When coffee farmers have the tools of their trade, there is no limit to the magic they will create. They become artisans, coffee craftspeople, and the love of their land translates into empowerment, self-respect and great tasting coffee.
Great coffee is grown in the mountains between 3,000 and 7,000 feet above sea level. It is estimated that 85% of all coffee is grown on small subsistence family farms. In Nicaragua a small family farm might be between five and ten acres that barely supports four to eight family members. In Rwanda the average family farm is one half an acre and supports eight to ten family members. It is a hard life.
Think about what it must be like to live in the mountains on a small farm that must provide food, clothing and shelter first and foremost and also have enough left over for health care and an education for the children.
Think about the isolation, about the constant worry of a mother with her children and a father feeling the weight of his poverty. A family that is dependent on coffee for survival will not make it on its own. People need one another for support. We must support institutions that bring people together.
In the mountains where our coffee is grown government services, no less its presence, are a rarity. Most villages consist of a church and a school. There are no hospitals, doctors, police or gas stations. Everything is far apart, the roads are unpaved, the water comes directly from streams, and perhaps a few light bulbs dot the landscape powered by intermittent electricity.
On the side of the road there might be a tiny store lit by a single light bulb with the owners living in a one-bedroom shack behind their store (dirt floor, of course). A couple of warm beers wait for a customer along with some coconut candies for the kids. One could buy the entire inventory for $50 dollars. One time I did. I told the lady that we were driving to a far away village and would like to bring to those folks her entire stock, including the three bottles of instant Nescafe. I think we made her day! It was a good thing to do even if there was no far off village in our plans.
A single coffee farm, far from major markets suffers for two reasons. It does not produce enough to export and it is at the mercy of middlemen who appear during harvest time with cash, ready to pay as little as they can to desperate farmers who must sell to eat. Alone, the coffee farmer is powerless, a prisoner to his situation.
Cooperatives are the traditional way these coffee farmers even the playing field. Farmers sell their production to their cooperative, which then has enough volume to enter the export market. But that is not all cooperatives do. Something happens when people elect their leaders, one vote per member. The process of forming a cooperative, no less operating it, is one that is amazing especially for people with so few resources. The economic benefits have an effect. The cooperation has an effect. The security of having a secure market for their coffee has an effect. The kids in school have an effect. The village changes. It becomes stronger, more self-directed and confident. Because the community is far away from the urban centers, money coming into the community is spent in the community. Local economic development increases as local money is passed around.
Cooperatives begin to solve other problems as it becomes clear that they are the best institutions in the village to do so. Problems become issues, and in resolving them cooperatives strengthen the democratic process and empower people. What was once a hopelessly impoverished community, mired in subsistence and poor health, becomes a community with hope.
Cooperatives are an expression of the fighting spirit within us that says, “survive”, and the loving spirit within us that says, “cooperate”. This deserves our support. In 2006, 90% of our coffees were produced by small-scale producer cooperatives that we work with closely. This is one of our achievements that I am most proud of. If you are traveling to Rwanda, Uganda, Nicaragua, Mexico or Guatemala and want to visit a coffee cooperative, give me a call and I’ll set you up for a fantastic experience.