It’s a tendency—as a writer or a human being—to view coffee almost entirely on the micro-level. We see coffee shops and baristas and sometimes, maybe, we see a roaster or a bag of beans artfully arranged in some corner. For the most part though our interactions with coffee become intimately tied to the end product—the taste of the espresso, the look of the foam, the service provided by the barista, and so on. Even as new wave coffee companies seek to educate and inform both staff and customers about the importance of the farmer or the collective that brings this coffee to our cups, more often than not these crucial parts of the supply chain are a flicker of a thought as we slurp down our morning brew.
And that’s why events like “Producer, Importer, Roaster & Barista: An Evening Connecting The Industry” matter so very much. Held on April 8th at Counter Counter Coffee’s massive Emeryville space but hosted by Royal Coffee and Fair Trade USA, the event brought together a handful of producers from the major coffee producing companies to discuss the larger picture of what coffee means. It was an eye-opening evening, one that showcased just how far coffee has come, and just how much farther we need to go.
Though each of the three main speakers—Isabel Uriarte from Peru’s CECANOR, Christian Soto from Colombia’s FNC, and Gilbert Gatali from Rwanda’s KZ Noir—spoke on a similar theme—the importance of the coffee growing industry in their country and how Fair Trade has assisted in building that industry—each addressed it from a different vantage point. Uriarte, speaking through a translator, discussed the opportunities that Fair Trade certified coffee has given to the women of Peru. She spoke of starting CECANOR in the early 1980s with only eight women and that now, 40 years later, with the help of Fair Trade, the country has been able to address key issues like sexual harassment and gender inclusion and that today of the six state run coffee co-ops operating in Peru, two are run by women.
By helping women recover their inherited land, traditionally legally owned by a man, they’ve provided an industry that helps women not only to establish consistent employment for themselves, but helps to return the concepts of self-esteem and power to the women of Peru. As Uriarte said to the attentive crowd, “We understand that women need to be involved directly. We understand that they need to be kept involved. The market is the instrument for change.” Uriarte and her organization have helped keep a focus on the nutritional needs of children in Peru. They’ve built 14 community centers staffed by nurses and school teachers, whose sole purpose to educate and assist on the topic of nutrition.
Though all involved shone a different sort of light on what coffee at the origin level means on the larger scale, it was Gilbert Gatali who hammered the point home. Gatali—profiled previously on Sprudge—implored the audience to stop thinking of coffee as a single drink or a bean or a bag, but rather, this product that has become so important to us is the very last step on an epic journey, from farm to exporter to importer to roaster, assisted by millions of hands. And where in America, or in countries like it, when we serve coffee, it is most often our own choice to enter the world of coffee and to stay a part of it, in places like Rwanda—places that are financially dependent on the sales of coffee beans—staying in the industry isn’t a choice, it’s a livelihood, a means of survival. As Gatali said, “Farmers [in Rwanda] don’t have a lot of alternatives.”
He spoke of the 23 years of genocide that pitted countrymen against countrymen, that killed hundreds of thousands and left a long, jagged wound through the Rwandan community. “When you go through something like that,” he said, “you start at ground zero. And after the genocide, when coffee was one of the main exports, its resurgence came in a new light.” With the help of Fair Trade, Gatali and KZ Noir were able to place certified washing stations to provide much needed employment for a population still reeling from two decades of violence.
“At the washing stations,” Gatali said to the gathered crowd, “you might have one side of the table be the perpetrator of violence and at the other the victims, but they would still have to work together, to live together, to deal with whatever challenges you have to deal with as a community. Coffee contributed to people being reunited.” For Gatali, and for Rwanda, coffee is more than a product to be sold, it’s a unifying force, a healing salve, a building block of a new foundation for a country no longer held down by the lingering shadow of terror.
In the panel discussion hosted by Counter Culture’s Katie Carguilo—featuring a variety of representatives from each step of the supply chain—the less savory aspects of coffee production and sales came to light. It was Gatali who once again drew a laser-fine focus on the issues facing farmers, discussing how difficult it is year after year for coffee producers to make ends meet, and how it’s becoming harder and harder for coffee producers to find reasons to continue onwards. It is only because of the hard work of company’s like Gatali’s KZ Noir that many of these producers are able to survive each year. It is, to some degree, up to the consumer side of the coffee equation, to come up with a solution, or solutions, to benefit those on the other end, those who provide the core ingredient of a thriving industry, but are just barely getting by. As Ben Corey-Moran stated, “How do we use capitalism to fix capitalism?”
Answers like these are not found in one evening. But it is evenings like this that give the purveyors of specialty coffee the wider tapestry, a view, scant as it might be, look into the world that we depend on, but rarely actually consider. It is evenings like these that increase the very worth of the coffee we enjoy every day. It is evenings like these that we need more of.