Tuesday, 16 Dec 2003

VASHON ISLAND, Wash.

The day begins early with that essential cup of coffee. This time it’s a drip cup of Costa Rican Santa Elena Tarrazu “miel.” This coffee reflects a relatively new style in coffee production wherein some of the fruit is left on the beans to dry. The sugars of the fruit are pulled into the beans in the drying process to create a sweeter cup with more complexity; it also lends itself to espresso use. The Costa Rican coffees are traditionally mild, acidy coffees without the complexity of other coffees — this new advent is an attempt to heighten sales potential for the Costa Rican growers. Because so much specialty coffee is used in espresso drinks, and because specialty coffee roasters and retailers are willing to pay more for the quality they need, coffee farmers are doing all they can to create the kinds of quality that will help them survive.

I’m on the island today, looking out of the “Bird House” windows at the harbor and Mt. Rainier trying to lift her skirts. It is still dark, but the birds are busy at the feeders and quietly conversing. The brown creeper who occasionally walks up the tree outside my window hasn’t shown up. It always seems like a good sign when he does. He walks up the tree; the red-breasted nuthatch walks down. That’s something my inspiration and mentor Hazel Wolf told me. I think of her often when I feel my tenacity lag. Ah, a bald eagle just landed in the big firs across the way; the crows will soon follow to harass.

I have a conference call today with a company seeking to develop carbon sequestration models in shade coffee farms. It’s an interesting and complex idea. If value were created for farmers who keep and foster the trees on their farms, it would be much easier to promote the idea of shade-grown coffee. As frustrating as it is, it all comes down to the relative absolute, money. These farmers have been pushed to the edge by global trade circumstances beyond their power even to understand.

The harsh truth is that a lot of the international banking and economic development groups have pushed coffee as an agricultural resource when they knew the economic logic didn’t support it. Some 105 billion pounds of coffee are consumed worldwide and 115 billion are produced. Despite that fact, more countries are being encouraged to go into coffee production. Because coffee isn’t grown in the U.S. (Hawaii being the small exception), we don’t have any agriculture subsidies that would make other countries uncompetitive. Coffee-producing countries rely on coffee as a cash crop because they can’t get much else across our borders — bananas, of course, and nuts, and oil and minerals if they can keep the multinationals from taking advantage of them.

And then, of course, there are drugs. The only tariffs levied on the drugs are when the “mules” get caught. Many coffee farmers have had to turn to drug cropping in order to survive. None enjoy doing it, because it wreaks havoc on their communities, as it does on ours.

The deeper you get involved in these issues, the more frustrating it becomes. We push for organic certification for farmers who can’t afford it and then can’t sell their crops for the elevated prices the organic certification was intended to bring. Same for Fair Trade — so much more coffee is certified Fair Trade than can be sold as such. It is terribly frustrating for people who are trying to hold their lives and their lands together. Migration from Latin America over the last several years has largely been from the agriculture sector, of which coffee is a significant part. When the World Bank and others promoted large-scale coffee agriculture in Vietnam, which then became the second-largest producer of coffee in the world after Brazil, they must have known the kind of sad havoc they were creating. The big commercial coffee companies have always claimed that the answer was to have more people drink more coffee. That has a hollow ring. Even companies like Procter and Gamble and Kraft are recognizing the severity of the problem. Whether they will do much to change it remains to be seen.

I’ve answered my email, had a great cup of coffee, and now it’s time to cross the water to Seattle. The price one pays for the admitted luxury of living on this somewhat rural island is the three-hour commute. Sometimes there are orcas out in Puget Sound, which light everything up inside. The salmon and the orcas are the heart of this place. As they diminish, so do we.

Today will be a day of fundraising, grant writing, and thank you’s to the people who have helped us make it through another year. We are planning a trip into Coffee Country in January to get video footage of coffee production and interviews with farmers to develop a more in-depth issue outreach via a DVD. We have appealed to popular music artists over the years and will do so again this year. They can create awareness quickly, and the ripple effect can reach into communities more effectively than grassroots efforts alone. All techniques must be tried. The clock is ticking.