Coffee is the second most heavily traded commodity in the world. It originates from either plantations that are traditionally run and owned by wealthy landowners or small family-run operations that are primarily owned by impoverished farmers. These small farmers frequently live in isolated communities, relying on middlemen in addition to processors, creditors, exporters, and brokers to buy their coffee.
Fluctuating prices on the commodities market make it very difficult for farmers to plan for the future. Prices are often below the cost of production. The way the system is set up, the farmer can not get a just return for their labor. When we purchase coffee, we unwittingly participate in a system that traps so many coffee farmers and their families in the developing world in an inescapable cycle of poverty. In addition, many large producers have switched to a variety of coffee that needs full sunlight, unlike traditional coffee bushes that grow in the shade. To produce “sun-grown coffee,” trees must be removed. Clear-cutting forests destroys the ecosystem and endangers local and migratory birds.
Hundreds of thousands of small coffee farmers and workers have lost their jobs due to the current coffee crisis. In many situations, these farmers must choose between starvation and growing illicit crops like coca, which is used to make cocaine. Others have lost their land or left their homes in search of jobs so they can feed their families.
Despite all these gloomy facts and figures, the world’s small coffee farmers can survive and maybe even thrive. We can help our neighbors accomplish this by buying fair trade coffee, tea, cocoa, chocolate and other products. Fair trade is an alternative economic model based on the premise that “good business” and “the common good” are NOT mutually exclusive terms.