Fair Trade Coffee: A Glimpse behind the Scenes

You get up in the morning and brew or buy your coffee, feeling especially good because it’s certified fairtrade and organic. But there’s that nagging uncertainty: What is life like for fair-trade farmers, and how do we know how fair the trade really is?

I have now made three extended trips to coffee-growing regions in Mexico and have learned a lot about what fair trade can do. My first trip was in 2003 when I visited remote villages in the Juarez Mountains in the southern state of Oaxaca and villages around Cuetzalan, Puebla—both regions known for their high-quality coffee. Campesinos (small farmers or rural workers) were starting the transition to organic, fair-trade coffee. At the time, they were earning only between $500 and $600 a year from their coffee, which meant they had to find other work in order to survive.

I returned to Mexico in 2008 and again this year to continue documenting life in el campo (rural areas), especially in the coffee-growing regions. I have now stayed in villages near Cuetzalan three times, photographing and interviewing farmers belonging to the fair trade cooperative Tosepan Titataniske (from Nahuatl, a native language, meaning "together we shall overcome").

Cuetzalan is a six-hour bus ride from Mexico City and is designated as a "pueblo màgico"—a magic village. It really is a beautiful place, and while its residents are used to tourists, Tosepan always provides me with a guide to take me to the more remote villages. These villages are indigenous, and people there don’t always appreciate strangers, especially unaccompanied ones carrying cameras. But with proper introductions and respect, I’ve always found people to be kind and generous.

There’s no denying that life in el campo is hard. Coffee is harvested from October through January, when it is warm, but the area is often covered in mist or drizzle. May and June, the months when new coffee bushes are planted, are drier and much hotter. Mud covers everything and walking is tricky, especially on the many hills.

Throughout Mexico, campesinos typically farm just a couple of acres, and this holds true for Cuetzalan. Campesinos use part of their land to grow corn and beans for their own consumption, and the rest for coffee, which they sell. The coffee here is almost all shadegrown, which is better for the environment since it preserves trees that in turn provide nesting areas for local birds. Coffee is scattered among other plants rather than lined up in neat rows, which makes the harvesting, done by hand, somewhat more challenging.

Bags of dried coffee can weigh as much as 150 pounds. I asked one man how he got his bags to market. He said he took a bus to town. When I asked how he got his bags to the bus, he smiled and tapped his back. In the villages I visited in Oaxaca, sacks of coffee weighed only 70 pounds. This is most likely because the sacks must be carried by campesinos seven hours over rugged mountain trails.

All of the campesinos I interviewed in and around Cuetzalan belong to the fairtrade co-op Tosepan, and all grow organic coffee. A study by researchers at Tufts University found that fair trade doubles a campesino’s income; in Cuetzalan, in what was clearly a much less rigorous study, I estimated that fair trade pays campesinos between 40 and 60 percent more. Every campesino I met believed in fair trade.

"We’re grateful to fair trade because it gives us a better price," said Martha Hernàndez Juliàn, who grows coffee in Xalcuahuta. "Those working in non-fair trade are much worse off." There’s also an appreciation for the idea of sustainability. "We live better because of Tosepan and fair trade because they’re preserving the environment. We use only organics; it’s better for us, our families, and our children."

And with fair trade, growers have a clearer idea of what their income will be. According to the group Fair Trade Mexico (which certifies that an organization is fair trade), campesinos are told what the price of their product will be no matter what the market does for that year or the length of the contract. The fair trade price is paid even if the market price drops.

"Fair trade pricing means stability," said Nathalene Latour of Fair Trade Mexico. "The market changes quickly— up and down."

If fair trade only meant higher pay, campesinos would still be in trouble. "We can’t earn enough from coffee alone," said Tomàs Luna, who farms a couple of acres in the village of Xiloxochico. So Tosepan is working on other ways to help.

"We’re looking to diversify plants, to grow things like pepper, citrus, and macadamia nuts," said Alvaro Aguilar, a Tosepan administrator. Most of the campesinos I spoke with also have beehives and collect honey. It’s still smallscale; the hives produce about a liter of honey a year.

Fair trade does more than just pay campesinos a few pesos more for their coffee. "[The money] improves their lives a little bit," said Efraín Martínez Bautista, Tosepan’s president. "We also offer other services like low-interest loans, projects on how to increase production, how to produce honey." Tosepan is dedicated to helping campesinos "develop a sustainable lifestyle."

Three years ago, Tosepan built an ecotourism site just outside of Cuetzalan’s town center, using proceeds from it for a variety of programs that help local citizens, including a pharmacy that charges lower prices. This year, Tosepan hopes to complete a facility that will use locally produced honey in a line of cosmetics.

Tosepan is also helping to preserve the traditional lifestyle of the area. "The philosophy is to live the way our ancestors did," said Tosepan’s María Luisa Albores Gonzàlez. "There was a time when we lost that, when corporations came in using chemicals on all the land. Tradition serves us better—not only to preserve but to improve resources for people: the land, water, animals. This is part of fair trade and organic coffee."

Fair trade is beginning to make inroads in the retail world, and even more mainstream supermarkets are carrying fair trade lines. It helps, too, that fair trade typically costs no more than similar varieties of non-fair-trade coffee. And for coffee shops, the difference in price is actually insignificant. Depending on the type of coffee, the difference in price for a coffee shop between a ten-ounce cup of non-fair-trade coffee and a cup of fair trade may be as low as two cents.

I returned from Mexico convinced that fair trade makes a difference. I saw the improvements in people’s lives. People proudly showed me their houses built with low-interest loans and stores opened with Tosepan’s guidance. Life in el campo will always be hard, and the money that fair trade provides might not be enough to lift campesinos out of poverty. But as David Blas, director of the fair trade Mexican Vanilla Plantation, put it to me: "It’s a start."

Tourists Contribute

Tosepan, the fair-trade co-op, recently opened Tosepan Kali, an ecotourism site in Cuetzalan. For about $25 a night, guests stay in one of a dozen cabañas or, for under $20, in a new building with rooms more like a hotel. The site is set among beautiful grounds, which include an experimental coffee plot.

The price includes a full breakfast. When I ate dinner there, the total never came to more than $4 for a full meal.

Tosepan Kali is based on sustainable development and living. It promotes recycling and composting, and it cleans all water used at the facility before releasing it into the river. Every room has two wastebaskets: one for organic trash (to be composted) and one for inorganic.

With the proceeds, Tosepan has helped establish women’s groups that run stores in the village, programs to teach people how to live sustainable lives and eat better, and even programs that provide chickens to needy people.

The ecotourism site is also providing jobs to young people who otherwise might be compelled to leave for the city. It has established an on-site Montessori school for its employees’ children and is teaching English to workers so they can work more effectively with tourists.


Joseph Sorrentino is a Rochester, N.Y.-based writer and photographer who has a commitment to documenting social justice issues. A previous article by him, "A Place Called Home," appeared in Friends Journal in September 1991.