The politics of coffee

“I’ve heard some complaints about TransFair, but they are definitely taking steps to protect some of these farmers and their families.”

— Mountain City Coffee Roasters’ Randall Sluder

On a blustery, gray winter morning in downtown Asheville’s Beanstreets Coffeehouse/Cafe, a chilly patron waiting in line shuffles one step closer to her eagerly awaited daily pick-me-up: organic, imported java. As always, the Beanstreets brews are produced using locally roasted beans.

Meanwhile, at the Ingles grocery on Merrimon Avenue, coffee choices abound: jars of instant, bags of assorted Starbucks flavors as well as Folgers, JFG and even cheaper bulk coffees (this month, holders of the store’s Advantage Card can buy a giant can of the Laura Lynn Select brand — containing more than two pounds — for $3.88). A fatigued-looking student on the wrong end of a coffee-fueled all-nighter eyes the shelves carefully, then reaches for a bag of Eight O’ Clock brand whole-bean coffee — another often-discounted item.

Somehow, these beans — grown mostly by poor Third World farmers — have traveled thousands of miles from their country of origin, been stripped and roasted and passed through a middleman, and still end up costing about the same as golden delicious apples grown right here in WNC.

Americans consume one-third of the world’s coffee supply, solidifying the ubiquitous bean’s status as one of the world’s most-traded commodities (and the No. 2 U.S. import, after oil). Coffee, coffeehouses and, indeed, coffee culture provide a staple antidote to the daily American grind: coffee and the morning paper, coffee on the way to work, coffee breaks, coffee and cigarettes, coffee and conversation. Yet most consumers give little thought to where this savory stimulant comes from, who produces it — and what those faceless growers’ lives are like.

A simple cup of coffee embodies a complex web of international relationships that are only beginning to receive serious attention in the U.S., thanks to the efforts of a global network of coffee activists. Groups like Global Exchange and the Fair Trade Federation are pushing hard to turn consumers in developed countries into a potent force for political, social and environmental justice.

And the collapse of world coffee prices — which plummeted to around 50 cents per pound in August 2001 and have continued to hover there with no relief in sight — has spotlighted the disparities between the “haves” who drink coffee and the “have nots” who produce it.

Meanwhile, here in Asheville, the arrival of corporate-coffee giant Starbucks — whose Biltmore Village venue opened several weeks ago, with a Charlotte Street location due to follow suit this spring — is galvanizing local awareness of global coffee issues.

Malicious and scandalous?

The marriage of politics and coffee is nothing new. As far back as 1675, Britain’s King Charles II issued “A Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee Houses,” announcing that such venues “divers of false malitious and scandalous reports are devised and spread abroad to the Defamation of his Majestie’s Government, and to the Disturbance of the Peace and Quiet of the Realm.”

A century later, John Adams and Paul Revere plotted New World rebellion against the British crown inside Boston’s Green Dragon coffeehouse and tavern.

Author Mark Pendergrast‘s book Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How it Transformed Our World (Basic Books, 1999) traces the pairing of revolution and caffeine across the centuries, on down through the Beats of the ’50s to the bongos and tribal-art tattoos of today’s post-Beat coffeehouse crowd.

But while modern revolutionaries haven’t lost their taste for java, corporatization has changed activists’ relationship with coffee culture.

Last August, for example, a group of anti-corporate coffee activists, working under cover of night, hatched a coordinated act of political vandalism that succeeded in making several San Francisco Starbucks outlets appear closed the next morning. The group used bars of soap to dull shiny windows, covered others in newspaper, and placed “closed” signs on doors and windows as part of a symbolic plug for independent coffeehouses in the Bay area.

Meanwhile, at Gourmet Perks coffeehouse on Merrimon Avenue, an employee was recently seen slipping a patron an anti-Starbucks bumper sticker after the conversation had turned to corporate coffee’s recent influx into Asheville.

But whatever one’s views about this stimulating brew, coffee and the international trade that governs it are indisputably steeped in complex, multilayered relationships that carry an additional charge imparted by passionate social, political and economic concerns. These include the fate of migrant farmers and their families in far-off places like Brazil, Mexico and Vietnam; the survival of migratory songbirds and the rain-forest shade canopy that houses them; and, closer to home, the livelihoods of roastmasters like Randall Sluder at Asheville’s Mountain City Coffee Roasters and Jeff Bosch at Bean Werks Coffee and Tea on Haywood Road (not to mention the jobs of dozens of local baristas).

And whenever the politics of coffee are discussed, the terms “fair trade” and “Fair Trade Certified” are almost certain to come up. In recent years, a global network of nonprofits has sprung up promoting Fair Trade Certified coffees, cocoas and teas as well as handicrafts from around the world. These efforts aim to provide farmers and artisans alike with a livable wage and decent working conditions, while ensuring that their trades are carried out in an environmentally sustainable manner.

Fair enough?

Fair-trade coffee activism began in Europe and spread through the efforts of a cadre of concerned interests around the globe, including certified nonprofits like Coffee Kids, which works to improve the lives of children and families in coffee-growing communities worldwide.

