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The Economy of Coffee

I have only recently become a coffee drinker. It was part an aversion to bitter flavors and part the superior feeling I got from being the only person I knew who didn’t need a cup a day. I learned how to drink the stuff this past spring, and am actually at a point that I can enjoy a cup – though still not addicted. All of which made me slightly more interested in the mountain economy than mere concern for the Guatemalan people.

What you see in the photo above is coffee beans drying in the sun. This is probably about half-way through the economic life-cycle of a coffee bean. They start out by growing on bushes high in the mountains. I’d seen tea plantations in Rwanda, and expected the same beautiful fields in Guatemala. The colors were beautiful-the deep greens of plants growing in wet areas always make me feel earthy- but forget the orderly fields. The mountains are steep, and the coffee is planted in as close to rows and you can get on a steep mountain side.

The bushes are cared for by the local people who are called the Chortie. I was a bit confused about the delineation of the sub-population but from what I gathered they are Mayan descendants. They are a bit of a closed community, and unless you are in an area near a town they will hide from outsiders. They will speak Spanish, but as you get further from towns they have their own language.

The life of the Chortie is simple and difficult. The male head of house (and when possible female head of house and children) will pick coffee beans all day. The beans will be carried (on your back) down the mountain to the closest weigh station where the volume of beans is determined. Payment is made per weight, and the farmer returns up the mountain to get home. I didn’t understand who owned the plants, whether individual families owned the property and sold their beans or if coffee companies owned the land and paid families as workers.

Homes are made of a combination of palm branches and clay bricks. Families who are close to towns may use cement bricks for part of their home but there are some limits to this. Cement blocks cost money, but clay bricks can be made freely by anyone. Cement blocks need to be transported to the home site, so will need to be carried one at a time or a truck will need to be hired (more money). So most families will use the clay bricks and branches. This means their homes are constantly at risk for pests and insect nests. Below is a picture of the type of palm branches used to build homes and structures.

Cooking is done outside. The diet is very plain and nutritionally inadequate. Corn and black beans are the staples. Bananas grow in the mountains so can be added to the diet. We saw some melon fields on the lower slopes of the mountains, but these were obviously a business with the product being sold in the nearest towns rather than being intended for families up the mountains. The furthest we went into the mountains (about a 45 minute drive from the nearest small town), still had a small supply of junk food available – small bags of chips and some soda for sale at a store (the home of a family living next to the government school). Here is a kitchen from a different family who operates a store from their home – again right next to the local government school.

After the coffee is weighed, it is taken to the drying center as seen in the photo above. Coffee is dried, roasted and then packaged for sale. I was able to purchase a pound of roasted and ground coffee from a local plantation for $35Q – with $1USD being equal to $8.2Q this means my coffee cost less than $5. And as a recent coffee connoisseur I will admit to finding the Guatemalan coffee to be lacking the harsh acidic taste I sometimes find in coffee. At my local grocery store or Target I can purchase a pound of good coffee (sorry, I don’t buy Folgers) for about $8 per pound. I have been paying more lately because Josette and I had been trying to purchase fair trade items rather than “regular” items.

The Fair Trade concept sounds good. Basically the corporation selling the product contracts with a farmer or group of farmers to purchase the item at a living wage. This way the farmer is not paid pennies a day for their work. But there are flaws to the system Рmostly the price. Few people are willing to pay a higher price for a Fair Trade product. I can get Fair Trade coffee from two companies during my regular shopping trips. They sell their beans in 12 oz contains instead of the standard 16oz  and the prices are higher than the other brands. But the prices for all their products are higher than the other brands. Check out the fair trade products in your coffee and chocolate aisles by looking for this symbol (if you live near a Target, you can purchase Fair Trade coffee):

I have many questions about the impact of Fair Trade on communities. I have significant doubts that fair trade alone is able to end the poverty cycle. I also wonder why price setting (refusing to lower the price when market prices drop) is considered a good thing because the farmers are poor when similar high price setting by companies in developed countries is considered greedy. One concern I have read about Fair Trade is the way the price setting can influence increased production without increasing demand – which leads to overall lower prices. It reminds me a lot of the problem when sugar companies began paying farmers in parts of Africa (I’m pretty sure it was DR Congo, but its been 15 years since I took that class) to produce sugar. The money received for the product was welcome, but families spent less and less of their agricultural resources on food for the family. The money received for the sugar needed to supply the families food, but the family structure and the culture did not support this lifestyle. The men (who by law owned the money) spent the money on drinking and other fun things, while their wives and children were left to try to provide food with fewer and fewer fields. It was a cultural disaster.

No matter how good it may sound to pay farmers in developing countries to grow what you want, it is important to remember that their society may not operate in the way you expect. Giving them more money to produce your food isn’t really a way to prevent that. That being said, I do still purchase Fair Trade. I’m just more of a fan of purchasing and using local products – which is again more expensive and time consuming than the regular grocery store trip.

So yeah, this is what I was thinking about as I road up and down the mountain standing up in the back of an old pickup truck. It is a wonderful experience to have had, the view was amazing – but it was very cold, damp air and the truck went very fast on a one lane dirt road. My heart broke as I saw families picking beans or carrying bundles down the mountain. Poverty is real, and I am blessed to not experience (even if my family lives below what most Americans consider adequate income levels).

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One Response to “The Economy of Coffee”

  1. Brad Imerson says:

    This is the most in-depth look I have yet seen as to the process of growing fair trade coffee. I had no idea there were so many steps in the process. This was really eye opening and I appreciate the post!