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University Press of Colorado
Coffee and Community: Maya Farmers and Fair Trade Markets

Coffee and Community: Maya Farmers and Fair Trade Markets

by Sarah Lyon


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781607320579
Publisher: University Press of Colorado
Publication date: 11/15/2010
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 280
Sales rank: 807,275
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Sarah Lyon is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Kentucky. Her interests lie at the intersection of culture, agriculture, consumption, and the global economy.

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Coffee and Community

Maya Farmers and Fair-Trade Markets

By Sarah Lyon

University Press of Colorado

Copyright © 2011 University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60732-057-9



Fair trade is a form of alternative trade that seeks to improve the position of disempowered small-scale farmers through trade as a means of development. The movement, which promotes labeling, certification, and consumer action, rejects the narrow view of third-world producers as victims and instead emphasizes the role that northern consumption can play in their economic empowerment and well-being. Its supporters argue that it contests the conventional agro-food system and the exploitative relations of production characterizing it. The growing popularity of fair- trade coffee reflects our own cultural assumptions and anxieties surrounding free trade, corporate globalization, economic injustices, and the politicization of everyday consumption practices. In recent years, the United States has emerged as the world's largest fair-trade market. In 2008 over 87 million pounds of fair-trade-certified coffee were imported into the United States from more than 250 producer orrganizations around the world TransFair USA estimates that in 2008 alone sales of fair-trade-certified coffee in the United States generated more than $32 million in additional income for coffee farmers (TransFair 2009). Although overall coffee sales are stagnant, specialty coffee sales have grown at 13 percent per year over the past decade, and certified coffees, such as fair trade, account for close to 4 percent of the world market (Giovannucci and Villalobos 2007). Fair-trade products on the whole still represent a minor share of the world market, currently about US$4 billion; however, the worldwide retail value of fair-trade sales increased 22 percent in 2008 (FLO 2009).

In 1977, long before the fair-trade coffee market began its rapid expansion, a small group of Tz'utujil Maya coffee farmers met under the shade of a ceiba tree in the center of their Guatemalan village, San Juan La Laguna, located on the shores of Lake Atitlan. They formed a cooperative that day, La Voz Que Clama en el Desierto ("A Voice Crying Out in the Wilderness"), which today sells more than eight containers of fair-trade and organic-certified coffee to the second-largest specialty coffee roaster in the United States, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. In turn, Green Mountain retails the members' coffee to consumers like you and me. They sell the coffee online and in offices, supermarkets, and McDonald's outlets. The growing market share of fair-trade and organic products in U.S. retail outlets indicates that as consumers we increasingly accept the notion that our individual shopping habits can radically alter the conditions of production in distant locations. We are told that simply by sipping our morning cup of organic fair-trade coffee we are encouraging environmentally friendly agricultural methods, community development, fair prices, and shortened commodity chains. The pictures of smiling, dark-skinned farmers adorning coffee bags and decorating corner coffee shops readily convince us that, in the words of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, we can "Taste a Different World."

The central goal of this book is to explore this "different" world by employing fair-trade coffee as an entry point for analyzing what it means for producers, consumers, and intermediaries alike to have an identity that is simultaneously embedded in local circumstances and shaped by a growing role in global spheres of exchange and commodity flows. As the privileged consumers of fair-trade coffee, it is easy to imagine that we are the primary actors in this commodity circuit, for without our interest and disposable income, the market would not exist. However, the members of La Voz, whose lives seem so distant from our own, work together with coffee roasters, importers, and certifiers in the United States to construct coffee's meaning and the ways that it is marketed and consumed in coffee shops and homes across the country. Coffee and Community critically evaluates the collective action and combined efforts of fair-trade network participants to construct a new economic reality, demonstrating that while fair-trade confers many positive benefits to small farmer communities, there are also significant drawbacks to their participation in this transnational commodity circuit.


Before beginning this research on coffee in 2000, my knowledge of coffee production and trade was limited to a vague notion that Colombia's coffee was high quality (like most Americans my age, I had been bombarded with advertisements of Juan Valdez and his cute burro since childhood) and that the owners of Central America's vast coffee plantations were somehow responsible for the violent civil wars that region experienced during my youth. I smugly patted myself on the back for being a sophisticated consumer who shunned the cans of Folgers and Maxwell House that sat in my parents' kitchen cabinets in favor of the colorful (and significantly more expensive) bags on the shelves of the local natural-foods store. I always bought my coffee on the go from the "gourmet" shops, such as Starbucks and Caribou, adjacent to campus — I would never deign to show up in class carrying a generic cup of coffee from the cafeteria. More recently I have listened to many coffee consumers share their firm conviction with me that Ethiopian coffee is the highest quality, that Jamaican Blue Mountain and Hawaiian Kona coffee must be superior because they certainly cost more, or that they would buy fair-trade or organic coffee but it simply does not taste as good. Like me, very few of them knew that coffee grows on trees, in very specific locations, and that quality has much more to do with altitude and processing than it does with sleek advertising campaigns and high prices. As with so many commodities, we consumers are largely ignorant of the complex web of ecology, capitalism, and human relationships that delivers these dark beans to our kitchens and favorite neighborhood coffee shops.