TransFair USA is the sole independent, third-party certifier of fair-trade practices in the United States. They also sell trademarked Fair Trade Certified coffees to roasters like the Durham-based Counter Culture Coffee Company (which supplies several local coffee merchants, including Earth Fare).

“Through regular visits to Fair Trade farmer cooperatives conducted by Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International (FLO), and partnerships with U.S. companies, TransFair verifies that the farmers who produced Fair Trade Certified products were paid a fair price,” according to, which provides detailed information about fair-trade ideology and practices.

But money doesn’t tell the whole story. In order to be certified as Fair Trade, coffee producers must satisfy a list of criteria that includes belonging to democratically governed cooperatives and implementing sustainable, environmentally sensitive growing practices.

The floor price for Fair Trade Certified coffee is $1.26 per pound (or 5 cents above the prevailing market price) and $1.41 for certified-organic coffee (or 15 cents above the market price).

TransFair’s involvement doesn’t end there, however. The company also sells its clients the right to use its Fair Trade Certified coffee logo and related advertising perks. Customers who buy the coffee but are unwilling to pay an extra fee and sign a contract with TransFair are limited in their ability to market the product. Mountain City Roasters, for example, carries a TransFair-certified coffee, but they can’t advertise it in a way that could draw more attention to it because they’re not authorized to display the Fair Trade Certified logo, Sluder explains.

And while Sluder concedes that fair-trade groups and initiatives are not a panacea, “It’s a step in the right direction,” he maintains. “I’ve heard some complaints about TransFair, but they are definitely taking steps to protect some of these farmers and their families.”

Over at Bean Werks, though, Jeff Bosch voices skepticism about the legitimacy of the Fair Trade certification. “People tell me that [fair trade is really protecting farmers]. Do we always believe whatever they say?”

In 2002, Fair Trade Certified coffee sales increased by 54 percent over the previous year (the greatest growth of any single Fair Trade product, according to an industry-sponsored study). But despite these successes, thousands of pounds of Fair Trade Certified coffees were sold last year at the regular market price due to lack of demand.

At the bustling north Asheville Ingles, store manager Walter Dehart says he’d never heard of Fair Trade coffee until asked by this reporter. No customer has ever asked for it by name, he reports, although some have begun requesting organic coffee, which he’s looking to add to Ingles’ shelves. That would presumably move the grocery chain a step closer to buying Fair Trade Certified coffee, more than 80 percent of which is also certified organic, according to the TransFair USA Web site.

And across the street at the upscale Fresh Market, Asheville resident Greg Evans rummages through the Fresh Market’s many bins of gourmet coffees, sniffing their contents judiciously and reading the enticing descriptions (such as “shade-grown in the highest mountains of Guatemala” and “from the heart of Jamaica”) before making his selection.

Evans turns out to be one of the few folks interviewed for this story who’s even heard of Fair Trade Certified coffee, much less purchased any. “But I’m a slave to convenience like everyone else,” he confesses, adding, “I just wasn’t on that side of town today.”

And Fresh Market employee Sandra Hollifield, who’s working the store’s vast island of gourmet coffees from around the globe, confirms that none of them are Fair Trade Certified.

Do the right thing

Underlying the entire fair-trade movement is a simple yet powerful ethical idea: the willingness to pay more than you have to for something in order to help other human beings whom you’ll probably never even see. This runs counter to the capitalist axiom that one should always seek the lowest price possible.

Most fair-traded goods are, in fact, available somewhere else for less money. And faith-based initiatives, including programs in the Catholic and Presbyterian churches, are a growing component of the fair-trade movement. These groups’ efforts include lobbying for fair-trade initiatives and ensuring that the coffee served at church functions is Fair Trade Certified. The Presbyterian Coffee Project, for example, says, “Congregations that participate are supporting fair trade — practices which complement our mission with farmers in Latin America, Africa and Asia, as well as our commitment to stewardship of the natural environment.” College campuses have also seen fair-trade initiatives in recent years.

The involvement of church and university communities has lent credibility to the cause. And celebrities like Martin Sheen and the MTV-friendly rockers Coldplay have also voiced their support for fair-trade practices and products recently.

Coffee activists often target Starbucks and other mega coffee companies as the enemy. (A Web search for “I hate Starbucks” yields hundreds of sites.) But even Starbucks began carrying Fair Trade Certified coffees in 2000, just before a nationwide boycott initiative launched by fair-trade activist groups like Global Exchange was to take effect. Starbucks added Fair Trade coffees to the menus of thousands of its U.S. locations but never acknowledged that the move had any connection with these activists’ efforts.

Even so, Starbucks customers must specifically request Fair Trade coffee — and they’ll probably have to wait while a fresh pot is brewed. Global Exchange, meanwhile, still views the likes of Starbucks and Procter & Gamble as hindrances to the proliferation of fair-traded coffees. “Fair Trade Coffee has yet to be promoted as the brewed Coffee of the Day, which is the only way to ensure real volume for Fair Trade Farmers,” asserts the Global Exchange Web site.

