the highlands of Guatemala and southern Mexico, verdant coffee
fields were once the agricultural mainstay for millions of people.
Now families who have grown coffee for generations are fleeing
the fields for the city or the border, and entire estates stand
empty, frozen in time. FRONTLINE/World's Sam Quinones
went to Central America to uncover why this happening and if
there's any hope for change.
Quinones's journey begins in the highlands of Guatemala, at
a classic coffee plantation, Finca dos Marias. With its grand
house and about a thousand employees at harvest time, the ranch seems
to be an idyllic example of what made Guatemala a coffee republic.
But with coffee prices at historic lows, owner Mireya Jones
reveals that she's actually keeping the farm afloat only through
Jones takes Quinones to the neighboring Baluarte estate,
now abandoned by the family who simply couldn't afford to keep
growing coffee. They enter a large, beautiful hacienda that
now sits empty. While no one lives in the house, a few hundred
workers have taken over the estate and formed a coffee cooperative.
It seemed like a good idea, but now the cooperative has bags
and bags of coffee and nowhere to sell them.
The problem is what is known as the international coffee crisis.
Simply put, there's too much cheap coffee flooding the market
these days. It comes from countries such as Brazil and, more
recently, Vietnam, which have been using massive agribusiness
techniques. Record low coffee prices have devastated long-standing
coffee producers such as Guatemala. Coffee was once the country's
No. 1 source of cash -- now more money comes from emigrants
sending money home from the United States.
Quinones carries on through the highlands to the small town
of La Reforma. Like the farm he just left, this town has been
all but abandoned. One of the few farmers he meets tells him
he's had to take his children out of school to make ends meet.
Like many in their position, another farmer Quinones meets plans
to try to cross illegally into the United States.
More than 200,000 people in the Guatemalan coffee industry have
lost jobs in the last three years alone, but the story is not entirely
a sad one. Quinones finds a
small glimmer of hope in a group of buyers from the specialty
coffee industry who have come on a trip to Guatemala with some
ideas about helping small farmers weather the crisis.
Bob Stiller, president of Vermont coffee company Green Mountain,
is on the trip, as is Nell Newman, Paul Newman's daughter
and head of Newman's Own Organics. As Quinones and the group
fly to the shores of Lake Atitlan, their pilot points out one
abandoned coffee field after another. When they arrive, it's
not hard to find people suffering from the crisis.
One farmer tells them he's making 7 cents a pound for
his coffee, far below what it costs to grow it. Because he lives
in a town surrounded by volcanoes on one side and a lake on
the other, the man has no way to get his beans to market. His
only choice is to sell to middlemen, also known as coyotes, who
keep any profit for themselves.
But higher up in the mountains, Quinones and his companions
visit an organic cooperative, where coffee farmers are actually
prospering. These small family farmers follow the environmental
guidelines for what is known as fair trade. In turn, they are
able to sell their coffee for a worldwide standard $1.26 per
pound. They sell directly to fair trade buyers, cutting out
Though fair trade coffee accounts for only 1 percent of coffee
sold in the United States, Quinones is still able to see some tangible
benefits in Guatemala. He speaks to a farmer who has been able
to send his son to university in Guatemala City. Other farmers
are looking into buying the equipment to process their own coffee,
in order to increase their profit margins.
But one of the difficulties that fair trade buyers face is
that so much of their own success depends on the final cup-quality
of the coffee they buy. Growers are lining up to sell them organic
coffee, but if the taste doesn't measure up, the buyers are
hard-pressed to make a purchase. And so the tasting process
becomes a critical make-or-break step for many farmers, and
failure of the taste test can mean taking a loss on an entire
And so up in Veracruz, Mexico, Quinones visits a coffee mill
cooperative, where workers sift through beans very carefully,
looking for the one bad bean that can spoil a hundred pounds
of coffee. Mexico has traditionally focused on producing the
cheap coffee, but with the newfound demand for premium coffee,
mill workers have had to reinvent themselves into quality control
Traveling deep in the Sierra Madre mountains, Quinones comes
to Pluma Oaxaca, where fair trade buyer Dave Griswold has brought
in grinders, presses and tasting devices to the Zapotec Indians.
His hope is that by turning these people into gourmet coffee
connoisseurs, they will find more success as gourmet coffee
farmers -- a bit ironic in that most Mexicans are not big coffee
drinkers. The local cooperative welcomes Griswold with music
and dancing. In turn, he shows them how to make coffee. As Quinones
observes, it's a bizarre scene. "You could see these folks as
modern-day conquistadores, " he notes, "converting Zapotec
Indians to the cause of quality coffee instead of Christianity.
But to survive this crisis, growing and marketing top-quality
coffee is exactly what these people have to learn."
Quinones's journey ends in the urban metropolis of Mexico City,
where he lives. Here, the first Starbucks in all of Latin America
has just opened. As Quinones watches customers line up for lattes
and frappuccinos, it becomes clear that for Starbucks there
isn't a crisis at all.
In the United States, Starbucks staged a coffee revolution
of its own, drawing millions of customers by treating coffee
as a special drink for which it could charge more. "In the current
crisis," Quinones observes, "peasant coffee growers have to
learn the Starbucks lesson and focus on quality. Consumers,
meanwhile, have to be willing to pay extra for the best coffee,
searching out regional coffees, the way they do with wine."
But that day's a long way off. Even those consumers who like
good coffee don't know where it comes from. And many haven't
even heard of the fair trade concept. Until all that changes,
the international coffee crisis may not be going away anytime
back to top
Michael H. Amundson
"La Petrona" by
Dueto de Tinito y Porfirio,
Courtesy of Discos Corason