Fair-trade coffee:
Is it working?

Chris Bacon, right, on a fair-trade coffee farm in Nicaragua
Photo: Simon Bujold

Spotlight on Students

Chris Bacon
Environmental Studies
Ph.D. program

For Chris Bacon, coffee is more than a beverage. It's his passion, the subject of his doctoral research, and, he hopes, the avenue to a healthier, more stable life for thousands of Nicaraguans who grow coffee for a living.

A doctoral candidate in environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz, Bacon is working with small-scale coffee farmers to document the impact of the fair-trade movement on the people and landscapes of northern Nicaragua.

The fair-trade movement, which began more than 50 years ago in Europe, guarantees farmers a fair price for their products, based on labor, land, and other production costs. The goal is to improve the lives of farmers and their families and to help the environment by encouraging farmers to adopt Earth-friendly growing practices.

Awareness of fair-trade coffee has grown dramatically since the late 1990s, when a worldwide glut of coffee beans sent wholesale prices plunging to their lowest levels in more than a century. Growers have been struggling to break even ever since.

Fair-trade advocates have stepped in to help, encouraging consumers to buy fair-trade coffee because it offers farmers a higher rate of return—about 90 cents per pound, compared to about 40 cents per pound for coffee beans sold on the conventional market. Eager to know if the fair-trade movement is making a difference, Bacon is focusing on childhood educational opportunities as a measure of economic well-being and on farm landscapes to gauge the sustainability of bean production.

His preliminary results are encouraging: The children of farmers who grow fair-trade organic coffee appear more likely to go to school than children of conventional coffee producers, and there appears to be greater shade-tree and orchid diversity on certified organic farms than conventional ones.

By examining both social and ecological impacts, Bacon is at the forefront of agroecology, an interdisciplinary field that combines ecology, socioeconomics, and culture. Stellar UCSC faculty in environmental studies and Latin American and Latino studies, as well as two key research facilities—the Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems and the 25-acre Farm—drew him to the Ph.D. program. "I turned down Yale and a pretty good fellowship to come to UCSC," he said.

Bacon became interested in sustainability in 1995 while working for the World Resources Institute, a global environmental think tank in Washington, D.C. "I learned so many statistics about deforestation, hunger, and poverty, but they didn't have faces and names behind them," says Bacon. "I wanted firsthand experience. I wanted to be useful."

So Bacon joined the Peace Corps and served in Nicaragua, where he promoted community environmental projects and became fluent in Spanish. The devastation of Hurricane Mitch in 1998 shifted his focus to agriculture as he helped villagers plant small vegetable gardens to sustain themselves. Then came coffee.

"I was biking 20 kilometers into the hills to help plant vegetables, and I met small-scale farmers who were producing really good coffee in the shade of native forests," recalls Bacon. "I started to think about the linkages between farmers and consumers. I knew there had to be a way to help producers, and there is. It's called 'fair trade.'"

Despite increasing demand, fair-trade coffee still makes up less than 1 percent of sales in the U.S., and Bacon paints a David and Goliath scenario as he describes the players in the international coffee market. Worldwide, the vast majority of coffee beans are grown by farmers on parcels of less than 5 hectares, or about 12 acres. By contrast, coffee roasting is dominated by corporations like Philip Morris and Nestle, which control 24 percent and 25 percent, respectively, of the market. Bacon's research is driven by questions of whether it is possible for small-scale growers to succeed given the structure of the conventional commodities system and the corporate concentration of coffee roasters.

"The fair-trade movement is about building new relationships between consumers and family farmers," says Bacon. "It's about paying a fair price so farmers can support their families, build schools, protect biodiversity, and be active participants in their communities. This research is looking at whether we're meeting those goals."

—Jennifer McNulty

Java Justice

Wake up and smell the fair-trade coffee in UCSC dining halls.

That's the message from students and staff who have worked together to introduce flavorful, high-quality, ecologically friendly coffee on campus. Although it costs more than conventional coffee, certified fair-trade coffee eliminates the "middle man" and ensures that more profit goes into the pockets of farmers.

Free-trade coffee organizers Tony LoPresti (left) and Suzanne Langridge (right), with Alma Sifuentes, director of residential and dining services
Photo: Jennifer McNulty

"The students talked with us and began educating me about how the coffee industry works," says Alma Sifuentes, director of residential and dining services at UCSC, who made the decision to introduce fair-trade coffee on campus after hearing the concerns of students. "Students in our own agroecology program are doing research about coffee, and they described where the money goes and how it is distributed, and how the campus could really aid the environment and social justice by making this change. It's very exciting."

Serving fair-trade coffee in campus dining halls and at campus-operated coffee carts is also a good business decision that builds on UCSC's commitment to sustainability, says Sifuentes, a UCSC alumna who graduated in 1986 with a degree in economics.

"I'm looking to build alliances with our internal departments and the mission of the university," says Sifuentes. "If we can connect undergraduate, graduate, and faculty research with the business of running the university, that's putting theory into practice."

The goal of the fair-trade coffee movement is to provide economic stability for small-scale farmers and to encourage sustainable growing techniques that replenish the Earth.

At UCSC, several faculty members, including Stephen Gliessman of environmental studies, are researching the economic, social, and political aspects of coffee production.

Graduate student Suzanne Langridge and Tony LoPresti, who graduated in June with a bachelor's in Latin American and Latino studies, spearheaded the student-led effort to educate the campus community about fair-trade coffee. As members of Comercio Justo (Spanish for "fair trade"), Langridge and LoPresti organized workshops, photo exhibits, and presentations about globalization and coffee, and the impacts of the coffee crisis on peasant farmers.

As consumers, they explained, students can have a direct role in improving the lives of farmers by buying fair-trade coffee. "Students learn so much about the negative impacts of globalization, and this gives them a way to take action," says LoPresti. "It's about taking a small step toward equity on a global scale."

"The fair-trade movement is about reworking producer-consumer relationships," says Langridge, noting that fair-trade bananas, chocolate, and textiles are also available. "Coffee is the ideal commodity for students on campus to support, because they drink so much of it."

UCSC is one of more than 200 college and university campuses around the United States that are conducting fair-trade coffee campaigns. As the West Coast representative for United Students for Fair Trade (USFT), UCSC's Comercio Justo hosted the group's first-ever national conference with other student organizers in Santa Cruz this winter.

—Jennifer McNulty

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