If you’ve read the other blogs I’ve written, you now have a solid understanding of the situation of the coffee pickers…and it looks bleak. Eduardo Galeano reported that in 1962, “only 5 percent of the price yielded by coffee in its journey from tree to U.S. consumer goes into the wages of the workers who produce it” (Galeano, 112). In a 2007 documentary, it was said that only one cent out of every two dollar cup of coffee goes to the grower (Angelico 2007), and keep in mind that much less than the one cent goes to the coffee picker in the fields.
In order for the situation to reverse itself and truly benefit the coffee pickers, they would obviously need to be paid higher wages. For their wages to truly be fair for the work they put in, it would necessitate a dramatic increase in the price of a simple cup of coffee. It would automatically transform a cup of coffee into a luxury drink, to be enjoyed by the wealthy, much like it was in the mid 1600s. Coffee would possibly be imbibed only on special occasions, or it would be used as an apéritif or digestif, like port and sherry. I’m not so sure consumers would be willing to make that sacrifice. Coffee has long been the luxury drink affordable to the masses. There’s an enormous global demand and the reality is that someone has to harvest the product. As we’ve seen, this is the burden the coffee pickers bear. The purpose of this blog is to make clear our intentions as a business, and to describe what we have and will continue to do.
Do Coffee Certifications Matter?
One of the main goals of Elba Vasquez is to spark a conversation about the coffee pickers. They’re a group that is not often talked about. You don’t even hear the term ‘coffee pickers’ much, if at all. Much more often, you’ll hear about the farmer, or plantation owner. You…the end-consumer of coffee, pays a higher price for purchasing ‘certified’ coffee, so that the farmers (in other words, the landowners) can use the increase in profits to increase the wages of the coffee pickers and to provide benefits, such as having access to a nurse on the plantations (this is considered good health care for coffee pickers). You can think of these certification programs as a kind of ‘trickle-down’ aid policy.
This seems like a good time to discuss these coffee certifications and our position on the topic. The main certifications that can be given to coffees are; Organic, Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance and Bird-Friendly. I’m not going to write about each one, but I do want to make clear that we firmly believe in the good intentions of these movements. The certification seals and logos act as a visible reminder on store shelves everywhere, of the workers that harvest most of the food we receive. And more importantly, these certifications produce profits which supposedly help millions of workers in developing countries worldwide. We could never be against any such movement. Just reading through their website, you get a strong sense that a lot of positive work is being done via these programs. While we’ll always support programs such as these, I can’t help thinking if any harm is done by these certifications if they serve to unintentionally mask the on-the-ground realities. For example, a consumer may buy a bag of Fair Trade coffee, and think that they’ve done their part by voting with their wallet, so to speak.
Elba’s childhood friend and retired coffee picker, Sabina. This is her kitchen in her Salvadoran home.
A few years ago, I read an article in the Globe & Mail which looked at the results of an in-depth report into the Fair Trade employment practices on coffee and tea plantations in East Africa. Researchers at London University conducted a four-year study involving 1,000 days of field research including focus groups and one-on-one interviews with rural workers. Carl Mortished notes that, according to the project’s findings, “coffee drinkers who choose brands carrying the Fairtrade logo are not helping the poor and the “ethical trading” claims made by fair trade organizations are hollow” (Mortished, 2014).
Most coffee pickers live in small homes with tin roofs. Here you see rocks placed so that the roof does not blow off during storms. Elba paid to have new roofing installed for a family of coffee pickers in El Salvador.
To make matters worse, “workers at Fairtrade certified farms are paid less and suffer inferior working conditions compared with those working for non-Fairtrade farms”. “In Ethiopia, the survey found that 30 percent of Fairtrade workers earned less than 60 per cent of the median wage, compared with fewer than 5 percent of non-Fairtrade workers”. Of course, the CEO of the Fair Trade foundation, Michael Gidney, insisted that the report was flawed and rejected the findings. While this report is troublesome, I still can’t find myself to condemn a foundation whose stated goal is to provide better wages for coffee pickers.
