In December of 2005 I embarked on a nine-day trip to Nicaragua to study fair trade coffee where it is grown.
I already knew a bit about the consumer side of fair trade coffee, having directed a fair trade coffee buying co-op as a student at Colorado College. I knew that fair trade is a system that ensures farmers a fair price for their goods, providing them with a living wage regardless of market prices. Simultaneously, fair trade requires from farmers a commitment to social responsibility and environmental stewardship.
In Nicaragua, I lived in the small cement home of Alfredo Rosales, a Fair Trade Certified™ organic coffee farmer and member of a fair trade cooperative called the Organization of Northern Coffee Cooperatives, or CECOCAFEN. I observed that farmers who have entered the fair trade market do have superior living standards to coffee pickers working on large haciendas. As a member of the cooperative, Señor Rosales could take advantage of the co-op’s technical assistance, access to buyers, and scholarship program for family members. The Rosales family had few material possessions, but they had earned enough money to own their land, and that gave them a sense of independence and identity as coffee farmers. Land ownership also enabled them to grow most of their own food.
I returned from Nicaragua with a renewed commitment to buying Fair Trade Certified™ coffee. I make a point to patronize coffee shops in my community that sell and brew fair trade coffee, and I purchase Fair Trade Certified™ coffee, chocolate, and bananas from grocery stores that carry them. The largest barrier to farmers wishing to enter the fair trade market is a lack of demand for fair trade products on the consumer end. Despite the social and environmental benefits of fair trade production, CECOCAFEN is only able to sell 40 percent of its coffee at the fair trade price. Until fair trade standards become mainstream, it will take individual consumers like me—voting with their everyday purchases—to grow the fair trade market.