The best part of waking up … or is it?

Kelsey Kudak

Two weeks ago, in the town of Santa Avelina in the mountains of Quiche (Key-che), Guatemala, I met Josefa, as she turned her coffee beans in the sun. I was in the country translating with a medical team, and as the others were eating their lunch, I walked up the hill behind the school and struck a conversation. The beans were laid on tarps to dry in the sun; there was roughly a quarter of a football field in small, beige pellets. She explained to me the process of coffee trade as she ran her rastrillo, or rake, over the beans and lifted handfuls in various stages for my examination. “It takes roughly four days to dehydrate coffee,” she said in Spanish. “See, these have been out for two, and these have been out for three. Look at the difference in the skin.” Her family picks coffee cherries from the plants on their land, and their neighbors combined their crops in a joint drying effort. Several families in the area had procured the quarter football field on which I was gazing, and these families would have to peel the shells from the beans before selling them. The coffee is purchased from the grower by the pound. “Do you get a good price for your coffee?” I asked. Though puzzled by my inquiry, she replied, “Yes, seven quetzales per bag.” In Guatemala, seven quetzales is the equivalent of 90 cents. The latest Guatemalan coffee from Starbucks is called Casi Cielo, translates to “Close to Heaven” and costs $12.95 per pound. It comes from farms near Antigua, a beautifully ancient, colonial city. Though I am biased, most Starbucks employees probably couldn’t name the town nor explain where Guatemala is on a map.

The worst part is that Josefa is right when she says she gets a good price for her coffee. “Black Gold,” a documentary directed by Marc and Nick Francis from the United Kingdom, reports coffee growers in Ethiopia receive, at best, 23 cents per kilo or 50 cents per pound. Last month, the film was made one of Guardian’s top 10 nonfiction films of 2007 in the U.K. and has been successful in generating conversation about Ethiopia and the coffee market as a whole. Ethiopia, the birthplace of the coffee bean, is the largest producer of coffee in Africa and represents nearly 67 percent of the country’s export revenue. In other words, more than 15 million people in Ethiopia depend on coffee farms for income, but 50 cents per pound on a good day is hardly dependable. It is not to be overlooked that these numbers are only representative of Ethiopia and fail to mention the rest of the coffee growing world.

Tadesse Meskela manages a union of farmers in Ethiopia and was featured in the film. In an interview with National Public Radio he spoke of his farmers and a particular conversation they’d had. “Ethiopia grows the best coffee in the world, but farmers need to live a decent life,” he said; his farmers couldn’t guess the cost of a cup of coffee in the Western world. “Eighty cups of coffee are made from one kilogram of coffee. One cup of coffee costs roughly 25 bar ($2.90).” Therefore, a retailer makes $230 per kilo. Converting this to pounds, 160 cups of espresso in a coffee shop is more than $500. The farmers are paid a fraction of one percent of this revenue. But the farmers have no leverage to their sales. A trader will come to them and say, “I’ll buy your coffee for this much today,” and if they don’t sell their produce they earn nothing. The trader will not increase his price if the farmer decides not to sell his coffee because the trader is also invested in his own salary.

The trader’s price is based on the market price of beans. Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world and the national value of trade is roughly $140 billion. Before its collapse in 1989, the International Coffee Agreement was a relative regulator of the world market. Since then, according to PBS’s Frontline World, retail sales of coffee have risen $30 billion to $80 billion per year since 1990. Because the prices are based on trade, the international price of coffee is established in New York and London, places that are driven toward profit. The retailers that buy coffee want to ensure the earning of a certain profit after distribution and sales. Therefore they set the price of coffee according to their financial budget and mostly ignore the budget of those who procure their product. This is where the largest problem lies. It does not matter whether Folgers or Caribou wakes you in the morning when price is concerned.

But what of fair trade coffee? The concept here is to cut out the middleman so the coffee passes through fewer hands before reaching the roaster and retailer. If growers follow fair trade regulations, they are guaranteed $1.26 for every pound of coffee procured. This helps, but farmers are still making less on one pound of coffee than a consumer pays for 12 ounces of drip coffee. Additionally, fair trade coffee falls into the genre of a market of “specialty” coffee like Starbuck’s Casi Cielo and, according to PBS, only comprises two percent of this market.

So, if we stop drinking coffee altogether and boycott the major chains our problem would be solved, right? Hardly. In addition to unpleasant people everywhere, we would be adding more coffee to the world’s surplus. But it’s still a double bind. Though Starbucks and Caribou are the reasons these farmers have jobs, the coffee industry is also what keeps people like Josefa and her family in poverty in Guatemala, and leaves the growers in Ethiopia struggling to send their children to school.

Kelsey Kudak welcomes comments at [email protected]