Food & Drink : Cool beans

Fair Trade coffee: all the caffeine, plus living wages

At 8,000 feet, the air is pure and clear in Chiapas, a state in southern Mexico where steep, green hillsides are plushly carpeted in maize fields, banana plants, and coffee trees. Here, in the rich, volcanic soil, the trees break out in red berries that, when mature, produce $250 million in prized altura coffee each year.

Unfortunately, due to the volatility of the coffee market, a lack of equipment and technical know-how, and profiteering middlemen, these Chiapas campesinos, many of whom farm on less than seven acres, live on about $3 a day — less than the price of one Venti latte at Starbucks.

While a java jones might be your morning crisis, coffee farmers are encountering a far worse dilemma: How to feed their families and build their communities on a crop whose profits are funneled not to producers, but to middlemen and large corporations.

Fair Trade practices are viewed as one solution to the coffee crisis, which persists despite rising international prices and demand. Fair Trade principles prohibit forced child labor and provide living wages for farmers, while sustaining their communities. And there are environmental benefits, as well: Although sun-grown coffee produces greater yields, Fair Trade coffee is shade-grown, which eliminates the need for clear-cutting and preserves delicate ecosystems. And since many farmers can’t afford pesticides and other chemicals, there is an ample supply of organic Fair Trade coffee.

Where to find Fair Trade Coffee & Tea


In San Antonio:
Ruta Maya, 107 E. Martin
Drink, 200 Navarro
Starbucks, various locations
Whole Foods, 999 E. Basse
Central Market, 4821 Broadway
What’s Brewing, 136 E. Main Plaza
Lazarus Coffee Co. (catering) 979-8202
Costco, various locations

General information:

Angel Mena, CEO of Ruta Maya Coffeehouse on the River Walk, travels to Chiapas to buy fairly traded beans from farmer-owned cooperatives at higher prices than those offered on the commodities market. “We saw a need in those communities to find a better avenue for their products,” he says.

In the Fair Trade system, farmers form cooperatives, which can give them leverage with large roasters to command a just price for their crop. Last week, a pound of coffee on the commodities market was 91 cents, of which about 30 cents went to the farmer. In contrast, the minimum price for a pound of Fair Trade coffee is $1.26; for organic Fair Trade, the floor price is even higher, at $1.41 a pound. These prices are paid to the farmers through the co-ops to which they belong. “The farmers are able to prosper,” Mena says.

More than two-thirds of Mexico’s 280,000 coffee farmers are small-scale, indigenous families who historically weren’t allowed to directly enter the coffee market. Instead, a middleman, euphemistically known as a “beneficio,” has contracts with large corporations to pay farmers cents on the dollar, while he and the big companies profit. “That is the first level of oppression,” says Mena, who is from northern Mexico.

Although Fair Trade practices began in Europe in the 1940s, it wasn’t until 1986 that the idea caught on in the United States, when Equal Exchange, a Massachusetts-based, worker-owned cooperative, introduced Fair Trade coffee to the American market. According to, which since 1998 has certified 100 million pounds of Fair Trade coffee from Mexico, South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia, Fair Trade coffee is the fastest-increasing segment of the specialty coffee market, with an annual growth rate of 75 percent.

The importance of Fair Trade practices were highlighted during the 2001 coffee crisis, when market prices for arabica — high-quality, yet labor-intensive beans used in most specialty coffee — plummeted to as low as 50 cents a pound, down from a peak of $4 in the late 1970s. The price drop was prompted by Brazil and Vietnam, which flooded the market with cheaper, lower-quality coffee known as robusta, which is widely used in freeze-dried brands. Add the slow rebuild after last fall’s Hurricane Stan, and many Mexican and Central American farmers are just beginning to recover from the double-whammy of Mother Nature and a temperamental market.

Yet, price is only one part of the coffee equation, says Helen DaSilva, spokesperson for Oxfam, which promotes Fair Trade coffee programs. Farmers and cooperatives still lack access to the financial credit, equipment, and marketing and technical expertise that would allow them to compete in the international coffee arena. Many farmers don’t have quality controls — nor do they even drink their own coffee — to ensure a consistent, robust product.

“It’s not one person or organization that affects the market,” says DaSilva. “You have to look at the producing country itself, and its capacity to support farmers; at corporations and what they’re doing to get products on the shelf; and at consumers — what are they looking for when buying products?”

Oxfam has successfully persuaded larger corporations such as Procter & Gamble to buy larger quantities of Fair Trade coffee, Starbucks responded to activist pressure to up its offerings of Fair Trade beans, and many major supermarket chains now carry it `see box, this page`. Yet, the secret to successful Fair Trade practices lies with American caffeine junkies, who as a group consume 400 million cups per day. Despite a growing social awareness of Fair Trade coffee, supply still outstrips demand. Transfair reports that of the 170 million pounds of Fair Trade coffee produced globally, only 35 million pounds are sold on the market.

“You can have a positive impact on someone’s life,” says DaSilva of buying Fair Trade coffee. “That product is coming from a person. The choices you make as a consumer can make a difference.”

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