While in Huehue I found a great coffee shop that I visited a couple of times. Called Cafe Museo, it has a collection of interesting pictures, artifacts and old pieces of coffee harvesting equipment that decorate the cafe. Each table has coffee beans built into the glasswork on the tabletops, and little flowers in vases filled with coffee beans. It makes for a cosy ambience to go with the excellent coffee.
While I was there I found out more about the cafe and its coffee from the manager, Manrique Lopez Castillo. He works with many small coffee producers to source coffee for the cafe. When I told him what my trip was about, we got into an interesting, but unfortunately limited discussion (due to language issues!) about Fair Trade. He is adamantly against the ‘certified’ route of Fair Trade.
Manrique is the only one in his family who is still involved in coffee. His father has a farm of around 2 ha in size (which is typical of a small producer). He asked me how much a bag of coffee costs in Vancouver, and I had to guess at the price of a conventional bag, as I can’t remember the last time I bought one. He doesn’t support pure ‘organic’ coffee either. His view is that the price differential between organic and conventional doesn’t offset the extra work involved (in organic) and the lower productivity of organic farming. Although he supports the idea of sustainable and environmentally-friendly farming, it’s no good without the farmer getting the price reward to match the extra work required.
For him, it requires a balance. Using a small amount of chemical/fertiliser input directly into the soil (no spraying) is good, but not too much, as that would be unsustainable. He equated it to a person taking vitamins!
We talked about prices per sack (quintal) of green (oro) coffee and how much each one might sell for, whether conventional, Fair Trade or Fair Trade & organic. He suggested that conventional productivity of his farmers’ coffee can be about 4x that of organic. This sounded surprising to me;it was the first I’d heard that conventional was so much more productive than organic (so I’m not sure that it’s true).
And another type of certification – bird-friendly (e.g Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center [SMBC]) that gives an extra amount per pound of coffee – is another pointless certification. He says that most farmers would shoot the birds!
Any price difference at the retail end between conventional and organic/Fair Trade does not go to the farmer, according to Manrique. At the higher ends of the chain (importing, roasting, retailing) those extra monies go to those other ‘western’ companies, not the farmers.
What Manrique does advocate is a ‘direct trade’ model. This is popular among some small importers and roasters in the developed world, and has its plus points if done properly. If done well, the importer works directly with the grower and establishes a long-term relationship with them, also typically paying a higher price. However, as a consumer there is no independent way of verifying the claims of any ‘direct trade’ retailer/importer. Also he is a supporter of the Slow Food movement. Some co-operatives in Huehuetenango have partnerships in this, such as the Huehuetenango Highland Coffee Presidium, which comprises four co-operatives (150 farmers) in La Libertad and Todos Santos. Cafe Museo source their coffee from these farmers.
Although I would have liked to have had a more detailed discussion with Manrique about all this, it did show that there is more than one way to produce ethical and ‘fair’ coffee. We in the developed world are open to all sorts of scams and untruths which is why a certified Fair Trade label is a good guarantee of minimum growing standards. But if you can find reputable alternatives, those can be just as good. The problem, of course, is knowing the good and genuine from the bad. So wherever your favourite coffee shop is, it’s always worth questioning the source of their coffee. Talk to someone there and make sure they’re sourcing ethical and fair coffee..!