By Carol R. Scott
Coffee, Tea and Nationalism
It may be hard to imagine now – but tea was the favorite beverage in the British-ruled American colonies. That began to change when the British parliament, under King George III, raised taxes on tea in 1773. People up and down the coast rebelled.
From Connecticut to West Virginia, the colonists closed their ports to tea-laden ships that arrived to collect the new tariff. The conflict escalated when a mob of Bostonians –masquerading as Narragansett Indians – boarded three ships, destroyed tea crates and dumped bricks of tea into the Boston Harbor. Historically, this became known as the Boston Tea Party, one catalyst for the Revolutionary War.
Tea became associated with unfair taxation and subjugation. The American resisters essentially boycotted tea and promoted coffee – making it a symbol of justice and political and economic independence.
Ironically, a new resistance movement has grown – partly due to grass roots efforts and communications campaigns – to support a system of economic independence and social justice for struggling coffee growers in the developing world. In the United States, the movement has been a system of campaigns that began on local levels such as university campuses and morphed successfully into regional and national campaigns.
I learned about this movement in Costa Rica. Shortly after I retired in 2006, I moved to Costa Rica to become certified as an English language teacher. I settled into an inexpensive but technologically sophisticated and well-equipped tree house high up on a mountain in the jungles near the small town of Quepos, Costa Rica, where I could afford to live, do some writing and teach part time.
At the time, I knew nothing about the Fair Trade Movement coffee campaign, the effort to support poor coffee growers in their fight to get a better price from coffee processors and retailers. I did know that Costa Rica was a major coffee producer and that the nation’s coffee farmers were struggling.
When I began to do research in 2007 on the economics of the coffee trade and the campaign for fair trade, I found the trade system disturbing because the farmers receive subsistence wages for their labor. However, I was encouraged by the movement for change – much of it driven by communications disseminated by community activists and nonprofit groups in Europe and the United States, which are the largest coffee-consuming markets. For community development advocates who want to globalize their campaign, the Fair Trade coffee movement is a case study in successful cause-related communications.
I would begin this investigation by finding out how much Americans and Europeans knew about efforts to reform the current coffee trading system and by determining the sources of their information on the campaign.
The Knowledge Gap
Initially, I began gathering information from expats from France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the U.S. in Quepos, a town on the mid Pacific coast. I met these North Americans and Europeans through an American-owned coffee shop named “Aromas.” I also gathered information from Costa Ricans – neighbors, students, local business owners and staff at stores and restaurants.
The Americans I spoke with knew little about Fair Trade. Many believed it was connected to the very controversial Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which was approved by the narrowest of margins in a national referendum earlier this year. Some thought it might be a charity to collect money to give to poor farmers in developing countries. Others – the most cynical – believed it to be a marketing ploy for American importers and specialty coffee retailers to add dollars to the already high prices that Yuppie consumers seemed willing to pay for espressos, lattes and cappuccinos.
On the other hand, the Europeans were well aware of Fair Trade Certification and many of them told me that they frequently purchased Fair Trade-labeled products in their home countries. Information on the coffee trade is available to all on the Internet. It was on the web that I learned that coffee is one of the world's leading commodities in international trade. More than 500 billion cups of coffee are consumed every year worldwide and much of it is produced by 25 million farmers who depend on coffee for their economic livlihood. When the coffee market fluctuates, 100 million people – which includes the families of these small farm coffee producers – are deeply affected.
In spite of the billions of dollars being made from coffee, very little of it gets into the hands of those who harvest and tediously sort it. Laborers receive as little as four cents for a pound of coffee, which requires tedious and time-consuming work to pick and sort out the best beans. On the other hand, retailers and those in middle of the chain –roasters, processors and wholesalers – take the bulk of the profit.
The Fair Trade (FT) movement began as a way to address this injustice.
The Dutch were the most familiar with the term “Fair Trade.” They could describe at length how they learned about this social justice movement. I learned that their churches promote Fair Trade and that their schools emphasize its moral significance in standard school curricula. Also, they told me that government and non-governmental organizations have purchased space in newspapers and time on commercial television and radio for public service announcements encouraging citizens to buy Fair Trade-labeled items such as coffee, tea, chocolate and lumber.
In addition, I learned that in-depth news coverage of the movement also provides Dutch citizens with information on how farmers in Central and South America, Africa and parts of Asia benefit from the purchase of these FT-labeled goods.
How had Europeans – especially the Dutch – become so sympathetic to the Free Trade Movement?
