Frontline World

GUATEMALA/MEXICO, Coffee Country, May 2003

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "Coffee Country"

Follow the Bean

Covering Bitter Grounds

History of Coffee, Fair Trade, Economics

Background on the Coffee Crisis




Interview With Sam Quinones: Covering Coffee Country
What was a reporter who can't stand the taste of coffee doing on a FRONTLINE/World report about the world coffee crisis? Sam Quinones, based in Mexico City for the last nine years, set out to understand the point of view of coffee farmers, who are now at the mercy of a collapsed global coffee economy. Quinones is the author of a book on modern Mexico -- True Tales From Another Mexico: The Lynch Mob, the Popsicle Kings, Chalino and the Bronx (University of New Mexico Press, 2001) -- and frequent contributor to such newspapers as the Los Angeles Times, The Baltimore Sun, the Houston Chronicle, and the San Francisco Chronicle. He was interviewed in May 2003 by Web editor Douglas Foster.

Reporter Sam Quinones looks out of a helicopter

Reporter Sam Quinones looks out of a helicopter flying above the highlands of Guatemala.

So what it was like to do a story about coffee when you can't stand to drink the stuff?

It was strange, like entering a world I really had no idea about. All my life I've been surrounded by coffee, like anybody else. But I just didn't know much about the economy of coffee or how the industry divided up between the low-grade stuff and the specialty stuff like the kind that the people grow who we were traveling to visit. I still don't know how to make a cup of coffee, nor do I really care to learn.

How have you gotten through life without it?

It's just vile. The only time I ever tasted coffee was when I lived in San Francisco. I was working as a courier, driving trucks and delivering packages. I had a drive that started at 11 o'clock at night. I drove from San Francisco down to Fresno, took a bunch of boxes and dropped them off and then came back. I was afraid of falling asleep so I just guzzled some coffee. It tasted like paint thinner or something. It was just God-awful coffee.

I think that explains it: You had early aversion therapy.

Exactly. I lived in Seattle, too, for 14 months. I was surrounded by this coffee culture that had nothing to do with me.

Before doing this piece you'd been to a remote coffee-growing village in the highlands in Mexico, right?

I did a story about a coffee cooperative high up in the mountains of Chiapas, far away from any markets and connected to the world by just one road and one public telephone booth. The villagers there were having a terrible time. They faced low prices, and they had no way of getting their goods to market and had trouble in finding buyers. But they had this very good quality coffee. What they most wanted in life -- their great wish -- was for an Internet connection and a Web site.

Reporter Sam Quinones with a struggling
coffee farmer

Reporter Sam Quinones, near Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, with a struggling coffee farmer who receives just 7 cents per pound of coffee that he grows.

They thought that having an Internet connection would allow them to bypass exploitative middlemen?

Exactly right. This was in Chiapas, the beginning of the worldwide globalization debate. When the Zapatistas rose up in 1994, that was really the first significant protest against globalization. Seattle, Prague and other places had these large demonstrations later. But the first place that people began discussing the direction that globalization was taking was in the highlands of Chiapas with the Zapatista rebellion. So I found it very interesting that a lot of Indians were not saying, "We don't want globalization." What they were actually saying was, "We don't have the tools to participate, we don't have the telephone lines, we don't have the roads, we don't have the tools of connectivity to be able to take advantage of globalization." That's certainly what this particular cooperative was saying. And why wouldn't (they) want to be able to sell (their) coffee [directly] to a distributor in the city of Puebla or in the city of Dallas and get five times more? A lot of the money that's made in coffee stays in those middle rungs. The growers do not have trucks or a fax machine or a telephone line.

The results look pretty stark for coffee farmers all over Central America. That's a startling scene when we see you rattling around that abandoned coffee plantation in the highlands of Guatemala.

We'd gone to this gorgeous, very large estate, Dos Marias, up in the highlands of Guatemala. It was owned by a woman whose grandfather or great-grandfather actually started the thing. She was showing us around her estate, and then she said, "Of course, all around us we have all these abandoned estates." It was a very natural thing to walk a couple of miles down the road and come to this town that had thinned out because of the coffee crisis. These large estates used to employ hundreds of workers. I found one estate where the workers had actually taken it over after the owner had deeded it to the bank. The bank said: "We don't want it." It was this enormous, gorgeous place.

That estate, like many others, had been abandoned, but the workers had formed a cooperative. They'd gone ahead on their own and brought another crop to harvest -- but then had no buyers.

They lack marketing ability, they don't know who to sell it to. [They grow] great coffee -- but they don't know how to run a business. They don't have the trucks, they don't have the contacts. They're kind of isolated up there -- and that's their biggest problem.

