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 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
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, 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
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
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."
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
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
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
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
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.
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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