Brewing Better Communities
One Coffee Company Witnesses Fair Trade in Action
This guest blog comes to us from Katrina Benedicto, Key Accounts Manager with Java City and ecoGrounds. Katrina educates consumers and businesses on a daily basis about Fair Trade and sustainability in coffee. In November 2015 she journeyed with Fair Trade USA to visit coffee cooperatives in the remote Gayo Highlands of Sumatra, Indonesia. The following is a short reflection on Katrina’s experience visiting farmers half a world away.”
After seventeen years in specialty coffee, I’ve learned that the industry thrives on trust. Customers trust ecoGrounds to deliver consciously great coffee and trust that our buying standards deliver a better quality of life to coffee growing communities. We trust that our certification partners are upholding our shared values of sustainable development, community empowerment, and integrity. Integral to trust is transparency. So when Fair Trade USA (FTUSA) invited me to personally visit coffee cooperatives in the Gayo Highlands of Sumatra, Indonesia, I accepted.
Our task was tasting coffees produced at these Fair Trade cooperatives and providing input on quality improvements. A major factor in growing quality coffee is how the land is managed. FTUSA mandates that five cents of each pound’s community development premiums be reinvested in quality, but farmers may not always know which investments will best match the buyers’ preferences. To help guide these cooperatives toward practices that increase yields and produce better tasting coffees, FTUSA partnered with Lutheran World Relief (LWR) to deliver organic agroecology training. We saw these practices implemented on the farms and asked each cooperative how they use their Fair Trade community development premiums. We also tasted a lot of coffee.
The Gayo Lintong Organic Cooperative (GLOC) welcomed us warmly. They demonstrated how to mix grass clippings, cascara (spent coffee fruit left over from processing the beans inside), manure, and liquid bio-activator to make organic compost, as learned from LWR. We chatted with GLOC’s chairman and farmer representatives. But when we asked how they use their Fair Trade premiums, our friendly visit became uncomfortable. GLOC had been officially stripped of their Fair Trade certification two days prior to our arrival. There were no records of how their Fair Trade premiums had been used, and the chairman had not been forthright with his constituents on their standing. GLOC will lose contracts with Fair Trade coffee importers, and member farmers may leave for better managed cooperatives. I left discouraged, but it is powerful to see Fair Trade certifiers hold cooperatives accountable economic transparency. The rest of our visits were much more inspiring.
Next, we toured the expansive facilities at Koperasi Baitul Qiradh Baburrayyan (KBQB). On this day, the coffee sorted for shipment bore the organic certification label, but Fair Trade Certified™ markings were absent. The chairman for this group explained that not all coffee roasters want to pay the additional Fair Trade premiums that in turn support community development projects. Fair Trade Certification provides a platform for change but requires a wide range of players – farmers, traders, brands, and consumers – to each do their part for the system to thrive. Consumers, for example, can support farmers and help fund community development projects in Indonesia by purchasing coffee with the Fair Trade Certified™ logo.
After our cupping at KBQB, we went to the Airlope Village meeting to ask how Fair Trade community development premiums affect their daily lives. This village shared about bridges they built and tools they purchased, including pruning shears to improve productivity, as learned from LWR. When asked if the farmers would like their children to farm coffee, there was a resounding YES! Tama, the village leader, shared that he has two sons. One works as a civil servant and makes 30% of his parents coffee wages.
The next morning we visited Ketiara, truly the highlight of our travels. This cooperative was formed by Rama and several widows of the Aceh civil war and remains at 60% women owned coffee farms. The coffee farms are brimming with biodiversity. Oranges, avocados, and bananas shade the coffee trees; chickens roamed below. Turmeric and ridiculously hot little peppers carpeted the forest floor. The carefully managed land produces some very special coffees, which fetch higher prices to invest in the community. Community drives the Fair Trade premium projects at Ketiera. The cooperative has provided each village with tents, table, and linens for celebrations; an aerobics teacher brings women together for a weekly fitness class; cows are purchased for the auspicious religious ceremonies.
Our final day in the Gayo Highlands was spent with Permata Gayo, and their fledgling women-owned sister cooperative, KoKowa Gayo. Permata Gayo has invested a great deal of their premium funds into improving their processing and distribution facilities, but the women of KoKowa have different priorities.
KoKowa earned Fair Trade certification in 2015. The 12 member villages hope all of their first harvest will sell as Fair Trade so they can fund a daycare. When the villages could no longer afford to pay a teacher’s salary, the local daycare closed. For some perspective, the salary is $40 a month! The second priority is a women’s health clinic. Because childcare and family planning are locally considered women’s responsibilities, women owned cooperatives place a higher value on these projects.
The proliferation of Fair Trade Certified cooperatives makes it easier for farmers to choose which will best represent their interests and manage premiums with integrity. I can confidently say that Fair Trade delivers empowerment and freedom of choice as means to a better world. I can also say that investments in better agricultural practices make better tasting coffee. I’d ask you to trust me, but the proof is in the coffee.