Frontline World

GUATEMALA/MEXICO, Fair Grounds, 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




The Story
Woman holding basket of coffee berries, Man smelling coffee, Coffee grower

Watch VideoIn 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 family savings.

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 the middleman.

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 season.

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 perfectionists.

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 soon.

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Sam Quinones

Joe Rubin

Kim Roberts
Michael H. Amundson

"La Petrona" by
Dueto de Tinito y Porfirio,
Courtesy of Discos Corason