So I know many a coffee lover out there do not want to mix politics with coffee, but I must ask this question: What's the truth about fair trade? I have watched some of the film Black Gold: A Film about Coffee and Trade. It seems like these people are pushing a very socialist agenda. I am all for coffee farmers making money and having a good life- absolutely! But the market in places like Ethiopia is obviously over saturated with coffee farmers. I assume you all understand supply and demand, so I wont get into that. It sounds to me like thats the problem- there are too many farmers. The weaker ones need to find another line of work then prices will rise. Any other artificial attempt at "raising" (fixing, really) prices would be very socialist. This is not what has made the US a great economic nation. So what's the story on fair trade, maybe I don't know something about it?

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A subject somewhat dear to my heart. I think that the coffee industry as a whole realises that "fairtrade" perse is not the answer to the multitude of problems faced by farmers and coops in origin countries. However, it is a bridge to what will eventually see relationship coffee replacing much of what FairTrade overseas today. It is not an issue of low coffee prices- it is more a case of ensuring the prices a roaster pays for coffee from a Broker in NY or London gets directly in some form or another to the communities the coffee is grown in.

Basically farmers in most origin countries have been on the land since colonial times- in many cases forced farming and production systems have endured in some form or another through until today. I can not comment definitively about other origins- but in Indonesia around 95% of coffee is produced by smallholders who have very little linkage to buyers outside of their immediate geographical growing locations. Consequently they have very little choice but to sell to brokers, who sell to brokers...etc. Often the price they receive is 70% or less than the actual cost of production. This lack of fair return for labor means that often the farmers are less than fussy about the whole process- maintainence of the crop (pruning, fertilising, protecting from insect damage, weeding) is neglected, crop is picked green or semi ripe, drying is sloppy and haphazard. This directly means the cup is far less than Black Gold- more like tarnished silver.

So, really FairTrade or principles linking into fair(ly) traded coffee are not about giving the farmers a good life but giving them a fair and equitable return- directly- for the work they do. In turn the money paid for coffee will equate into money being put back into producing quality coffee- which ultimatley means roasters and customers in consuming countries enjoy a better product. Ultimatley this is not socialism but social-capitalism as better conditions and crop at origin should relate to increased consumption at the end of the chain. Increased consumption= more demand.

The idea that farmers who are no good could just walk away does not work well in most Origins. In Indonesia we are really trying hard to keep farmers and their families on the land. Most have a rudimentary education at the most. What alternatives do they have? Cities like Jakarta are often imagined to have streets paved with proverbial gold, but really the scavenger sites I have seen around this city are testiment to the fact that rural people who come here have very little in way f job options open to them. A coffee farmer would struggle to become an office boy, a tea lady.

OK- so as mentioned fairTrade is not the be all and end all. You just have to look at Indonesia to see how few FairTrade Certified producers there are here- the fourth largest producer in the world. The good news, the GREAT news is that the trickle of roasters coming here to form direct relationships with growing communities is growing. This is the future for bridging that gap between the ideals of FairTrade and reality of relationship coffee at origin. It means growers are educated about what a roaster is looking for- in the cup. The roaster pays fair prices (at the very least 5 times MORE than that community is getting from a broker). payment is not only necessarily in cash- but also in development of infrastructure which allows the children of farmers to have an alternative.... so we have come full circle!


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