Coffee farmers in the town of La Reforma

Coffee farmers in the town of La Reforma in Guatemala explain to reporter Sam Quinones how the depressed coffee market has affected their families.

As the price of coffee falls, these workers get thrown off the land. I understand you managed to find the ex-workers from that one estate and follow them to Guatemala City?

This was just basic reporting. I began to talk with people. I lived in Mexico for quite a long time and found that the more you simply talk with people, things come out. If it's an official interview, they may freeze up. This one fellow told me, "Yeah, I know all these people have left for Guatemala City." He also said that a lot of people from that village have immigrated to Maywood, California, which I know pretty well. It's a little suburb outside of Los Angeles. There's also an entire apartment complex in Mount Pleasant, near Washington, D.C., filled top to bottom with Guatemalans working in construction or whatever it happens to be.

That's an astonishing migration when you think about it -- from nearly feudal conditions in the highlands of Guatemala to work in the construction trades in the United States.

It's doubly hard because a lot of these folks don't speak Spanish that well. They speak a Mayan Indian dialect of one kind or another. So when they immigrate, whether to the United States or Guatemala City or wherever, they're in a country where they don't speak either Spanish or English very well.

It's must be quite a contrast to see those images of the slum they end up in in Guatemala City after the pastoral beauty of the highlands they've left behind.

I've been to many shanty towns now. The one thing that you find in every one is the smell of burning plastic. It's a universal smell. The reason they burn plastic is that there's not enough electricity. There may be some electricity but maybe not enough. But they need to cook things, and there's just not enough wood. So people burn whatever is about, and so they burn soda bottles. There's an overwhelming acrid, fetid smell of burning plastic. This smell, to me, means total desperation.

In many shanty towns I've seen in Mexico City they've at least had some kind of sewer drainage. There were no sewers of any kind in Nuevo Amanecer which means "New Dawn." It was this milky kind of gray water filled with who-knows-what just running downhill.

It sounds incredibly grim.

Yes, but the thing that struck me was that people will tell you. "This is great. This is wonderful. This is so much better than what we had back there." It's called New Dawn for God's sake. Why? Because at least there's work here. People are close to schools. You're close to some kind of health care. People may not be thrilled and jumping for joy, but certainly that's a better life -- (even though) they now live in the middle of this squalor and burning plastic -- than, unfortunately, the life they led up in this pastoral spot, with clean air and birds chirping and the whole bit. It was a beautiful place they had to leave, and now they live in urban global-economy hell.

I wondered what you thought about the idea of fair trade when you first started working on this story.

I may have been viewed as a bit of the cynical reporter. I thought, "OK, a bunch of do-gooders coming down to enlighten the poor people of the world so they can feel good about it."

Sam Quinones and Mareya Jones

Reporter Sam Quinones and Mareya Jones, owner of a coffee plantation in Guatemala, Finca dos Marias.

So it wasn't exactly with an open mind that you took on the story?

I was willing to listen.

What happened to that original skepticism as you reported the story out?

I came to understand the concept. Now I believe that it's an idea that needs to be applied more broadly. Consumers need to apply it to their daily lives and their consuming habits -- not just with regard to coffee.

The rest of us, particularly in the United States, live thoroughly globalized in one sense yet totally ignorant of the rest of the world. If we want these quality products, we cannot simply continue to be so ignorant and indifferent. Our consuming habits have an effect on people elsewhere. If we would insist on making our dollar count, in a social or a political fashion, it could actually help us too.

So you started as a skeptic and ended a true believer?

I'm not sure I'm a true believer. There are certain limitations with the fair trade movement. One of the limitations is that sometimes the people who buy it ghetto-ize themselves -- it's viewed as this product that's only for the hippie-dippy, cool people of Santa Cruz or Seattle or Marin County or wherever, when actually I think it ought to be marketed in a more mainstream way.

What were your impressions of the fair trade buyers from the United States -- people like Bob Stiller of Green Mountain and Nel Newman from Newman's Own?

After living in Mexico for a long time, I had come to know the country pretty well. These people didn't know (Mexico), or Central America at all, didn't speak the language, and it would be easy to criticize them for that. But I thought it was impressive that they wanted to learn. Sometimes on the trip there was a sense of a clash of cultures -- these tall gringos coming to this small village of indigenous people. But that's wonderful. Some people may view it cynically. At some points it did seem there was too big of a gap to bridge.

You didn't skate past those moments.

