Photo by Burke/Triolo
If you frequent any fashionable coffee shop—or even stop by on
special occasions—you may conclude that the price of coffee has
skyrocketed. Not really.
In truth, the wholesale price of coffee has plummeted
to half its 1998 price, currently about 50 cents per pound of beans.
Are you pocketing the difference, even if you drink your coffee
plain and simple at home? No?
Neither are the coffee pickers. It’s safe to say that
no Guatemalan coffee harvester would—or could—buy a single cappuccino,
because it costs twice a day’s wages of 14 quetzales, roughly
To be certain, North Americans benefit widely from low-cost
labor by Central Americans, and coffee isn’t the only commodity
worth analysis in terms of what’s fair, what’s moral and what can
But to find a cure for the coffee crisis—and this is bigger than
a shortfall in your cup—requires the cooperation of the United States.
Why? To understand the extent of this crisis and ways to address
it, St. Anthony Messenger first interviewed native
Guatemalan Alvaro Ramazzini Imeri, Roman Catholic bishop of the
Diocese of San Marcos, Guatemala, during a visit to the United States.
Six weeks later, when Catholic Relief Services (CRS) launched its
Coffee Project, St. Anthony Messenger spoke with Nicaraguan
coffee farmer Encarnación Suarez; Joan Neal, Karen Smith and Marcel
Bigue of CRS; and Erbin Crowell of Equal Exchange, U.S. pioneers
in adopting Fair Trade standards as guiding business principles.
Why is a Catholic bishop struggling to affect the
price of coffee? Why has he risked his life for the larger economic
struggle in which coffee plays a part? Bishop Ramazzini considers
these questions thoughtfully.
It’s not about coffee, he says in carefully considered
English. “I really don’t care at all about coffee. I care about
people. In Guatemala, I see their poverty, their suffering, their
lack of a future.”
Bishop Ramazzini, 56, speaks Spanish, Mam (the language
of the indigenous Mayans in his diocese) and English. But he naturally
favors Spanish, so Michael Flynn, director of Su Casa Hispanic
Ministries in Cincinnati, Ohio, translated for me at times.
Bishop Ramazzini has come to the United States to meet
with World Bank agents in Washington, D.C., and with Guatemalans
who immigrate to the United States in large numbers every year.
He is also garnering support for Fair Trade Certified Coffee at
Cincinnati’s Procter & Gamble headquarters, as well as among
conscientious coffee consumers. That’s a lot of traveling and talking
for a man carrying only one small suitcase!
Why? The bishop reiterates, “The reason I am committed
to all of this is that I see the suffering of my people. I can’t
remain indifferent when I see this—not as a human, not as a Christian,
even less as a bishop.”
At a public gathering, the bishop speaks and the facts
Low prices are a plus for consumers—and Fair Trade
coffee costs more than the typical supermarket brands. Why would
people living in a nation that imports more coffee than any other
on the face of the planet choose to pay more than they must? Erbin
Crowell of Equal Exchange explains that Fair Trade coffee is high
quality—and that, even at a higher price, it averages only six cents
a cup. But cost is only one factor.
Wise consumers in an international economy are asking
more questions of many products these days: Where is it produced?
Under what working conditions? Is the product safe and healthy?
Is the quality high?
Knowing that coffee bears the Fair Trade Certified label is reassuring
on all those levels. A consortium of Fair Trade groups in 20 nations,
including the United States, has established five criteria for coffee
production: 1) a guaranteed fair price for all coffee, higher for
organic; 2) democratic cooperatives of small farmers; 3) direct,
long-term, stable trade between producers and importers, eliminating
“coyotes” or multiple intermediate brokers; 4) a line of pre-harvest
credit from importers, and 5) environmental protection. Transfair
USA is currently the major U.S. certifying agency.
How do these criteria play out in Guatemala? In this
poor Central American nation, some farmers acquired small plots
suitable for coffee in a few brief years of agrarian reform in the
early 1950s. Bishop Ramazzini points to land reform as a central
urgent need. The current system “leads to poverty, malnutrition
and no future,” he says.
