Where did your morning cup of coffee come from? Whether it’s major coffee retail chain, a gas station, or the grocery store, you probably never encountered the person who picked the coffee beans or heard the story of that farmer’s struggle to make ends meet.
A student-led group on the West Virginia University campus called Fair Trade 2.0 is working to change that by partnering with a coffee cooperative called “La Hermandad” in Nicaragua. La Hermandad, which means the brotherhood or sisterhood in Spanish, is an organization representing 30 farming families and supports more than 100 people in the community of San Ramon, Nicaragua.
Bradley Wilson, assistant professor of geography, has been working with La Hermandad members and other agricultural cooperatives engaged in the fair-trade coffee market since 2005. Wilson says there is a paradox in the coffee supply chain that most consumers are unaware of. While we pay top dollar for a latte, farmers at the other end of the coffee chain barely earn enough to survive.
“This isn’t a fair trade,” Wilson explained. “When coffee travels to the U.S., the exporter, shipper, roaster and retailer all take their cut of the profits. After all is said and done, only about 10 percent of the profit from a pound of coffee goes back to the country of origin. Of that 10 percent only a fraction goes to the farmers and workers that labored all year to produce it.”
The Fair Trade Certified label guarantees that farming organizations receive a stable price for their coffee. But often that is not enough to live on. That is why Wilson and the students started Fair Trade 2.0. They are concerned with improving access to nutritious food in coffee farming communities by creating direct relationships.
In October, Fair Trade 2.0 launched the Caf� con Leche Campaign as a fundraiser to support agricultural diversification projects by La Hermandad member farmers. Students sold coffee by the pound during finals week when students and professors alike need coffee the most. The money will be used to create a low-cost credit fund to buy dairy cows, hens for eggs, and supplies for planting and maintaining a garden to produce vegetables for sale.
“Without access to low-cost credit for food production, farmers are struggling to put food on the table each year. As we all know, one cannot live by coffee alone,” Wilson said.
“For farmers that is especially true. They need diverse income sources and the means by which to produce their own food.” The Fair Trade 2.0 initiative began this past summer when members of La Hermandad came to Wilson with the idea of funding small food sovereignty projects in the cooperative. Food sovereignty is the concept that access to healthy and culturally appropriate food is a basic need best met through sound agro-ecological farming methods that are sustainable and farmer-led.
There are nearly no loans for producing food in Nicaragua, especially micro-loans that can be paid back relatively quickly. La Hermandad leaders asked Wilson if he thought there might be support from the U.S. to make them a loan for dairy cows, chickens and a market garden. Wilson discussed the idea with Amanda Rivera, a senior geography major from Bridgeport, W.Va., to see what she thought. “My family is actually from Latin America, and my grandfather was a coffee farmer in El Salvador, so coffee has always been important to my family,” Rivera said. “I was immediately interested and began telling my friends. It just snowballed from there.” For two weeks in October, Rivera and other students gave away free coffee in Brooks Hall and asked for donations to support the Caf� con Leche Campaign. They were all in for quite a shock at the outpouring of support.
“They walked into my office, holding a jar with $50 in it,” Wilson said. “It blew my mind. WVU students, faculty and staff immediately keyed into the issue and wanted to support the campaign.”
With growing interest, the group decided to raise funds by selling coffee by the pound. The group received a shipment of 100 pounds of coffee the Monday of finals week, 70 percent of which was sold by pre-order, and all of the coffee was sold three days later. Through coffee sales and donations, the Caf� con Leche Campaign has raised enough capital for La Hermandad to purchase one dairy cow and populate a 50-chicken hen house.
“Estimating modestly, that’s roughly 7 to 9 liters of milk and at least 25 eggs a day,” says Wilson. The loan will give the farmers an alternative means of income. The repayment of the loan will be returned to the micro-loan fund to be invested in other projects at a later time. “These problems with economic development are things I hear about all the time in geography class. Being a part of Caf� con Leche Campaign is how I wrap my head around what it all means and employ those concepts to really make a difference,” said junior Evan Chapman, a native of Evansville, Ind. “It’s really important to understand that it was the farmers who suggested this. It’s not us telling La Hermandad what to do, but rather they were reaching out to us, looking for support,” Chapman commented.
“I think in that sense we are working with them, or for them. It is a different kind of development model, one based on solidarity, not charity. We are listening.” Fair Trade 2.0 celebrated the end of semester by calling La Hermandad members via Skype on the cooperative’s only computer.
La Hermandad President Sebastian Mairena, expressed his gratitude and welcomed the students as the newest members of the cooperative for the all the work they put in to help the community.
“He told us that ‘the distance between us is vast but the connection we feel in our hearts is very close,’” Wilson said. “Then he welcomed us as members of the cooperative. It was an inspiring moment for all of us.”
Fair Trade 2.0 plans to continue raising funds and selling coffee for the Caf� con Leche Campaign in spring 2011. To contact the Fair Trade 2.0 for more information on how you can support the Caf� con Leche Campaign or about future coffee sales, contact Dr. Bradley Wilson, assistant professor of geography, at firstname.lastname@example.org; Amanda Rivera, campaign coordinator, at email@example.com; or Evan Chapman, sales coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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304-293-7405, ext. 5251, Rebecca.Herod@mail.wvu.edu
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