The ecology of the coffee plant makes it a tropical commodity. For example, Arabica, the variety of coffee marketed as specialty or gourmet (and produced by the members of La Voz), requires between seventeen and twenty-five degrees Celsius and a minimum of 1200 to 1500 millimeters of annual rainfall with an approximately three-month-long dry season (Talbot 2004:31). When planted at lower altitudes in the tropics, Arabica is susceptible to disease and fails to produce the desirable "hard bean" found in the colder climates, which encourage a slower-maturing fruit. On the other hand, Robusta coffee, commonly used in conventional coffee blends, can be grown at much lower altitudes (e.g., in Brazil and Vietnam). The certified-coffee commodity network, which is the subject of this study, begins in San Juan's patchwork of small coffee fields and ends in the cups of U.S. consumers. Producing high-quality, certified coffee requires almost daily attention. In San Juan, as in many Latin American coffee communities, this labor primarily falls to the male heads of households and, depending on the size of the family's holdings, their sons. However, during the coffee harvest between December and March, wives, younger children, and, if necessary, hired mozos (day laborers), work together to pick the cherries by hand as they ripen and carry them on their own backs, using a tumpline, or on their horses each afternoon to the beneficio (wet mill), where it is weighed and emptied into the washing tanks. Because coffee cherries quickly begin to ferment, they must be washed within several hours of being picked. After washing, the pulp of the coffee cherries is removed by machine, releasing the two coffee beans inside. Under the supervision of the four beneficio employees and regular rotating overnight shifts of cooperative members, the beans then ferment in water for twenty-four to forty-eight hours. After fermentation, the remaining pulp is washed off and the beans are spread on a patio to dry, which can take up to three days because of San Juan's high altitude (approximately 1,500 meters). The coffee is then bagged and shipped to a mill in Guatemala City, where the final parchment skin is removed during dry processing. It is then shipped to Green Mountain Coffee Roasters in Vermont, where it is roasted and marketed to consumers. The Guatemalan highlands produce some of the highest quality and distinctively flavored coffees in the world. The members of La Voz grow Typica, Bourbon, and Caturra varieties of fair-trade and organic-certified coffee. Nurtured in fertile, volcanic soils under a diverse shade canopy, these coffee beans have a good balance of acidity and body that is spiced with a hint of winey ferment and fruit flavors.

Coffee's introduction to Latin America during the second half of the nineteenth century intensified existing transnational flows and affected diverse individuals and landscapes. Historically, Latin America dominated coffee production, and at one point in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries coffee was the leading export of nearly half the countries of the Americas and an important secondary crop in others. Today it remains a major export in many Latin American countries. In Guatemala, coffee cultivation and the exploitative political and social structures that supported it did indeed contribute to the civil unrest that resulted in the nation's civil war and continues to shape the political, economic, and cultural reality (Williams 1994; Paige 1997). Despite this history, however, it became increasingly attractive to smallholders beginning in the 1970s, because coffee is easy to store and handle, its value has historically surpassed that of comparable agricultural products, it can be grown on steep slopes, and can be fairly easily rejuvenated even if neglected for a time (Sick 1999). People in San Juan called the introduction of coffee "the bomb" that exploded in the community, bringing income that enabled families to end their seasonal migration to lowland plantations, build cement-block houses, and educate their children. This trend toward small-scale coffee production was replicated around the world during the twentieth century as it became clear that the idea of "bigger is better" was an illusion in coffee cultivation. Access to land was not a key ingredient for coffee production. Instead, capital and labor were the scarce factors of production: small producers could rely on self-provisioning and family labor, and compared with large landowners, smallholders usually returned higher yields per hectare, per unit of capital, and per laborer, all other things being equal (Topik and Clarence-Smith 2003a:389).

Within San Juan and across Guatemala, rural communities of small-holders struggle to diversify their economic livelihoods as it becomes increasingly difficult to sustain a family solely through agriculture. Juaneros strive to educate their children to save them the backbreaking labor and daily toil that they say characterize their own lives as campesinos (small-scale farmers). For example, since I first visited San Juan in 2000, community members have invested heavily in tourism and other small businesses. San Juan sits on the shores of one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, and although Juaneros have been slow to capitalize on the flows of foreigners that visit this popular destination every year, they are now trying to catch up to their neighbors, such as the residents of San Pedro and Santiago Atitlan, who have long welcomed tourists. Despite this economic diversification, coffee remains central to both Guatemalan and Juanero economic identity, although it is not the financial powerhouse it once was. In the past, coffee farming brought great rewards to Juaneros, and they are reluctant to abandon the crop now even though many years they struggle to earn a decent living. Their options for agricultural diversification are limited by the small size of their landholdings. Furthermore, coffee is a perennial tree crop that requires a significant initial investment. Members of La Voz often referred to their coffee trees as their "children" who they had lovingly tended for decades — children they were understandably reluctant to rip out now.