During our travels in Central America, all the coffee pickers we’ve spoken to have never even heard of these certifications. Some were downright shocked at the idea of ‘fair trade’, knowing that nothing is fair about their daily lives. Another one let out a chuckle as I tried to explain the concept, and called it a lie. Elba and I worked all day picking coffee on a Fair Trade certified farm, and after about 10 hours of hard work, we were paid about $4.50 USD!
Before closing out this topic, I should mention that there are many organizations doing good work in the coffee sector, on smaller scales. In his book The Joy of Coffee Corby Kummer singles out the Coffee Kids nonprofit organization. I’ve come across many other nonprofit and for-profit companies that aim to do their part in giving back. We envision our company in the same vein. We’re going to focus on ground-level, direct support for coffee pickers. This will allow us to bypass the bureaucracy of getting involved with bigger organizations. As a small business, it makes more sense to save the thousands of dollars these certifications would cost annually, and put that money where we know exactly who benefits…the coffee pickers.
What Makes Cafe Elba Different?
There’s no denying the beauty in a cup of freshly roasted coffee…the aromas it produces and the nuanced flavors it gives. But in this case, the old idiom applies…With the good, comes the bad. Coffee pickers live in abject poverty. They live on the margins, working long hard days with very little pay. This is a daily struggle that we aim to highlight, but also to help in some small ways. As you can see from the pictures all over this website, Elba travels to a Central American countries to find out how the coffee pickers are living, and to use some of the profits from her business to help people in small, but tangible ways. Currently, Elba just takes photos during her travels, but we intend to include videos in the near future. There are a few important considerations to think about, with regards to documenting Elba’s work in the region.
Urbanisation of many Central American cities and the spread of the internet has made the world much smaller. Just recently as the 1970s and 1980s, a coffee picker in a remote village may never know anything about the outside world. As Elba has told me, growing up in the 60s, no one in the village knew much about the United States, let alone Canada. But now, many coffee picking families have siblings who have migrated towards cities to find better work. The people Elba encounters know that they live in poor conditions, even relative to their environments (see blog: The Coffee Pickers! pt. 1: Poor and Indigenous).
Most coffee pickers in Costa Rica are Nicaraguan migrants looking for better wages. Here is a young boy playing with toys and coloring books that Elba brought for him.
There are ethical issues to think about before we can post pictures we take of some work that Elba has done in these small villages. Elba has encountered coffee pickers who were too embarrassed when asked to take photos of their living conditions. There are also communication issues. In many villages throughout Central America, Spanish is not spoken at all (this is true primarily for Guatemala, where 22 separate Mayan dialects exist), which limits Elba’s ability to communicate with the coffee pickers. And we cannot forget the harsh reality that Elba is entering impoverished neighborhoods in countries that make Central America the most violent region in the world. We simply cannot be flashy or make a lot of noise. I suspect this is why other organizations don’t come to these neighborhoods. Where coffee pickers live, foreigners would stick out like a sore thumb (with some exceptions, like certain tourism towns around lake Atitlan in Guatemala).
Elba and Mike helping some families with school supplies, books, food, toys and money.
Ultimately, when you purchase coffee from a company, whether or not it has any certification seal, you are supporting that coffee company…not the workers in a far away land. You are supporting a brand, a CEO, a board of directors, shareholders. Elba is our brand and CEO. This is our differentiator in the crowded coffee market. She came from the same place as those Central American coffee pickers we try to help. In short, she is the real deal. There is no faking this. What we’re trying to convey is that when you purchase Cafe Elba coffee, what you’re really supporting is a wonderful independent woman who has travelled a long, tough and improbable journey to become a small business owner and is now trying to do her best to give back. We are still a small business, so we can only help in small ways, but we know these efforts make a direct difference in people’s lives.
