Frontline World


Guatemala/Mexico, COFFEE COUNTRY, May 2003



Read through archived FRONTLINE/World conversations around this story below, including responses from the reporters.

Richard Haddock - Martinez, California
I was amazed at how much can ride on a cup of coffee. How many cups have I drunk without a thought about the people who grow the beans! Your program brought home the global connection we have as consumers. Whole villages in Guatemala and Mexico depend on getting a fair price for their coffee. I am heartened by this story of the buyers of fair trade coffee; mixing business and compassion to help make the world a better place. What an interesting film on the reality of the coffee business. I am a convert to buying fair trade certified coffee and making a positive difference in a small personal way.

Anonymous - Willington, Connecticut
Thank you for your enlightening report about Fair Trade and the impact of "coyote" traders on the growers of the coffee bean. As a coffee devote, your report was personally affecting. I have also lived abroad and know that in the United States, we are disconnected from any sense of where the food we purchase and eat is actually grown. This is not true in most other countries of the world. So your program was important for the way it made the connection between coffee at Starbucks for example, and the bean's place of origin. There could probably be a whole series called "Where does it come from" about our food. After the show, I went on line immediately and ordered some Fair Trade Coffee. I thought the program was not entirely clear about why things have changed for coffee growers in Guatemala and Mexico. I recently visited Vietnam where, as you mentioned, coffee has become a major export. But is the advent of Vietnamese coffee on the world market, the reason for the empty haciendas in Guatemala and Mexico?

Reporter Sam Quinones responds:
In large part yes. The glutted world market leads to the lowprice for beans and Vietnam's entry into the market, as well as India's, has led to that. So has Brazil's expansion of its coffee plantations. These generally are the lowest quality beans that are glutting the market. But people buy them because they're used to coffee simply being coffee and thus, like any commodity, cheaper coffee is better than higher priced coffee.

People have not become educated to viewing coffee like wine. Many consumers usually look for specific kinds of red wine -- Zinfandel, Merlot -- and even red wines from different regions or vineyards. But people buy coffee, most people worldwide anyway, as if it were all the same. That's the challenge to coffee growers in this era, it seems to me: developing differentiation, educating consumers, etc.

There's more to the crisis than simply the low prices. There's also the fact that many peasant growers for years have had to simply sell their high quality beans at low-quality prices. In part, this is because the demand for fair trade/specialty/organic coffee is limited worldwide.

If more people asked for their supermarket to stock this kind of coffee and bought it when they did, then the effects of the low price of cheap coffee would be mitigated and growers of beans that meet these specifications make more money.

Any grower who can sell all or most of his crop at fair trade/organic prices will do pretty well. It's when that grower can't sell it for those rates and has to unload it at the cheap-quality prices -- though his beans may be excellent -- is when he begins to hurt.

Another problem is that these farmers also suffer from lack of connectivity to the world. That is to say that many peasant farmers have no trucks to get their beans to market, some have no good roads, no telephone connections, no faxes, no Internet connections, they don't speak Spanish, let alone English, they can't read or write -- all of which could help get them access to markets where they'd get higher prices for their beans than in their own areas, where they are captive and must sell their stuff to intermediaries, who are those who make the money.

Anonymous - New York, New York
I loved the piece! Nice job Sam. But I have a few questions: is it wise for peasants in Third World countries to become dependent on a first world niche market? it seems rather precarious since consumers and therefore markets can be fickle and tastes change. What if the demand for designer coffee dries up with increasingly bad economy? wouldn't it be better for peasants to grow crops that can be consumed/used locally? I know the problem is they don't pay as much, but it seems to make more sense to produce for local consumption and crops that are really necessary, not luxuries like coffee...What do you think Sam?

Reporter Sam Quinones responds:
Producing for the domestic market would be a great idea, but for two factors. First, the domestic markets in Guatemala and Mexico are notoriously weak, due to a variety of factors that includes the relative lack of much middle class in both countries. So there isn't much demand, particularly for high-end products, which is what these farmers need access to.

Also, as we pointed out, most folks in Guatemala and Mexico are not used to drinking good coffee. There's a lot of education in this still to do in the United States. In Mexico and Guatemala, people simply don't have a quality-coffee culture. In those countries, really, you're talking about Nescafe quality coffee. Changing that will take many years.

I think the key is to keep selling to those niche markets, but work to expand those niche markets, which do expand with education of consumers. That's really key to it all.

