The Common Good
April 2004

Java Justice

by Celeste Kennel-Shank | April 2004

The difference that fair trade makes.

In the harvest months of December and January, operators of a coffee processing machine in El Salvador receive trucks full of fresh coffee fruit many times a day, brought from families picking on the mountainsides. In a cascade of red and yellow, the fruit slides from the back of a truck into a reservoir. It is then put through large copper barrels that grate off the pulp.

The coffee beans pass through pipes onto a large brick patio with multiple levels. There they dry in the sun, appearing like mounds of gold on a Mayan temple. When it is dry, a grinder removes the husks, and the coffee is packed in 150-pound bags to be shipped to the United States.

Equal Exchange, a fair trade coffee importer in Massachusetts, works "to develop a more egalitarian, democratic model of trade," said Anna Utech, a member of the interfaith department. Equal Exchange and dozens of other companies committed to fair trade provide a living wage to small farmers, who have been devastated by fluctuations in the price of coffee globally. "Anyone who's ever known a farmer knows you can't survive with such uncertainty," Utech said.

Equal Exchange provides security to farmers through loans given before the harvest, so that if crops are destroyed or damaged members of the cooperatives will not lose their land or go hungry, as happens to many other small farmers. Fair trade buyers pay double the market price of 63 cents per pound, and add a 5-cent-per-pound premium for development projects.

Such economic support provides everything from schools to health clinics in the communities. Luis Castillo, who runs the Las Colinas cooperative's depulping machine in El Salvador, works every day during the harvest from before dawn until after nightfall. The reward for his labor is that his seven sons are educated, he said with quiet pride evident in his face. With their increased income, Castillo and his wife, Reina, were able to buy vitamin-enriched milk when their youngest son lost his hair from malnutrition last year. Though his family has no luxuries, Castillo is committed to helping less-advantaged neighbors. After the earthquakes in El Salvador in 2001, pre-harvest financing received from Equal Exchange supported families in the cooperative. Castillo shared his income with indigenous communities living more remotely, to help fend off starvation.

CASTILLO HOPES THAT access to the fair-trade market will become available to more coffee cooperatives in El Salvador. "We want to involve more people—the whole country," Castillo said. According to Equal Exchange's Utech, the organization wants to form more trading relationships, but first the U.S. demand for fair trade coffee must increase.

The El Pinal cooperative, whose coffee is rated among El Salvador's best, has improved its environmental practices by using organic fertilizers and diversifying its crops, planting avocados, plantains, and trees for wood, which in turn shade the coffee plants. The cooperative has been operating for six years without debt and is looking to increase the amount of coffee it produces. "With the containers that we're able to sell through fair trade, we're able to have work throughout the year," said Natalia Dimas, treasurer of the cooperative.

Dimas is one of an increasing number of women in leadership positions in the coffee cooperatives. While Equal Exchange requires its trading partners to be democratic, the cooperatives decide how to organize and choose leadership. Women and young people act to ensure that their voices will be heard. "We've worked hard to train women because it's not enough to say there should be women in leadership," said Mirna Leticia Ramos, who works with an agrarian reform organization.

Jorge Garcia Rojas, one of 35 associates at El Pinal, said, "We see the future optimistically, and we want to continue to work with Equal Exchange, the churches, and universities."

Celeste Kennel-Shank was an environmental studies major at Goshen College when this article appeared. She visited coffee cooperatives in El Salvador during the 2004 harvest as part of an Equal Exchange delegation.

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