No matter how you take it – frothy vanilla latte, caramel macchiato or a plain ‘ol dark roast brew – coffee is a liquid luxury.
Don’t think so?
Ask seven West Virginia University students and a geography professor who witnessed firsthand how a coffee-farming community operates in Nicaragua.
Coffee growers in that region barely make enough to support themselves and their families. They certainly don’t have the financial wherewithal to splurge on $4 espressos every day.
Yet they continue to sweat away in sweltering fields harvesting the crop we desire for an a.m. jolt.
WVU Fair Trade 2.0 understands this process, and wants to change it.
In May, members of this student group traveled to Nicaragua for an up-close view of these farming communities in action. They even joined in – by planting yucca, pineapples and 300 tomato plants under the blistering sun.
“There are people in the world who struggle for basic needs under extremely difficult circumstances,” said Bradley Wilson, assistant professor of geography and Fair Trade 2.0 faculty representative. “Students participating in this trip walked away with a new, profound perspective on the world.”
Wilson said students devoted much of the trip to working with growers while learning about the history of Nicaragua and the plight of its farmers.
Fair Trade 2.0, founded in 2010, partners with agricultural cooperatives in Central America and promotes intercultural exchange, economic fairness and healthier working conditions for farmers.
Assistant Professor, Geography
Wilson said only 10 percent of the profit from a pound of coffee goes back to the country of origin. Of that 10 percent, just a fraction goes to the laborers who grew the coffee and picked the beans.
The term “fair trade coffee” means the coffee is purchased directly from the growers for a higher price than standard coffee. This helps give farmers a bigger cut of the profit.
Click below to hear the WVUToday radio report on Fair Trade efforts.
Fair Trade 2.0 works with a coffee cooperative called “La Hermandad,” which represents 30 farming families in the community of San Ramon, Nicaragua. Wilson has worked with the group since 2005 while researching fair trade and organic certification for coffee.
Wait a second.
Why is a geographer researching coffee?
“Geography is much more than making maps,” Wilson said. “Geography is about discovery, making local and global connections and engaging with key development problems facing the world.”
Wilson, who earned his Ph.D. in geography from Rutgers University, said many geographers strive to create a more sustainable future for the world. For him, his research examines the role of changes in global coffee markets on small-scale farmers and workers in Central America. He’s currently working on a long-term ethnographic study on the politics of fair trade certified coffee in the United States and Nicaragua.
“But it’s more than research,” he added. “I am committed to working with these communities over the long haul to develop sustainable enterprises.”
And his journeys to Nicaragua have hit a personal nerve.
“It shook me that these folks worked 200 days out of a year to produce coffee but had between $1,000 to $3,000 to live on for a year,” Wilson said. “That’s their take-home salary. They’ve got to make it work.”
Wilson said the farming community welcomed him, and has welcomed his students.
They spent time on La Hermandad’s farm, which is half devoted to agriculture and half to protected cloud forest. Fair Trade 2.0 even helped fund the construction of some of the housing on the farm – the same housing the students lived in during their visit.
For some students, living and working with Nicaraguan farmers made them think differently the next time they were standing in line for a cup of joe.
“Part of knowing where coffee comes from is having to face the stark reality that our individual purchases ultimately do not have the kind of power to impact farmers’ lives that companies would like us to believe,” said Alanna Markle, a co-founder of Fair Trade 2.0. Markle, a Morgantown native, graduated in May with a dual degree in international studies with a focus in international development and political science.
In June, she was named the fifth Fulbright Scholar this year at WVU.
This marked Markle’s second trip to Nicaragua, and it counted as an accredited faculty-led course in sustainable international development.
Markle said the trip challenged students to conceptualize concepts such as service, poverty and solidarity in another country.
“Traveling to the region was essential to our work because it made us ensure that the organization’s work is based in a sincere sense of community and human connection,” she added. “The relationships I have cultivated both with Nicaraguans and my fellow students have undoubtedly been the most rewarding part.”
Markle said she helped create Fair Trade 2.0 because she saw an opportunity to put what she had learned as an international studies student in action.
“Creating meaningful relationships between coffee producers and consumers is the most viable option for creating more equitable economic models that allow farmers a larger share of profits,” she said.
Though the trip is over, the path to fair trade continues.
Markle said she intends to utilize her Fulbright Scholarship by conducting additional research in coffee-producing highlands.
And Fair Trade 2.0 will continue to sell “first-hand coffee” in Morgantown. The money made from that effort is used to help fund non-coffee income generating activities for La Hermandad.
In Fair Trade 2.0’s first year, it raised $1,400 in coffee sales for the cooperative. In its second year, sales more than doubled at $3,000.
The coffee is sold at the Mountain People’s Co-Op and the Health Sciences Farmer’s Market.
Plus, you’ll get a taste of piping hot, organic Nicaraguan coffee.
“Nicaragua has a reputation for producing a high-quality coffee with complexities and unique fruity and floral flavors,” Wilson said.
More importantly, the group wants to spread the message behind the coffee.
Wilson believes his research complements that of other WVU faculty committed to global development.
“My students and I formed Fair Trade 2.0 to create a laboratory for global development,” he said. “We often talk about issues like poverty, hunger and inequality in my classes. I want students to get hands-on experience addressing these issues.
“I used to get up every morning and go for a latte or specialty coffee and not think about where it came from. Then I started connecting the dots ? the dots between the difficulties farmers face and the success of the coffee industry.”
For more information, go to www.wvufairtrade.blogspot.com.
By Jake Stump
CONTACT: University Relations-News
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