What that means is that coffee growers, as well as the governments of both countries, face new challenges. They have to learn how to grow and Separate out quality coffee beans. But they also have to learn to market and brand in a way they never had to when coffee was simply a commodity. They have to change the attitude that coffee is coffee.

They have to train consumers to go in and say, "I'll take a bag of that Huatusco blend" just as they'd say, "I'll take a bottle of that Clos du Bois Zinfandel" or something.

Anonymous - Tamarac, Florida
You missed completely the heart of the problem. I did not hear any discussion of the reason for the coffee glut -- farmers in SE Asia were encouraged to enter the market (by who??). The 10 million box increase in that region's annual production has devastated returns for the traditional producers while so-called globalization has only increased profits for the corporations that control the market. Farmers in Guatemala earn $0.20 a lb. for green coffee and I pay $6.99 for roasted bean at PUBLIX. And Pat Buchanan bitches ad nauseam about "those people" who only want to come here and steal the wealth that his ancestors have made for him! I am absolutely astounded that Frontline would air such an incomplete, one sided piece of propaganda for the self promoting folks from Green Mountain! You lost it on that show!

Reporter Sam Quinones responds:
I'm not quite sure what point we didn't make. We mentioned that Vietnam is now a major producer. We mentioned that farmers make 20 cents a pound roughly for their beans, far below what it costs to grow it. We focused on how all this has affected peasant farmers in Mexico and Guatemala.

Anonymous - Brookfield, Wisconsin
I recently visited a Kona coffe farm in Hawaii, enjoyed the process and appreciated learning the very labor-intensive aspect of producing coffee for consumption. Kona is unique and has a niche market but the generic coffee producers need to produce an identity in coffee for marketing. I appreciate the Fair Trade Coffee concept and hope it brings fairness to producers. The coffee farmers have some parallel fate to American farmers who grow commodities such as corn and an economic comparison between these forces would be interesting.

Liz Schlegel - Waterbury, Vermont
Thank you for airing this story, and providing the background material. Fair Trade is the only kind of coffee I buy -- once you understand the economics, it becomes a moral imperative. And how many other products -- milk, cotton, tomatoes, grapes, for example -- need a Fair Trade movement? We need to consider -- at all times -- whether the farmer has been paid a fair price.

Fred Villegas - Bronx, New York
Bravo Frontline: My father left Mazatlan, Mexico in search of a better life in these United States many years ago. I have traveled extensively to Central and South America and have seen first hand, some the deplorable working and living conditions of these beautiful people. If the Starbucks of the world net 75-100 cups of coffee a pound retail at a $1.65 per cup or a whopping $123.75 a pound, surely they must be able to pay the growers more than $1.20 for a sack of coffee. It's appears that this is an another form of trickle down economy.

Guillermo Narváez - Oakland, California
The certification process is free to the producer and it is paid by the US-based roasters or importer. Please refer to the TransFair USA website ( for complete details. What needs to happen for this to be more effective is that we increase the demand for Fair Trade coffee? Fair Trade is not a flavor!! It should be the norm for all the coffee purchases (as well as other products). We have to act at all levels to make Fair Trade work. We need to buy it for the cups we drink at home, work, school, church, and when we go out? If it is not served, we need to ask for it until it is.

Sharon Speights Gibson - Athens, Georgia
In June of 2002 I was a part of a group of Cooperative Extension Faculty from the University of Georgia who went to Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico. The purpose of the trip was to expose county Agents (Agricultural, Family and Consumer Sciences and 4-H) and state Family and Consumer Sciences Faculty to Georgia's fastest growing ethnic in their home country. The trip provided us with the chance to meet farmers, families, educators, and service providers and learn from them what it means to be from our Southern Neighbor. One most life changing experience for me was when I spent an afternoon with a local organic coffee grower and to listen and learn from him the plight of families who are depending on producing coffee. He talked of how families could not longer live on the money they get from the sale of their crops but he also talked about the intense desire for the people to stay on the land that took so long for them to gain in the first place. When we came home, my experience in Xalapa and the villages that were dotted through the cloud forest has inflamed in me a passion to work to promote the concept of fair trade practices not just in coffee but in all products. To me it is worth the extra dollar if I know that the farmer or crafts person is getting their due. Keep up the good work -- programs like remind me why I do what I do.

