Voices for the World

Latin America
Africa
Asia
Sustainable farming

As Coffee Prices Plummet
Congregations Share a Cup of Justice

by Erbin Crowell
of the Fair Trade Organization Equal Exchange

The Strong Coffee Farmer,
courtsey of Exqual Exchange's home page

As the second most heavily traded commodity in the world, coffee is a vital source of income for small farmers in some of the poorest countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia. But as world coffee prices have plummeted to historic lows, these farmers (who grow 70% of the coffee that we drink ) have been plunged into a crisis. Recent news reports have detailed the tragic situation: As world market prices have dropped as low as 45¢ per pound, Latin American farmers have been devastated, receiving as little as 15-25¢ per pound for their coffee on local markets; in Kenya and Guatemala entire crops have been left to rot on coffee bushes; in El Salvador 30,000 farm jobs have been lost; in Nicaragua unemployed farm workers desperate for jobs have set up shantytowns in cities; and in Mexico families are being torn apart as members risk their lives at the border to find work in the U.S.

When farmers can't get a fair price for their coffee, it has a ripple effect in their communities, their country and even the world. Without a stable income, they can't afford to invest in their farms, they can't pay for their children's education, they can't afford medicines and they can't plan for the future. It really is a desperate situation. Many will lose their land and livelihood, falling deeper into poverty and debt, while others will be forced to migrate to cities or even other countries for work.

The crash in prices is also affecting the environment. Small farmers traditionally grow their coffee in the shade of other trees, which prevents erosion and preserves vital habitat for local wildlife and migratory birds. In some Latin American countries, these plots represent a large proportion of the remaining forested lands. But when prices are low, farmers may be forced to abandon their land, clear it to be used for other crops, or sell it to commercial plantations which cut down trees for large scale agricultural production.

Meanwhile in the U.S., a growing number of churches and congregations are taking action. As they gather for fellowship hour, they are educating their members about the coffee trade and promoting an alternative: Fairly Traded Coffee. The coffee comes from Equal Exchange, a 15-year old fair trade organization committed to international fair trade principles on 100% of its coffees. This means that the company works only with democratic cooperatives of small farmers, guaranteeing them a fair price (currently $1.26 per pound, or nearly three times the world market price ) while also providing affordable credit, incentives for organic production and a long-term trading partner. In 2001 alone, Equal Exchange paid over $960,000 to small farmer co-ops in above-market premiums, offering many farming families a boost at a critical time.

In 1997 Equal Exchange and Lutheran World Relief (LWR) launched the LWR Coffee Project, an education and action initiative encouraging Lutheran parishes to use fairly traded coffee. In the first year of the project, over 1,000 congregations got involved. Following on the success of this model, Equal Exchange1s Interfaith Coffee Program has developed similar initiatives with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) and the United Methodist Committee on Relief. And as word has spread, over 4,500 places of worship of different denominations and faiths have participated in the program. Together, these communities purchased over 60 tons of fairly traded coffee in 2001, making an enormous difference in the lives of small farmers.

On a recent visit to the U.S., Gabriel Ulomi, of the Kilimanjaro Native Cooperative Union (KNCU), a coffee growing cooperative in Tanzania, was surprised by the central role of coffee in North American churches and congregations. Asked if he had a message for the participants in the program, Mr. Ulomi said simply: "When you drink a cup of fairly traded coffee from Equal Exchange, you are supporting one or two or three small scale farmers on the other side of the world so that they can have a better life and education for their children."

Likewise, the Equal Exchange is a concrete way for congregations to take action on global issues. Communities of faith are looking for ways to respond to the negative impacts of globalization, and one simple way to reach out to communities in need is with the cup of coffee that we hold in our hand.

*** *** ***

For more information on how your church or place of worship or community can get involved in the Interfaith Coffee Program or one of its partner projects, contact Equal Exchange at 251 Revere St., Canton, MA 02021, or call 781-830-0303 x228.
e-mail <interfaith@equalexchange.com> or visit www.equalexchange.com/interfaith.



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