In addition to the justice dimension of land redistribution,
small is better for coffee in several ways. Though sun-resistant,
fast-growing hybrids were developed in the 1980s, leading to immense
coffee plantations, those hybrids require high levels of fertilizer
and pesticides. “Organic” almost always means shade-grown. Shade-grown
implies small. To many coffee connoisseurs, shade-grown also indicates
a slower-growing coffee with a richer, fuller flavor.
A canopy of larger trees among the lower, rounder coffee
trees shades the coffee. Deep roots also fix nitrogen in the soil
while nesting birds keep down insect pests. Further, the trees provide
a habitat for many species of birds that migrate seasonally to the
U.S., leading to the term “songbird-friendly” coffee.
Coffee is the second-largest world trade commodity,
surpassed only by oil. The current drop in coffee prices has international
repercussions, since coffee is grown not only in Central America,
but also throughout the developing world.
Agricultural exports fuel most Third World economies
and Guatemala is no exception. Bananas, sugar and coffee are its
three major cash crops, with coffee accounting for 25-35 percent
of foreign exchange earnings.
Bishop Ramazzini ruefully explains that the nation’s
fourth source of income is “family in the United States, sending
money back, working 18 hours a day to do this.” Even this “foreign
aid” isn’t enough to keep many small farmers and seasonal workers
afloat these days.
What has changed? In a sentence, the United States bowed
out and Vietnam weighed in.
The United States had been a major participant in the
International Coffee Organization (ICO) since its beginning, but
withdrew in 1989 from an international agreement that kept prices
stable. Without the participation of the largest nation of coffee
consumers in the world, the ICO is powerless. (The Mennonite Central
Committee has organized a letter-writing campaign urging President
Bush to rejoin.)
On the heels of this instability, Vietnam moved from
almost no coffee production to fourth-highest (behind Brazil, Colombia
and Indonesia), glutting an already overcrowded market.
Bishop Ramazzini’s diocese of San Marcos, bordered by
Mexico and intersected by the Sierra Madre Mountains, has been devastated
by these developments. San Marcos, he says, lived on coffee. Now
the bishop sees massive waves of desperate departures. Over 65,000
Guatemalans have tried to leave every year for the past four years.
Why? “Not because of revolution,” Bishop Ramazzini observes. “The
reason is poverty.”
“The question of immigration really puts to the
test the quality of our faith,” says Bishop Ramazzini. “Jesus says,
‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’ But I’ve seen that many
communities that call themselves Christian close their doors to
The bishop admits that in his own diocese some Catholics
don’t want to open their doors to Hondurans or Salvadorans, their
own regional immigrants. But “we insist that your faith has to make
you live a life of Christian solidarity,” he says. “It’s not only
giving food to the person who’s hungry. It’s also supporting local
unions and the organization of peasant farmers.
“It’s trying to open other markets—like Fair Trade does.
It’s defending the workers’ rights, going with workers to the courts
so that they feel supported in the struggle for social justice.
It is a commitment that is very broad and extensive,” the bishop
says with conviction.
Bishop Ramazzini was less encouraged by CAFTA (Central American
Fair Trade Agreement). Trade representatives “make agreements about
money, not human beings,” he says. A more desirable agreement would
“promote partnership from all sectors of society.” He adds, “The
current reality in Guatemala is contrary to what God wants.”
The bishop’s words follow in the tradition of many popes
and Church councils. In 1997, Pope John Paul II convened a synod
for the bishops of America. Two years later, he issued Ecclesia
in America, a post-synodal summary, which is replete with references
to human rights, globalization, poverty, social teaching and solidarity.
Bishop Ramazzini was very encouraged by the synod and
the document that followed. He feels that it strengthened connections
among the bishops of the continent and fostered new understanding
about immigration. “A door is open for us,” he says.
More than one, it would seem. Bishop Ramazzini has found Oxfam
to be a powerful ally. Oxfam, a federation of 12 non-governmental
organizations in more than 100 countries, focuses on organizing
poor people, lobbying the powerful and raising awareness of issues
through the media and through alliance-building.
Oxfam assists Bishop Ramazzini’s flock in multiple ways, one of
which is analysis of the coffee crisis. While Oxfam espouses Fair
Trade as a way out of poverty and a boon to the environment, it
wants more. Oxfam is calling for a “Coffee
Rescue Plan” and a long-term commodity management initiative
to ensure a more stable market.