The Netherlands, I learned, has been in the forefront of the Fair Trade movement since the mid-20th century. As early witnesses to the unequal pay and brutal treatment of the farmers and workers in countries colonized by the Dutch, some traders bought products directly from these producers and sold their products through churches, clubs, social organizations and specialty shops. These alternative traders were quite effective in getting the word out – so much so that there was a high public awareness of the very low wages small-scale producers received in comparison to the large profits of roasters, wholesalers, and retailers.
The Dutch would become the first to introduce a method of labeling products that promised buyers that the product they had purchased was from an individual producer in the Third World who would receive fair wages for her/his efforts.
The idea originated with a Dutch missionary priest, Frans Van der Hoff, who lived in a poor farming community in Mexico. Dependent upon an unpredictable coffee market for their survival, villagers clearly wanted to earn a living wage for their work rather than accept charity during difficult times. Responding to their concerns, he helped launch the first Fair Trade labeling initiative in 1988 – promoting it by assisting in the establishment of the Max Havelaar Foundation, named after a mid 18th century fictional character who opposed the exploitation of coffee and tea farmers under the colonial system in the Dutch East Indies.
The aim of the foundation is to create standard criteria by which buyers can be assured that every FT-labeled product originats from a small-scale producer who works under optimal conditions and is fairly paid.
The foundation has communicated its message in a variety of ways – creating video statements and mini-documentaries on their awareness-raising events, producing photos for media circulation, printing publications and sponsoring ad campaigns.
The campaign has been successful, drawing support from across the political spectrum in Holland. The campaign for certified FT coffee was quickly embraced and emulated thereafter in Belgium, Switzerland and France.
The movement is now global. The Havelaar Foundation promotes FT projects involving a variety of crops grown in poorer countries. The nonprofit is also a Dutch member of FLO International, which unites 23 FT initiatives across Europe, Asia, Latin America, North America, Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
The American Fair Trade Movement was late in comparison. However, in 1998, TransFair USA was formed to promote the movement and the organization began to certify FT coffee for labeling in 1999.
Costa Rica's coffee-producing farmers live mostly in the country's central region, where the volcanic earth provides the perfect growing soil for coffee bushes and the cooler climes in these mountainous areas provide an amenable environment.
There are about 73,000 coffee growers in Costa Rica. However, about 45,000 of them have farms 12 acres or less and are affiliated with cooperatives. (Only coffee beans produced by small-farm owners are eligible for Fair Trade labeling.)
The largest cooperative is the Consortium of Coffee Growers of Guanacaste (COOCAFE), a group that supports several thousand farms associated with the consortium’s membership of nine smaller co-ops. Founded in 1988 – the same year the Dutch Fair Trade labeling initiative was launched – it was originally formed to create an economy of scale large enough to provide marketing and other services to the nine coop members.
Democratically structured – farmers have a say in where the money goes – COOCAFE supports a major educational foundation called Hijos del Campos, along with women’s development programs and rainforest reforestation efforts.
COOCAFE supports the nine co-ops on every level – providing culling equipment for harvesting and roasting ovens for product preparation. The consortium also handles the packaging and labeling of the coffee and relays it to distributors. In addition, COOCAFE produces a newsletter, advertising posters, brochures and touts Fair Trade via its website.
Most of the communications are aimed at the consortium’s major markets – Holland, Switzerland and the United States. Only a very small portion of coffee is distributed in Costa Rica.
According to Michelle Filloy, who was marketing director of COOCAFE when I visited their operations in 2007, each farmer producer receives 60% of the price of their packaged coffee while the co-ops themselves get 40% to be used for community projects determined by member votes. This money had been used to build schools, community centers and churches and to pay for computers and scholarships and state of the art equipment to improve coffee production in environmentally safe ways.
Through connections with one of cooperatives, I was invited to visit the Fernandez family on their 1.5-acre farm located in the San Miguel de Sarapiqui area just north of the Costa Rican capital of San Jose, a breathtakingly beautiful section of the country that attracts white water rafters from all over the world.
Here is how the Fernandez family lives. With the exception of rice and beans and the rare meat they eat,
their food comes from their small garden and the hens and chickens they raise. The coffee they sell through a local co-op is enough to help them survive – but not thrive. A good crop, not always to be relied on, brings in only $200 a month. Hired help is out of the question. Elpidio Fernandez works the farm with his wife. An adult son, who lives independently helps with the heavier work and provides some relief to Elpidio, who walks with a cane and pronounced limp.
