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Friday, October 31, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 36.0° F  Overcast
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Fair Trade Chronicles: What is really a 'fair' price for coffee? (video)

Editor's Note: This is the third 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 back in San Cristobal de Las Casas from Aurora Esquipulas, mud-caked and fatigued. Chris, Aaron, and Chelsea are very ill and trying to sleep off intense stomach sickness. One solid take-away from our visit is that, even though the water project was a success, there is still much to do to purify the water that comes to the community. It was almost certainly the water that caused our team to go down hard. I am feeling queasy, but thus far I am holding my own. I credit the hot chilis that I ate at every meal.

Another important thing we learned is that the price that our importing cooperative is offering to the farmers of Maya Vinic this year is not working well for many of MV's farmers and it is putting a stress on them that we are not comfortable with. This is a big disappointment as it is well above the world market price and even the "fair trade minimum" price. Still this is not totally unexpected. Over the past three years prices rose steadily due to a spike in the world market price. While farmers also saw basic goods and inputs rise, the higher differential was important and farmers were getting used to it and planning their personal finances around it. This year prices fell by around 35% and it has hit these small producers hard.

We slept in the house of a farmer named Gerardo. Gerardo has two children and a wife who depend on the cash from coffee sales to pay for their needs. He is concerned because, although he will make enough to pay for his coffee production and basic needs, he will not have any extra money to pay for unexpected costs such as a trip to the clinic, shoes for his kids or a home repair. He had hoped to replace his dirt floor with concrete this year, but will now need to put it off until 2014. This is deflating to me and makes me question the whole point of "fair trade."

However, instead of giving up and going back to the States to wallow in guilt, I am thinking about what this means for our work and our understanding of fair trade. If I were to look at "fair trade" in the light of some of its marketing over the years, I would walk away in disappointment and disgust. That version of "fair trade" -- the one that promises to "pull farmers out of poverty" by buying a bag of coffee with a special seal -- is strictly fictional. Looking for a label is a good first step, but it is only that. The next one is to look at the companies that claim "fairness" and see what they are actually doing. And from there each of us has to see what else we can do like supporting non-profits such as Outside the Bean and On the Ground who work in coffee communities.

Fair trade has to go beyond a transaction and must include the building of relationships between our communities and a commitment to work together to help overcome challenges like the lack of drinking water, education, health care in the places that we are connected to through our coffee purchases.

Make no mistake, small farmers need a fair price for their coffee. When I get back to Madison I will engage Just Coffee Co-op to see about returning more money to the farmers of Maya Vinic this year. Before prices rose three years ago, we had a system of paying extra premiums to co-ops that we felt were not getting an optimal price from our importing co-op. I cannot begin to tell you how it feels to look a farmer in the eye and hear that the price we pay is not working for them. Between the price we pay and the resources from our communities that we can provide, we -- along with our importing co-op Cooperative Coffees and companies like Higher Grounds Trading Co. -- want to raise the bar and make our "fair trade" community-based, inclusive, revolutionary and truly fair.

Part 1: Returning to Chiapas for the start of a 1000-mile Jeep ride through Central America
Part 2: Our journey begins in earnest from solemn Acteal

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