Monday, July 21, 2008

To All the Coffee Drinkers

Eighty percent of the original forests on this planet have either been destroyed or degraded due to human activity. Twenty percent of the world’s ancient forests have been cleared in the last 50 years (Greenpeace, 2008). That is terrifying. How do we stop it?

In Guatemala, 56% of the population is below the poverty line. Roughly half of all Guatemalans work in the agriculture industry (CIA World Factbook). The minimum wage for agricultural workers in Guatemala is 30 Quetzales per day (As Green As It Gets, 2005). To buy two avocados, a can of black beans, a can of corn and a bottle of water today, I spent 30 Quetzales (My Receipt, 2008).

Guatemala has one of the most extensive and diverse forest systems in Central America… Most rural Guatemalans have few employment options; they must live off the land that surrounds them making use of whatever resources they can find. Their poverty and relative lack of opportunity mean the country's forests are falling at one of the highest rates in Latin America… Between 1990 and 2005, Guatemala lost 17 percent of its total forest cover and deforestation rates have increased by nearly 13 percent since the close of the 1990s. (Mongabay, 2008)

So what does one do? People have to eat. This is a question that has lingered in the back of my mind throughout a lot of Greenpeace forest campaigns. Yes, it is excellent that McDonalds has stopped buying soybeans from recently deforested land in the Amazon, but what are those farmers doing now? My guess is they are still cutting down trees to plant soybeans.

This conundrum has million of permutations and will clearly require just as many solutions; here is one in the form of a non-profit called As Green As It Gets run by an expatriate, Franklin Vorhees. I listened to Franklin speak at the Rainbow Reading Room, a gringo hang out in Antigua that hosts leftward leaning speakers every Tuesday in order to attract the Chaco-wearing crowd. The following Sunday, I took the bus to nearby San Juan del Obispo to join Franklin, his two NYU grad student volunteers, and a handful of local farmers to plant trees. Fortunately for them, about 30 more farmers showed up than they had been expecting, and they showed up at the crack of dawn. So, when I rolled up at 9 o’clock, there were no more trees to be planted. Instead, I followed Franklin and his posse around to the abodes and workshops of a couple local artisans: a jade cutter (pictured), an iron worker and a furniture maker. I returned to the jade cutters house twice the following week to make a birthday present for Jen.

During his talk at the Reading Rainbow, Franklin explained his philosophy of development: teach a man to feed a man a fish. Basically, he helps sustenance farmers enter the cash economy by planting fewer food crops and more cash crops, like coffee. The more food you grow the more people you can grow. And while it’s relatively easy to plant enough food for people to eat, or at least reproduce, it’s very expensive and time consuming to increase infrastructure to deal with exponentially increasing human population. The idea is to increase the quality of life without increasing the quantity of life.

Through community cooperatives, micro-loans, volunteer work and direct trade networks in the U.S. As Green As It Gets provides the initial capital, knowledge and material resources needed to “encourage environmentally responsible agriculture in Guatemala.” Furthermore, they have helped a number of small businesses grow out of agricultural waste products. For example, there is a woman who makes beauty products out of cocoa butter, beeswax and macadamia oil and a team of women that make purses out of burlap sacks used for coffee beans. Additionally, farmers are encouraged, and provided with seeds, to replant deforested area with trees that can help them provide shade for under story crops, food, and firewood, as well as make a profit and fix nitrogen in the soil.

What about the coffee? By roasting some of it themselves and selling the coffee directly to consumers in the US, As Green As It Gets farmers get more money per pound than big coffee would have paid and more even than Fair Trade requires. ( Read why they opted not to pursue the Fair Trade certificate.) The following season, the farmers are able to pass the wealth on to their neighbors by buying some of their beans from them at higher prices and employing them during the harvesting and sorting process. How much does the coffee cost? $8/lb. plus shipping ($9.80/lb. for 5 lbs shipped to D.C.) which cleanly beats Starbucks' Guatemala Antigua blend at $10.65/lb.

Also check out Franklin's opinion articles: Where's your spare planet? On CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement) and Glorifying the Poor.

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