That was part of the story. In this coffee crisis that's what needs to happen. These companies up in the states need to come down and find out who's growing their coffee. Consumers ought to do the same. I don't see why there shouldn't be a coffee tour for tourists just like they have up there in Napa Valley in the Wine Country. Why not take a coffee tour?

The coffee crisis really offers Mexico and Guatemala an opportunity now. Both these countries have always focused on low-quality beans, cheap labor goods, the stuff that is the easiest, cheapest, crappiest stuff to make. That's what they've focused on as their route to so-called development in the last 30 years -- sewing factories and all that kind of stuff. The coffee crisis, if people will look at it this way, offers them a great opportunity to develop high-quality products.

There's one rather tense scene in your report when the taster for Green Mountain tests the coffee while the farmers stand around waiting for her verdict.

That was a little strange. I had no idea that they actually tasted coffee the way you taste wine. I felt that this was a good thing for these growers, though. They have to understand that if you grow something that's got to [have a rating of] 75 and what they've produced is 73, you lose. Don't grow that stuff.

After the tasting came the weirdest image -- a gringo importer setting up a grinder and a French coffee roaster to show the farmers how people in the First World use their beans.

The farmers looked like it took an exercise of discipline to pretend they liked the taste -- one farmer says: "Oh, that's so strong."

Sure, it's a foreign taste. To grow higher quality beans, it's good to know what target you're aiming for. If they grow lower-quality coffee they will eventually lose their farms and have to migrate. It's a question of survival. No question, it looks very bizarre. It's one of those culture shocks -- you see these gringos come into town and they're all tall and it looks like a Second Conquest.

And we know how that particular kind of story usually ends.

This one is a little different. If you want to make a living, if you want to be able to sell your coffee at $1.26 a pound instead of 20 cents a pound, which will end up driving you into some other profession, then you have to know these issues. So it gets down to some things as small as a coffee grinder, a coffee roaster, a French press and figuring out how to brew a cup of coffee that you've never had before and understanding, "Oh, this is what they want." Because two, three bad beans in a sack of coffee ruins the whole thing.

Is that the take-away message of the piece?

For me, the piece ends up being less about fair trade and more about the idea that Indian peasant coffee growers in the highlands have to understand the world better. One thing they have to learn is how to make a good cup of coffee, which is ironic.

Peasant farmers who have been isolated need to understand who their consumers are, and they need to mature as businessmen and marketers and exporters, and they need to learn these kinds of things. They need to become connected to the world, and ironically, the more connected to the world they are in that way, the more they'll be able to preserve their own unique culture, their language.

It's only when they're economically destitute and thrown out into the world -- as poor migrant farm workers, landscapers in Maywood, California, restaurant workers in Washington, D.C. -- that's when they begin to lose their culture. It's when they're actually able to stay in their region and live and thrive and do well and not have to worry if their children are dying of rickets that their culture is actually able to thrive. So, ironically -- one of the great ironies of all this -- is the more time they spend learning to connect up to the world, the more chances Indian culture will have of surviving and thriving.

Sam Quinones at the very first Starbucks to open in Latin America

Reporter Sam Quinones at the very first Starbucks outlet to open in Latin America, located in Mexico City.

So what does the American consumer need to learn?

The message to the consumer is your dollars have an impact far beyond the store where you buy your consumer items -- your coffee or your T-shirts. It behooves you in the long run to think more deeply about those decisions. There are very good reasons, self-interested reasons, why it's good for you to buy coffee that's a bit higher priced. If you care about the development of these countries, which I do and I think a lot of people do, you cannot buy cut-rate coffee and still have thousands of coffee farmers across Mexico and Guatemala continue in business.

You have to go in and demand from your supermarket placement for fair trade coffee. Where's the specialty, where's the organic coffee? Because fair trade means that the coffee grower is getting a livable wage.

You end your journey back in Mexico City -- at a Starbucks.

Some people will be upset at me for saying that Starbucks is actually doing a pretty good thing. Starbucks teaches people how to differentiate between high-quality and cheapo coffee. It's like the difference between the guy who goes in and orders some cheap bottle of wine -- Thunderbird, Ernest & Julio, whatever -- and the other guy who goes in and orders a $10 bottle of zinfandel or merlot that's grown with high-quality grapes. So far, fair trade coffee is only a tiny portion of what Starbucks sells, and only if you know to ask for it. But that's a symbol of what needs to happen worldwide. People need to understand, and then start asking for and demanding only good-quality coffee and paying a little bit more for it. Starbucks has begun to implant that culture, at least in the United States.

You sound like you've been sold. So there's still hope for the coffee industry in winning you over one day as a customer?

Nope, sorry. Not a chance.

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