Bookmark and Share Home   »  About Us  »  In the Media

Students Learn about Coffee Trade on WFP Delegation

by Emily KennedyThe Cowl--Providence College's Student-Run Newspaper

It’s six o’clock in the morning and everyone in the house is awake.

Roosters begin their daily cock-a-doodle-doo, and Dennis Martinez gets up to take a shower in the tarp-enclosed spot next to the family’s well of fresh water.

He pours buckets of water onto his head as chickens peck the ground around him and his children run down the dirt street. "¡Buenos días!’’ they shout to their friends and cousins living nearby.

Martinez enters the kitchen where his wife is cooking tortillas on the stone stove and sweeping the dirt floor. His children are back now, watching cartoons on television before they head off to school.

This is the morning ritual of a coffee farmer in Jalapa, Nicaragua.

Martinez spends the day planting coffee and harvesting ripe coffee beans using organic methods. He chose organic farming through the fair trade market because he knew it was better for the earth and would pay him more than if he sold to large corporations in the free trade market.

But it has not turned out that way. He makes barely enough to support his family.

Martinez is one of thousands of small farmers across the globe who work to bring that $3 cup of coffee to the coffee shop near you.

Providence College spends $88,000 on coffee every year, and most of the supply is purchased by Sodexo, the school’s food service supplier.

Aware of the challenges facing farmers like Martinez, 10 PC students traveled to Nicaragua over spring break to learn about coffee farming and the fair trade industry, and how we might leverage PC’s coffee cravings into a better lifestyle for farmers in third world countries.

Fair trade is a trading model designed to guarantee workers fair wages and just treatment and to use environmentally sustainable farming methods. The goal is to ensure that the majority of the money made from selling the coffee goes directly back to the farmer and not the middleman. It also ensures adequate regulations and safe health standards.

Free trade, by contrast, is unregulated, allowing imports or exports without tariffs or subsidies. It was started as a way to make trade easier by allowing the market to balance needs through supply and demand.

Though it was meant to do good, free trade has given an incentive for large companies to underpay workers in places where labor is cheap. In Nicaragua, these market forces make it more difficult for farmers to earn a living wage.

The idea for this project sprang from PC’s Global Activism class. The goal was to use the College’s purchasing power to bring coffee produced on the fair trade market to campus.

For 10 days, we along with advisors from Witness For Peace, an organization committed to supporting peace and justice in Latin America, met with coffee growers and coffee cooperatives in Managua and Jalapa, Nicaragua.

We went to PRODECOOP, an organization of 38 coffee cooperatives that export coffee on the fair trade market, and we met with community members who worked in free trade zones.

We spent two nights in the community called Escambray, where we lived with a host family and learned about daily life. We took a tour of the coffee farm and the coffee production and drying center. We met with officials at the U.S.

Embassy to hear about the political relationships between the U.S. and Nicaragua.

We got a lesson in disappointment. Based on what we witnessed and learned, we found that fair trade is not as fair as it is made out to be.

Martinez, for example, is paid $130 for each bag of coffee. Since every 100-pound bag of coffee can produce 2,000 cups of coffee, if the coffee is sold for $2 a cup, each bag of coffee can produce $4,000. Yet Martinez makes only seven cents a cup.

"Sometimes when coffee prices go up people think producers get more, but that’s not true,’’ Martinez said. "Producers receive the least benefits of this price in coffee."

Martinez is paid more than if he were selling on the free trade market: $30 more per bag for organically-produced coffee beans and another $15 per bag for selling it to the fair trade cooperative. But he must competes with big corporations who are now producing organic coffee too.

Organic farming "began as a way to reduce poverty," Martinez said. "Now big businesses are taking advantage of these ways to get more money."

Members of PRODECOOP told the group that while fair trade originated as a way to improve lives and the environment, it is now dominated by large corporations that provide minimum wages, not higher wages, to poor farmers.

Coffee production creates 300,000 permanent jobs in Nicaragua and small farmers are the backbone of the industry, with 80 percent of the farms owned by small farmers.

Working conditions also are not ideal. A woman, who had recently had a child, described how the work she does cutting the coffee beans is dangerous, especially for someone who is pregnant. The coffee she cuts is sent to a fair trade cooperative. She makes 87 cents for each bag she fills, about $6 or $7 per day.

Because fair trade cooperatives in Nicaragua pay farmers only minimum wage, farmers can’t get ahead. They continue to live in poverty with less education, less healthcare, and less food than they deserve.

"The most important thing we learned in Nicaragua is that fair trade isn’t perfect,’’ said Kristin Peña, a senior who participated in the class and went on the trip. "While it is better than free trade, it still is not addressing some of the major inequalities in the world market."

The solution, Peña said, is to connect the farmer more directly to the consumer through alternative ways of trade without abandoning the fair trade model completely.

"Our next step is actually bringing coffee to PC that transcends the standard fair trade model,’’ Peña said. Students will "work with Sodexo as a first step" and then find coffee from sources that follow better trade standards, she said.

Stuart Gerhardt, general manager of Providence College Dining Services who works with Sodexo, said that is a laudable goal, but he urges patience.

"I’m all for it,’’ he said. "But, it’s not like overnight we’re going to change the world or Providence College.’’

Gerhardt said the company is aware of the ethical challenges involved in the coffee trade and gets its coffee from fair trade sources. Sodexo gets its coffee from Asperreto, Starbucks, and Newport Traders, he said. He added that he is willing to work with any group on campus to improve PC’s role in it.

As for Martinez, he believes coffee drinkers can make a difference, and he asked PC’s students not to forget him.

"The producers and consumers have the most influence on the market,’’ he said. "Yet the producers are the most likely forgotten and last to be paid."

Emily Kennedy is a freshman Global Studies major and was one of the students who traveled to Nicaragua.