Guatemala claims seven distinct coffee-producing regions and exported nearly 7 million pounds of fair-trade certified green coffee into the United States in 2008 (TransFair 2009), making it the seventh-largest supplier to the market. Approximately 31 percent, or 700,000, of Guatemala's rural laborers are employed in the coffee industry (Varangis 2003:8; Lewin, Giovannucci, and Varangis 2004). Forty-five percent of Guatemala's coffee is classified as strictly hard bean (SHB: grown above 1,200 meters) and 19 percent as hard bean (HB: grown between 800 and 1,200 meters), meaning it commands a higher price in the international coffee commodity market. Latin America in general is the leading source of specialty coffees, and several countries, such as Colombia and Guatemala, have historically focused on coffee quality and the establishment of infrastructure and institutional mechanisms to foster consistency (Lewin, Giovannucci, and Varangis 2004:115).

Today, between 20 and 25 million small farmers produce coffee in more than fifty countries around the world, most being very small-scale family farmers or those with fewer than five hectares (Nicholls and Opal 2005:81) who are especially vulnerable to market fluctuations. In general, the undifferentiated nature of bulk commodities (such as wheat, soya, coffee, cocoa, and sugar) meant historically that it was easier for small-scale farms to participate. However, bulk commodity markets are characterized by instability, structural oversupply, stiff global competition, historic downward price trends, and declining terms of trade for producing countries and regions (Fox and Vorley 2006:164). The volatility of the international coffee market has increased since 1989, when the International Coffee Agreement (ICA), which set quotas and helped stabilize prices, was not renewed. During the years when I conducted the bulk of my research (2001–2003), international coffee prices established on the New York Coffee, Sugar and Cocoa Exchange and the London International Futures Exchange declined to a hundred-year low when adjusted for inflation (Lewin, Giovannucci, and Varangis 2004). The unprecedented low that the international price for green coffee reached in 2001 was primarily the result of two transformations in addition to the demise of the ICA in 1989. First, roasters and international traders consolidated their market shares, contributing to oligopolistic market conditions. Second, producing countries lost their ability to control export flows and stocks as a result of market liberalization (Daviron and Ponte 2005:113, 121). Additionally, the percentage of coffee's value returned to the producer has declined significantly over the past decades. Today the International Coffee Organization estimates that 12 percent of the average supermarket price and less than 3 percent of the price of brewed coffee purchased out of home is paid to the grower (Giovannucci and Koekoek 2003:32).

Many people publicly blamed the rapid growth of Vietnam's coffee production in recent years for the coffee crisis. Between 1990 and 2000, Vietnam boasted a 1,400 percent increase in coffee production, and by 2000–2001 it was the second-largest producer in the world with an annual production of 14.7 million bags (Giovannucci 2002; Talbot 2004). Although Vietnam may have been the most visible contributor to overproduction, it was not the only one. For example, Brazil produced a bumper crop in 1998–1999 of 38 million bags from 3.4 billion trees. According to Giovannucci (2002), estimates suggest that during the coffee crisis there were 4.4 billion Brazilian coffee trees in production with another 1.5 billion developing. Similarly, during the 1990s, production increased in India and Uganda by more than 30 percent, in Guatemala by 20 percent, and in Ethiopia by 25 percent (Talbot 2004:128). The Vietnamese coffee expansion began before 1994, when the World Bank resumed lending there. Giovannucci (2002) contends that the credit extended to small farmers through the 1996 Rural Finance Project financed less than 5 percent of Vietnam's coffee expansion. Nonetheless, Don Mitchell, a World Bank economist, stated that "Vietnam has become a successful producer ... In general, we consider it to be a huge success" (quoted in Collier 2001). At the 2002 Anacafé conference, Panos Varangis of the World Bank gave a presentation titled "Perspectivas del café a Nivel Mundial." Even though Varangis argued that Guatemalan producers must continue to increase their coffee quality, the audience became clearly unsettled. One Guatemalan attendee interrupted him by standing up and saying,

It seems illogical to me that we, who produce quality coffee, have to be socially and environmentally responsible and Brazil and Vietnam don't. It's hypocritical. Migration to the United States grows every year and our governments are losing a source of revenue that could be used to pay off the loans we have with institutions such as this one. Why does the World Bank continue to give money to these producers and doesn't help the producers of truly quality coffee, our countries depend on the taxes of coffee to pay our loans with you!


Excerpted from Coffee and Community by Sarah Lyon. Copyright © 2011 University Press of Colorado. Excerpted by permission of University Press of Colorado.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

1 Introduction 1

2 The Historical Convergence of Local Livelihoods, the Global Economy, and International Politics 23

3 "Trade Not Aid": Assessing Fair Trade's Economic Impact on Cooperative Members and Their Families 55

4 Obligatory Burdens: Collaboration and Discord within the Cooperative 81

5 The Political Economy of Organic and Shade-Grown Coffee Certification, Local Livelihoods, and Identities 123

6 Managing the Maya: Power in the Fair-Trade Market 151

7 Marketing the Maya: Fair Trade's Producer / Consumer Relationships 179

8 Conclusion: A Fairer Future 207

Notes 215

Works Cited 227

Index 259

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