Closer to home, one of Asheville’s newest coffeehouses, the Wilmington-based Port City Java chain, also carries a Fair Trade Certified coffee: Great Forest Blend. Here too, the brew is available by the pound or in French presses and other specialty drinks but not as a featured brew of the day, according to employee Tobias Moore.

“Corporate coffee has done a lot to promote specialty coffee,” concedes Counter Culture Coffee Company Regional Sales Manager Judy Rosen. Still, she feels the coffee giants “could do more to help smaller growers and the environment.”

Another Vietnam war

Since the 1970s, most Americans have done their best to forget about Vietnam. Few are aware that that embattled country supplies a sizable percentage of the coffee they drink (Vietnam is now tied with Colombia as the planet’s second-largest producer, behind Brazil).

Vietnam “has become a huge factor in the world coffee market, whereas 10 years ago it was not even visible,” said Pendergrast in a recent interview with Xpress. “Vietnam has exploded as a provider of cheap, bad coffee.”

In recent years, the world coffee market has been flooded with cheaply produced beans. Many commentators point to the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Bank’s efforts to encourage countries like Vietnam to start mass-producing coffee as a way to pay off huge foreign debt as having triggered the massive decline in coffee prices.

Vietnam’s leap forward in the world coffee market, however, has come at the expense of the indigenous Montagnard people of that country’s central highlands, who have been forced off their land to make way for coffee plantations. In the process, writes Pendergrast, the Montagnard “have become virtual slaves” of the national government. Ironically, the Montagnard’s widely reported abuse at the hands of the Vietnamese government is also linked to their alliance with U.S. troops during the Vietnam War.

“After ’75, after the North Vietnamese occupy the south, many of the young Montagnards escape to the jungle, including myself,” explains 57-year-old Rong Nay, executive director of the Montagnard Human Rights Organization (a Raleigh-based nonprofit). “We fought against the North Vietnamese 17 years. Finally, we lost almost 10,000 men and women to starvation, disease and government forces.” Nay was later among the first of the Montagnard people to escape to the United States. Several thousand Montagnard now live in North Carolina, and a number of U.S. organizations, including veterans’ groups, are now urging a boycott of Vietnamese coffee.

Procter & Gamble, which owns Folgers coffee, acknowledges that the brand contains beans from Vietnam but doesn’t give details. According to the Folgers Web site, “The percentage of beans from any one country varies all the time, depending on availability.” Most grocery-store coffees, in fact, don’t list their beans’ point of origin on the package. Of all the Laura Lynn coffees at Ingles, for example, only the instant gives any indication of where the contents come from, and it merely says “product of Mexico.”

In September, however, Procter & Gamble, one of the world’s largest coffee merchants, announced that its Millstone line would now include Fair Trade Certified coffee.

Acting locally

For many Americans, trying to bridge the considerable gap between their own lives and those of strangers in remote cultures thousands of miles away may seem hopeless.

But Asheville residents have at least one advantage here: a special connection with certain Mexican coffee farmers. San Cristobal de las Casas, the capital of Chiapas (Mexico’s southernmost and poorest state), is paired with Asheville through Sister Cities International.

Tom Jones, chair of the San Cristobal/Asheville Sister Cities program, spoke with Xpress via e-mail from Valladolid, in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Jones and his wife spend four months a year in Valladolid; he’ll also be part of an Asheville delegation visiting San Cristobal next month.

Local Sister Cities Vice Chair Gwen Hughes emphasizes that this is a “reconnection trip” meant to re-establish ties with San Cristobal’s mayor, Chamber of Commerce, educators, health professionals and others. Father Wilbur Thomas of Asheville’s Basilica of St. Lawrence, meanwhile, will meet with Catholic leaders in San Cristobal. The group hopes these meetings will lay the groundwork for future projects.

Like their counterparts elsewhere, the region’s many coffee farmers must contend with the depressed international market. And though coffee issues aren’t at the top of the agenda for the upcoming visit, Sister Cities members are aware of them. “I suspect if you polled the members, there would be almost 100 percent agreement on the key issues — e.g., importance of fair trade, importance of growing coffee under shade and not disturbing the ecosystem,” wrote Jones. “When we meet at the beginning of our Delegation Visit, we may well discuss some of [these coffee] issues.”

One local business that’s already a fair-trade haven is Ten Thousand Villages on College Street in downtown Asheville. The shop sells fair-traded crafts and other goods (including coffee) from around the globe. Store manager Jennifer Elliott hopes she can be a local leader in increasing awareness of fair-trade initiatives. She has recently been in touch with an international student group at UNCA, encouraging them to push for having Fair Trade Certified coffees served in their cafeteria and for ensuring that “sweat-shop items” aren’t sold in the campus bookstore.

Elliott is a firm believer in the value of Fair Trade Certified coffees. And to her, it’s not a question of sacrifice but of actually getting more for your investment. “I think that if you’re a coffee drinker and you like good-quality coffee, you would pay a higher price for something that you really like,” she observes. “So why not pay that higher price and not only get a better quality coffee for yourself, but also make sure that the songbirds and the rain forest and the human beings involved are also getting the benefit of it?”

[Reporter Nicholas Holt contributed to this story.]


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