COFFEE BEAN BLUES: The Plight of Small Coffee Farmers and Farm Laborers

Coffee is produced in tropical climates. Its large-scale commercial cultivation was started in the 17th Century in the colonies of the Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, French and English. From the beginning the farm labor was exploited. All the colonial powers used slave labor or forced labor. Brazil was the most notorious in exploiting slave labor in the Latin American Countries. Slavery and colonial empires are things of the past but the situation for small farmers and farm labor has not improved significantly.

Today over 50% of coffee is produced by small farmers on less than 5 acres of land. Small farmers generally live off the land and produce coffee as a cash crop. Most of these farmers live in remote areas with very little contact with financial institutions or agricultural marketing education. They pick the coffee cherries and sell to beneficios (coffee mills) nearby. They have no clout with such beneficios because they are very small and the cherries must be sold the same day they are picked or they will spoil. The beneficios often pay farmers less than half the market price. In many cases the farmers have no means to transport the cherries to the beneficio, or they need money up front to buy necessities before the harvest. They then have to sell to intermediaries, known as "coyotes". The coyotes pay them very little for the cherries and give loans, charging exorbitant interest for the money they lend. The farmers get caught in the spiral of debt and eventually lose their land. Most small farmers need all the family members to work on the farm. The children receive no education and there is very little health care, and many preventable diseases are fatal. 

Here is a local farmer carrying the water.

Most disadvantaged are the temporary farm laborers who travel many miles to the coffee estates during picking season. Often entire families go to work; sometimes they have lost their small farm. They live in horrible conditions, without any facilities, for the entire picking season.

Coffee is a commodity item, and its price fluctuates depending on many international factors over which small farmers have no control or knowledge. They do not have the experience or resources of large estates to hedge against price fluctuation by contracting futures. For example, the price of green coffee (New York C-market, coffee, cocoa & sugar, is the recognized base price) has recently been fluctuating around 50Ó/pound or less. The average cost of production is about 80Ó/pound. Sometimes farmers have given up picking the crop because they cannot afford to process it. This means they cannot take care of their farms and either lose their land or change to an alternate crop. Unfortunately, some turn to producing drugs.

The low prices of late are partially the result of Vietnam's entry into the coffee market. Five years ago, Vietnam was not exporting any coffee. Now they have become the second largest coffee exporters after Brazil.

This has created a glut in the coffee market and subsequent low prices. In the long run the entire industry will suffer.In the 1950's the US government and the international banking community created a big push for technification to increase coffee production. Technification required farmers to plant high yielding varieties and cut down trees to increase production and ripen cherries faster. These sungrown coffee trees required the use of chemical pesticides, as the birds that ate pests had no habitat left. It also required herbicides to control weeds and fertilizers to input the energy needed for intense production. Technification changed the farmers' generations-old methods of farming, but they had little choice if they wanted US aid money. These farmers have very little knowledge of how to use the chemicals safely. They continue to use deadly chemicals like DDT that is prohibited in most industrialized nations. Because of this unsafe use of chemicals, lack of education and no health care, these people suffer.

Fortunately, more and more consumers are becoming aware of the unfair treatment of coffee farmers and are pressing, with their dollars, for fairer treatment. Some assistance is coming to these small farmers from their governments and international communities that help them organize into cooperatives. Often these cooperatives have their own beneficios and exporting abilities. Many individual farmers and cooperatives are trying to get out of the commodity market by improving the quality of their product and selling to private importers at higher prices. This is a step in the right direction, but it is only a very small percentage of the industry.

Farmers get together to help build community projects
or individual family projects.

Unfortunately, many greedy roasters use these "conscious coffees" as a marketing gimmick to take advantage of consumer sentiments. Hopefully, with the new Organic certification laws and Fair Trade and Shade Grown third-party certifications, consumers will be protected from fraudulent practices.

There are also many non-profit organizations such as Coffee-Kids that help the communities of coffee farmers through humanitarian projects. They are often funded directly by concerned citizens and conscious corporations. There are many roasters that are also actively working to improve the life on coffee farms.

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