interests. Energy companies seek the abundant hydroelectric capabilities, corporations are drawn to the agricultural resources, and even pharmaceutical companies have begun targeting the region.
Many of the coffee farmers had incredible stories of their struggles to keep their land and communities. We heard several stories of farmers whose land was stolen from them. Some worked as slaves on land they formerly owned; others were forced from their homes. Through their incredible strength and perseverance, the farmers slowly began to win back their land, often at a great price.
This was not a battle of the distant past. These events had transpired within the last few decades, and the struggle is far from over. The indigenous communities face continued hostility from the government, evident in the several military bases surrounding the communities. Even in the small, remote mountain village we visited, the government had established a presence. Tactics like this, designed to divide communities, are just a small example of a new kind of battle these farmers face.
As we learned more and more about the challenges of daily life in our farmers’ communities, my now flourishing appreciation for true fair trade expanded. After these incredible history lessons, it was time for us to make the journey into the mountains to see the coffee harvest. In addition to recognizing the governmental pressure on these communities, we were about to learn about the environmental challenges the farmers face.
Climate vs. Coffee
One of the major issues coffee farmers are tackling is actually a global issue—climate change. While discussions about climate change often can evolve into esoteric debates, for CIRSA’s farmers, the conversation is much more real. They are experiencing changing conditions and are doing their best to adapt.
Coffee is a very particular plant with fairly strict requirements. It only grows at a certain altitude, in a particular soil, within narrow humidity and temperature ranges. Research suggests that if temperatures continue to warm, many popular varieties of coffee could disappear. A look into the current coffee growing conditions reveals a wide spectrum of erratic weather patterns; from changing temperature zones to droughts in Brazil to torrential rains in Mexico. For our sister co-op, this year has been one of the wettest seasons many of them remember. The rain is causing a number of problems for the farmers, including coffee rust.
One unattractive option is for the farmers to consider a coffee plant that is resistant to rust. Unfortunately, this plant, though resistant to disease, produces an unappealing coffee. The best option is an organic fungicide treatment. However, the fungicide needs to be spread at the beginning of the growing season, so the damage from this year’s rust will have to be suffered as a loss.
Better Coffee for a Better Planet
With all of the obstacles our small farmer partners are navigating, the work they do is quite remarkable. These organic farmers produce some of the best coffee in the world, and they do it in a sustainable way. In fact, this leads to one of my favorite parts of the trip—learning about the farmers’ stewardship of their land, especially their composting operation.
As we wandered among the village houses dotting the hillside, one of the first things I noticed was a giant black mound seeping down a hillside. While this mound looked like a Godzilla-sized slug covered in an oil-slick, a closer inspection showed the mound was dotted with small red specks. As I watched one of the farmers crank the de-pulping mill at the top of the mound, it became clear that these mounds were decomposing coffee cherries.
These decomposing coffee cherries are black gold for the farmers. When mixed with straw and leaves, they turn into a rich compost. After composting, the farmers haul this potent plant nourishment back up the mountainside and spread it around the base of the tree. In their words, “there is no better fertilizer.” In fact, compost is so valuable to these organic farmers that they are testing out a vermicomposting (worm-composting) system for their home food scraps.
What’s in my Cup
This small glimpse into the sustainability issues conveys one reason I’m a full advocate for small farmer, true fair trade. From this trip, I learned how valuable it is to the farmers to have control of their own business. Supporting a company like Equal Exchange not only helps these farmers and their communities, but it helps support a sustainable food system.
My relationship with coffee really has transformed. Every time I pour a cup of coffee, it inspires me to think about all of the things that had to happen for that beverage to make it to my cup and about the lives that it changes. As I sip my cup while writing this article, I’m happy to know that my Equal Exchange coffee supports a remarkable story—one of sustainable agriculture, of creating a better life, and of working together. It’s a story I’m proud to tell.