Guatemala & US/Mexico border
spring 08

Who picked your coffee beans?

February 26, 2008

Up until now it has been hard for me to picture coffee as being anything more than something created behind the counter at Starbucks and sold in a little bag in the supermarket. Our visit to the CCDA coffee cooperative near Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala exposed me to the realities of coffee production. Coffee starts with a seed and with only soil, sun, water and a miracle from God, it becomes a healthy plant that produces more seeds. Across Latin America, Africa and Asia, men, women and children work long hard days to pick the coffee beans which then must be de-pulped, washed, dried, bagged, shipped, de-shelled, roasted, re-bagged, shipped to the US or Canada, ground and then finally brewed into a cup of coffee. Before even touching on the issue of justice being present or absent in this whole process, I first must recognize that every cup of coffee is sacred because of the dozens of lives that are affected in every step of the process.

For some, this coffee has made them slaves, while for others it has brought them liberation. Some children have gone to bed hungry because of the coffee business and other children have inherited incredible wealth. Every person that has worked so hard to get this coffee from a plant to my cup deserves at least a “thank you” before I take a drink.

That “thank you” however, does not free me of the responsibility to challenge injustice and promote justice, nor does it pardon the disgusting sin of indifference that has plagued our consumeristic society. If I am to truly appreciate all that is put into a cup of coffee, then I can not passively accept the people and forces that pervert the process.

Even more importantly than the environmental abuse is the exploitation of human beings that has become so common in the coffee business. I cannot imagine the hopelessness of working on a coffee finca. These people work long, hard hours, but are hardly paid enough to feed their families. They accept it, however, because they know that fighting for their rights will only result in unemployment, the one thing worse than their current job. Recognizing the human beings that are behind the hands preparing our coffee can be extremely unsettling, but is a reality that we all must face.

I used to buy fair trade coffee with a sense that I was doing something very good for the coffee farmers. I now realize, however, that the wages that fair trade coffee farmers are paid are the absolute bare minimum that a person should be paid for that kind of work. To buy regular coffee is to accept slavery as a reasonable practice, so buying fair trade is not charity by any stretch of the imagination. It is simply a duty for any person who recognizes the real human lives that make up the coffee business.

I hope that before drinking a cup of coffee, I will always take a moment to trace that coffee’s journey the whole way back to when a seed was planted in the highlands of Guatemala. And by taking a sip of that coffee, I then become the last part of that story…So my choice between fair trade coffee and standard coffee is really a choice of which story I want to be a part of. Do I want to be the end that justifies the means in a system of environmental destruction, human exploitation, and greed? Or would I rather be part of a story that compensates men and women for their hard labor, gives them dignity, and shows appreciation of God’s creation, which makes everything else possible? I choose the latter.

- Chris E.