The Fernandez farm is one of 300 farms affiliated with Coopesarapiqui, one of the nine member co-ops of COOCAFE. From the Fair Trade premiums received, the co-op was able to purchase their own coffee processing mill and water treatment plant. It also owns two grocery stores now and is currently building a cafe to attract tourists and generate additional income. In addition, it recently built several large cement fish tanks to raise tilapia that will be sold to local groceries, another enterprise designed to augment the income the Fenandez family and other coop members.
Communicating Fair Trade in the United States
In recent years, there has been an explosion of interest in and knowledge about FT coffee in the United States. So much so that between 1999 and 2006, the United States imported 100 million pounds of coffee with the FT label and now major corporations – Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks, MacDonald’s and Sam’s Warehouse stores among them – are selling Fair Trade coffee.
Enthusiastic student activists, who often used the Internet in their Fair Trade campaigns, paved the way for change. Groups such as United Students for Fair Trade continue to exert pressure on wholesalers, roasters and retailers shops and roasters still resistant to FT coffee commerce.
This activist movement began in the 1960’s when more and more young people from the United States – many of them college students – began to travel to Third World countries for language-learning immersion programs, to do research on biodiversity or to provide aid through church programs.
They lived in the homes and communities of the host country and became witness to the inequality and poverty of the farmers that produced the coffee they drank every morning – particularly growers in poor Central American countries such as strife-torn Guatamala and El Salvador. These young people would be the early messengers in the United States – relaying information on how little of retail price of coffee goes to farmers and calling for a fairer system.
Individually and in groups they brought the narratives home: stories of farmers and their families in deep debt and living in extreme poverty; portrayals of people dependent upon a crop in an unpredictable market; reports of children working in the fields instead of attending school and tales of large-scale farming practices involving chemicals harmful to nature and to the people who harvest coffee.
The U.S. movement expanded in 1995 when students joined delegations for stays in El Salvador organized partly by Equal Exchange, a San Francisco-based a social justice nonprofit.
When FairTrade USA opened its first office in the Bay Area in 1999, more students joined the campaign. The group was able to quickly convince many Bay Area retailers and restaurants to sell FT-labeled coffee.
The mainstream media gave only scant coverage to the FT campaign. However, the protest movement grew largely because of the coalition’s creative communications tactics. The campaigners used websites and streaming technology to disseminate their protests and garner support.
Finally, a big breakthrough occurred in 2000 when Global Exchange, a social justice organization that had helped organize protests in individual cities, used the web to
promote plans for demonstrations at Starbucks in 29 cities. Starbucks agreed to sell Fair Trade coffee and the organizers cancelled the protest.
The movement continued to gain momentum in 2001 when the Ford Foundation awarded a grant for “Promoting Ethical Consumer Choice in the United States” to Oxfam, an organization known world wide for its campaigns to address poverty.
Under the grant, Oxfam helped train students on 225 U.S. campuses to be organizers for the advocacy of fair trade between 2001 and 2003. In 2003, United Students for Fair Trade was formed during an Oxfam organizer training session in Seattle – the home of Starbucks.
The movement generated more momentum in 2003 when Dunkin Donuts, America’s largest retailer of coffee by the cup – then and now – became the first national chain to sell espresso drinks made exclusively from Fair Trade-certified beans.
Advocates of fair trade continue to use new media to promote the cause, posting information on popular social media sites such as My Space and Facebook to relay information and the location of retailers selling FT products. Also, the United Students for Fair Trade has blogs on its website and Fair Trade USA has sponsored video-making contests related to the issue that have been posted on YouTube.
Meanwhile, organizing activity on campus continues. While many activists use social media, some have also used film by hosting screenings of documentaries on the plight of coffee farmers. Some of these films, financed by foundations in some cases, have also been broadcast on PBS stations. Among the films are Birdsong and Coffee: A Wake Up Call and Black Gold. One activist group – an organization called Coffee Kids – actually became the subject of a 2005 PBS documentary called Working with the Coffee Kids.
Communications Options: Lessons Learned
It has taken a long time for average Americans to put aside their early bias and recognize the benefits of purchasing Fair Trade-Certified coffee. Many still hold on to their suspicions that Fair Trade is simply another gimmick to sell coffee at highly inflated prices.
The European coffee consumer learned early of this social justice issue largely through mainstream media and the political establishment.
In the U.S, political leaders rarely discuss the Fair Trade Movement and the mainstream media has provided little coverage.
Undaunted, the agents of agents of change faced off against corporations with huge advertising budgets and other resources. Using the Internet and creative grass roots communications methods, they have had success despite the odds.