Catholic Relief Services (CRS), a presence in Guatemala
since the ’60s, is also active in Guatemala. Recently, the agency
provided food and health services through its emergency fund to
191 families in Bishop Ramazzini’s diocese. As a direct result of
the coffee crisis, these families have been ill and hungry. CRS
has also funded long-term sanitation upgrades in another area of
the Guatemalan mountains—and has contributed to relief efforts in
El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.
They are now launching an effort to link parishes of
coffee-drinking Catholics to those who grow and harvest the beans.
In late November 2003, CRS convened a press conference to announce
its “Coffee Project,” aimed at relieving poverty among thousands
of small coffee farmers not only in Latin America but in Africa
and Asia as well.
Joan Neal, deputy executive director, explains CRS’s
decision to launch this project. “The choices we make as consumers
have a direct impact on small coffee farmers....The choice to drink
CRS Fair Trade coffee has the potential to change that dynamic [of
trade] dramatically.” This project forges a direct link between
coffee farmers and U.S. Catholics. It’s an “opportunity to put faith
into action,” Neal says.
Nestlé (Nescafé), Philip Morris, now Altria (Maxwell House), Procter
& Gamble (Folgers) and Sara Lee (Chock full o’Nuts) are the
Big Four of international coffee sales. Sara Lee began selling Fair
Trade coffee (to restaurants and other food service operators only)
in 2001. Just months ago, Procter & Gamble announced that it
would include a Fair Trade Certified coffee, “Mountain
Moonlight,” in its Signature Collection of online offerings.
This premium coffee is not yet available in stores. Altria and Nestlé
have yet to make a comparable gesture.
Coffee is not actually a necessity, although it appears
to fuel the American engine almost as much as foreign oil. So what’s
it worth to coffee drinkers who care about justice these days?
Bishop Ramazzini says, “It is important to support small
farmers, who receive direct economic benefit.” As the harvest winds
down in February, the bishop describes an influx of Mayans, the
poorest of Guatemala’s poor. They are seasonal workers, harvesting
alongside those who have cared for the crop to this point. Mayans
receive “inhuman treatment in an economic system that doesn’t respect
the dignity of human beings.”
The Catholic Church in Guatemala is countering inhuman treatment
with active support of workers. In 1992, the San Marcos Diocese
assisted the formation of APECAFORMM, a Spanish acronym for The
Mam Mayan Association of Small Organic Coffee Producers. They have
since allied with Manos Campesinas, a sales and export cooperative
founded by the neighboring Diocese of Quetzaltenango.
Bishop Ramazzini is proud of initiatives like this.
He cites the Judgment Day passage in Matthew 25, in which good works
that help the “least” are tickets to the Kingdom. The bishop calls
this Scripture the “rationale for my episcopal ministry.” He explains,
“We cannot distinguish between our commitment to faith and our commitment
to society.” He urges all Americans to do the same.
Joan Neal of CRS agrees. The humanitarian aid CRS provides
can sometimes seem anonymous to contributors, she explains. The
Coffee Project creates an “actual connection between struggling
coffee growers and U.S. Catholic coffee consumers.”
Erbin Crowell of Equal Exchange adds, “This represents
a shift from treating coffee and other food products as faceless
commodities traded on markets to a product grown, harvested and
processed by real people. We believe that working directly with
those people who grow our food—understanding their lives, understanding
how trade affects them and trying to create a model that helps them
sustain their lives and feed their families—is a much more rational
approach to trade and globalization than the one we’re currently
For Encarnación Suarez, Fair Trade coffee provides her
and her family the “energy and will to continue working.” Without
it, her children would be hungry. It is a face like hers—not the
fictional Juan Valdez—that Catholic consumers are being invited
to associate with their cup of steaming coffee.
One expression of our own Christian commitment can become
as pleasant—and as simple—as choosing our coffee with care. Catholic
Relief Services hopes that 10 percent of this nation’s 19,000 Catholic
parishes will make a new choice: the CRS Coffee Project as their
Then that cup of coffee after Mass will also be a cup of blessing.