Roy Mearns - Louisville, Kentucky
Thank you for Frontline -- it is refreshing to get information that hasn't been filtered through corporate censors and targeted to the lowest common denominator. The coffee story was also uplifting. It is nice to know that, in a world now controlled by corporate capitalism, there are some companies that have a conscience and are not motivated solely by greed.

Fred Spannaus - Decatur, Illinois
Great timing! My church recently formed a Peace & Justice Task Force. Just two days ago we decided to educate ourselves (and our congregation) about fair trade coffee as our first project. You have provided us with a wonderful resource! I'm switching.

Anonymous - West Trenton, New Jersey
I have begun to buy fair trade coffee and knew that it was more eco-friendly than regular coffee. However I did not know the true impact of my purchase until I saw this documentary. After watching this, fair trade coffee is all that I will buy from now on. Thank you for your reporting on issues that matter and for showing me how I can make a difference.

Susan Stouffer Los Angeles, California
I think there should be more efforts like Fair Trade Coffee to support the growers. It seems like they do the hardest work and get the least amount of profit. Coffee drinkers can create a market to support such efforts by demanding Fair Trade Coffee.

Ron Miller Richmond, Virginia
Thanks for your airing of this important information on Fair-trade coffee. It is a very important issue. Our local parish is beginning a new outreach ministry by selling Fair-Trade coffee, by the bag, after mass. All profits will be sent back to the coffee farmer cooperatives in South America. We can change our world one cup of coffee at a time!

John Hopkins Cambria Heights, New York
I had heard of fair trade before but I forgot about it. Of course, I think it's a great concept and fair to those who survive on the land. This is especially for luxury items that command high prices in the states.

Sherrie Vandeputte - Ortonville, Michigan
While low prices are indeed painful to coffee growers in Guatemala, let's not ignore the factors that lead to these low prices. Wouldn't it be more helpful to face the reality of greater global competition, new production techniques, and to explore efforts to become more diversified?

Patrick Machulski - Phoenix, Illinois
The subject is an eye opener. I didn't realise the growers were being ripped off by the Roasters (Folger, Nescafe, Maxwell house, etc.) In fact jacking up the price for the comsumers to "comsume". From this day on, I am buying Fair Trade coffee. I will be on the look out for Green Mountain coffee.

Tara Seeley - Indianapolis, Indiana
Thank you for this story and for the excellent web site work on fair trade coffee. I work with a fair trade store which sells fair trade products, including coffee, and we are always encouraged when fair trade receives press. We are convinced that there is a huge community out there which, once educated, will consistently buy fair trade coffee.

Daniel Riggins - Atlanta, Georgia
I believe that fair trade coffee is a great concept, but what about the small farmers who can't afford to be certified. There are lots of great coffees out there that are traded fairly but can not afford the cost of being certified every year.

Dolores Pfeiffer - Seattle, Washington
I am grateful to PBS for airing information regarding Fair Trade in relation to coffee growers. I will certainly support these people in their effort to survive by purchasing Fair Trade coffee's. Maybe this is one small way we can all unite to assist others in third world countries to feed their families and maintain their dignity. -One cup at a time.-

Anonymous - Salinas, California
I found this story to be the most interesting way to benefit Consumer Country, USA, and still benefit the most forgotten of the working poor in Third World Countries. The flaws can be worked on, in the meantime, I intend to purchase as many Fair Trade goods as possible, and I am retired, on a limited income. It is the least I can do, for the children of the world. Thank you for showing this incredibly worthwhile story.

Anonymous - Minneapolis, Minnesota
It was very interesting to watch and listen to what these farmers from Guetamala and Mexico are going thru. I am originally from Kiambu, Kenya a coffee growing region and even though now I live and work in here in the US, I can relate to what these coffee farmers are going thru because it is the same in my country. Currently I am trying to market Kenyan coffee here in the US to see if I can help coffee farmers get better prices in Kenya as well. This T.V. show gave me some insights and I thank you for that.

Anonymous - Scarborough, Maine
I thoroughly enjoyed the feature on coffee in Guatemala and Fair Trade. I'd seen the Fair Trade labels around, but I NEVER understood the implications of choosing Fair Trade over other coffees. After watching, I will not be buying anything else. Thank you for helping me to understand.

Pete Martinez - Gaylordsville, Connecticut
Thank you for airing the importance of fair trade in a global economy. People should realize that for the economies of Guatemala and Mexico to become self sufficient we must encourage fair trade. Doing this will help dignify people and enable them to become active participants in the global economy.