Editor's Note: This is the fourth in a series of dispatches from Matt Earley, co-founder of Madison's Just Coffee Cooperative, who is traveling through Central America over the next two weeks. Earley's goal with the trip is to visit coffee communities he's been working with to see what "fair trade" -- a controversial term many feel has been highjacked by corporations and maligned in the media -- has actually accomplished over the years.
We are now officially half way through our journey. Sitting in a stone courtyard in the pretty mountaintop village of Alegria, El Salvador, I am reflecting back on our trip to this point. It has not all gone according to plan, but if it had I think all of us would have been completely surprised. That is not how things go down here, especially in coffee country.
We have come hundreds of miles across Central America in just a few days traveling at a pace that would make the most seasoned traveler weep. Okay, maybe not weep, but at least it would make the most seasoned traveler grumpy. Most of us have been sick at some point. Vivian, Chelsea and Aaron were struck with stomach distress in the first two days. Chris has had a cold that has become progressively worse every day. Mario and I have remained fairly healthy, although last night and this morning I unwittingly used Chris's toothbrush and it is clear that I am in trouble and developing a chest cough even as I sit and write. We are down to five people now as Viviana left from Guate two days ago to be with her family. All said though, we have been fairly functional and spirits have remained high.
During the trip we have ridden in a Ford Econoline van, tricked out passenger shuttles, tuk tuks, a chicken bus and in the back of many trucks. Many, many trucks. In Central America there is no better way to see the country, in this gringo's opinion. With wind whipping through your hair and nothing but a crossbar to keep you from flying off into the mountains, the back of the truck allows one to see -- to become part of -- the incredible scenery. Growing up in central Kentucky this was the preferred way to zip around out in the country. I always felt free and open to anything that could come around the bend. Today it feels the same, but the deafening Led Zeppelin tunes blasting out the windows are now replaced by the sound of wind and the occasional corrido.
Several of y'all have asked about the jeep after seeing pics of us traveling in other vehicles. I am happy to report that we picked it up at Mario's parents' place in Guate City and are now packing into it daily and traversing the mountains in all of its glory. Its name is El Jodon, which roughly means "pain in the ass," and it is actually more of an old Toyota Rav 4 than a jeep. The night we left for Salvador we found out the hard way that it only has one dim headlight and a little bit of a clutch issue. Those things make El Jodon more endearing because it is a metaphor for our group and our journey in that it is not perfectly functional and is a little run down, but it has personality and the power to not only get where its going, but to do it with style and zest.
All said, this has been a great experience and I have learned much. I have reconnected with people and coffee co-ops that I have not seen in one or two years and met new people as well. The common thread with all of the people we have visited has been an intense dedication to producing high quality coffee, but more importantly, to using their organizations to improve the lives of farmers and their families. And even more, all of the organizations understand that coffee and trade are a vehicle to building a better world.
And that is what is missing from the mainstream of "fair trade" today. Leocadio Juracan of CCDA said it well when he asked how big multinational corporations that make a living off of squeezing workers and producers, and who specialize in snuffing out the local, can somehow sport the "fair trade label". The movement piece becomes subjugated to the marketing. And an illusion is sold to consumers. "Buy this product with a snappy label and you can pull farmers out of poverty." But it is not true. It hasn't ever been true.
If that is "fair trade," then what are we doing? Just Coffee Co-op is not perfect. Honestly, we have some issues. We are a bit disorganized and we have a hard time following through sometimes. Our co-op has been split into two separate buildings and this has strained relationships and created headaches. We struggle to be "business savvy" and healthy and we sometimes try to make changes that are clumsy and can feel downright alien. With all of our imperfections, we are trying to build something different that can not only honor, but that can contribute to the work that our farmer-partners are doing. And our goal is to get all of the people who buy our coffee to stumble down this road with us trying to create a global community that uses coffee to build real and important relationships with those who grow it.
So coffee is our vehicle for change and our fuel to make that change. And with that thought I am going to walk away from this screen and fuel up before we head out into the hills with the ex-guerrilleros from Las Marias 93 to build our relationship, to see their coffee, and to visit camps where they fought during their revolution. We'll see you at the top of the mountain.