For several years I used to travel each summer to
Our first visit was lovely. Her father, Victor, stayed home to greet us and Hugo gave out toys and clothes to the kids. We noticed, however, that a new baby, born to Elvia's older sister looked frail and thin. She had a greenish tint to her skin and never smiled. "Bad water," Victor told us. "And not enough medicines."
Victor and his family are desperately poor. I asked him one time about the coffee farm he works on and he gestured far across the valley and up another mountain. I was amazed. "How far is that?" I asked. He laughed and shook his head. He didn't know, but it had to be a three to four-hour walk. "Every day?" I asked. He laughed again. Of course it was. Why was I so foolish as to ask?
Coffee is a huge portion of
The next year, Hugo and I returned to
When we arrived, however, we found that all the chickens were gone. A disease had come through. The children had gotten sick and the chickens died. The little baby was still ill. Though her mother cradled her in her arms and sang to her silently, the baby stared vacantly into the distance. Her hair was still thin and yellow.
I asked Victor what had happened. He said he didn't know. A development organization had given them medicine and they took it but it was gone and the baby is still very sick. "Can you afford any on your own?" I asked him.
"No," he said. "We don't have the money for the medicines. Last year the foreman paid me less than he paid me the year before. And this year less than last."
"Why is that?"
He shook his head. He didn't know.
"What will you do?" I asked.
He smiled, but he did not laugh. "I will work harder."
Victor is not wrong about his declining pay. In 2001 farmers around Chiquimula were earning 25 quetzales ($6.00) per day but now they earn between 10 and 15 quetzales ($2.50 to $4.00), which is not enough to survive on. The World Bank estimates that between thirty to sixty million coffee farmers around the world lost their livelihoods because of the crisis. Major coffee regions are in tatters. In
And the "collateral" damage is enormous. Some coffee workers move to the cities to seek jobs in sweat shops so that North Americans can buy ten-dollar shirts. Some flee their country seeking a better life, often dying along the way. Remember the twenty-four Mexicans found suffocated in a boxcar in
Others manage to stay on their lands by growing illegal crops. In
Still others have turned their plowshares into swords and joined revolutionary movements. In
On our way home, Hugo fretted over how to do more to help his kids. "I can send more money," he said. "I can set up a trust, so that whatever happens to me they'll get help." Hugo looked as strong as a bear, but his hips and right thigh were slowly being eaten up with cancer and he knew that one day he would no longer be able to make the journey up into Chiquimula. I tried to walk him through what I knew about the causes of the global crisis and its effects on people like Victor and his family, most of which Hugo could not help with trusts and more gifts. But in the end he said he didn't know anything about that. That was just politics, he said, and he didn't get involved with politics.
The causes of the coffee crisis are legion and have more to do with human sin than "laws" of economics. From the sixties through the eighties there was an International Coffee Agreement that kept coffee prices at a relatively stable price, and most farmers, while poor, at least made a living. The
It seems to be an almost-intentional policy among wealthy countries, and lending institutions like the World Bank, to keep production high and prices low. It is the basis of the reigning model of economic globalization. During the nineties the IMF and other regional banks made hundreds of loans to develop coffee plantations but with each new coffee farm, more coffee was produced, which drove down prices and drove down farmer incomes.
A dramatic example of this was in the early 1990s when the IMF arranged massive loans by regional banks to help bring
Corporations can also contribute to the damage. For example, in the late 1990s, Nestlé, the world's largest coffee buyer, told its Mexican clients that it was moving to
In the summer of 2003 I took my last trip to
I saw Victor again standing by himself away from the crowd, and I asked how his coffee farming was going. He smiled but looked ahead at Hugo playing with the children, including their frail little girl who looked better now, but still not well. Too much damage had occurred at too early an age for her to ever be truly healthy. "Mister Hugo loves our children," he said. "And he wants to help us. But we can no longer farm here and we are going away."
"Where?" I asked.
"There are many of us. We cannot farm here and feed our families. We will ride on the bus to the city where there are jobs in the factories. They hire men who are strong and work hard."
I looked at him with dismay. He looked old and weary. He would never be hired in a factory. What would happen is that his sons would take care of him, and he would be humiliated.
"We cannot feed our families here anymore," he said.
On the way home I told Hugo about my conversation with Victor and he grew silent. Finally he said, "That Victor's a good man. He's a hard worker and doesn't deserve this." Hugo had a lot of respect for Victor and it was a shame that they never got to know each other well because neither could speak the other's language. As two old farmers with big families and big hearts they would have had a lot to talk about.
"I've got to send more money," he said.
"I don't think that would help," I said. "Every year they make less than the year before. You can't just pay for their whole lives."
"But they can't just lose everything." His face tensed for a moment, like someone in pain, and he rubbed his thigh. "Tell me again about that fair trade thing."
Fair trade coffee is actually just one of many ways that people can help farmers in Victor's situation. Oxfam, for example, has promoted a package of proposals under a "Coffee Rescue Plan," such as getting roasters to pay higher wages and reducing the stock of existing coffee. Another campaign worked for years to get the
However, the fair trade movement remains the most accessible way for most people to feel they are having a direct impact on the crisis, as well as learning more about it. In a fair trade arrangement, a coffee company will partner directly with farmer co-ops in developing countries, which eliminates the "middle people," and in so doing guarantees a stable living wage. In addition, to be certified the cooperative must do such things as promote democratic principles of governance, gender equality, humane working conditions, and environmental sustainability.
The oldest fair trade company in
By winter Hugo was sick in bed most of the time, and by summer he was too frail to make the trip back to
Not long after that our church joined with Equal Exchange to begin selling Fair Trade products. We put up a big display in the parish hall, ordered a bunch of their coffee, chocolate, and teas, and have been selling them on Sundays ever since. I doubt that our little project will ever help Victor and his family in Chiquimula, who finally had to move away and lost everything they ever had. But I'm certain we've helped other people like them. And I'm certain that somehow in the mystery of pain and love and life and death, that Hugo knows about our little coffee display out in the parish hall, and wherever he is, I think he's glad.