Johelia is brought to tears after receiving all the supplies and money that Elba brought. She said in Spanish ‘you don’t know how much we needed this’. Just a little help goes a long way for coffee pickers.
It is true…along with coffee came disaster for the indigenous peoples of Central America, simply due to the large scale on which it was planted. While the situation is bad, I’d like to make it clear that the present situation is far better than it was it was just one hundred years ago. Back then, the situation of coffee pickers was tantamount to slavery in the worst conditions, with no health care whatsoever, living conditions in squalor and private police forces doling out punishments as they saw fit. Guatemalan President Ubico even “granted coffee and banana concerns permission to kill”, assuring them that “Plantation proprietors will be exempt from criminal responsibility” (Galeano, 126).
By 1980 more than 70 percent of the El Salvador’s farmland was owned by less than 1 percent of the population. Land reform policies in the 1980s and 1990s have helped re-allocate plots of land to thousands of poor families, which has helped. Virginia tilley writes “even this amount of land provided some subsistence and small cash income that cushioned families against the highly seasonal and uneven labor market of the coffee plantations” (Tilley, 130). It should be noted that these land reform policies are fiercely fought in the legislature by political parties representing the wealthy estate owners and in some cases, have left the recipients with high levels of debt (see Lindsey Grunson’s New York Times article in Sources section for more details).
It goes without saying that coffee is not inherently bad. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It may just be the most naturally flavorful drink known to man (I’ve read that coffee contains more aromatic flavor compounds than wine). It certainly is one of the best exports of Central America. “Coffee is the seed of a fruit that grows on trees. Like any fruit, it tastes of where it grew: of the soil, be it volcanic and loamy or crumbly red clay; of the tempestuous summer rains that clear by evening; of the high, hot morning sun and the cool night winds of the dry season” (Kummer, 5). To drink our Central American coffee is to experience Central America in a small but very real way.
We are confident in the quality of our coffee and the uniqueness of our story. Elba had everything going against her from the start. She grew up impoverished raised by a single mother in a small country far away. Yet here she is…this is her business, and her personal mission is to help coffee pickers, especially single mothers who work on the plantations. You may be asking yourself why would we promote this reality of the coffee pickers, if we profit from the very commodity that drives the industry? To be clear, we are not a non-profit organization. We want to achieve wealth to escape the poverty we know. We don’t want our future generations to have to live precariously. Because of the connections Elba still has in Central America, we feel this puts us in a unique position to achieve both goals. Yes, our goal is to grow a successful business. And yes, our goal is also to use profits from the growing business to continue to give back to coffee pickers on a one-to-one basis. We also understand that we can only do so much and remain viable as a business at the same time. Ultimately, my personal aim as a son, is to help my mother build a successful business in her own name, so that her and her family can finally relax and enjoy their senior years…God knows they’ve earned it.
Written by ‘Coffee Mike’
I like to include the following disclaimer below each of my blogs. I try to make references wherever applicable, but I’ve read many books, tons of articles, watched documentaries and taken courses on these subjects over the years. I mention this because sometimes I may forget the exact source of my information, so I ask the authors to forgive me if I have not cited some information where I should have.
Angelico, Irene. Black Coffee. Mongrel Media, 2007.
Galeano, Eduardo. Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. Uruguay: Monthly Review Press, 1971. Pages 112, 126.
Gruson, Lindsey. “For The Peasants of El Salvador, Promised Land Seems to Recede.” New York Times. 1989.
Kummer, Corby. The Joy of Coffee: The Essential Guide to Buying, Brewing and Enjoying. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995. Page 5.
Mortished, Carl. “Fairtrade certification fails to help the poor, British report finds.” Globe & Mail. May 2014.
Tilley, Virginia. Seeing Indians: A Study of Race, Nation, and Power in El Salvador. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005. Page 130.
Vasquez, Elba. My mother, who knows about the daily life of a coffee picker from personal experience.