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Robbing coffee from the poor?

hildebrandt-amber-52.jpg
by Amber Hildebrandt, CBCNews.ca

Guatemala is no small player in the world of coffee. But you wouldn’t know it from the cup of Joe plopped on your table at most restaurants.

As I discovered on my recent trip to the Central American country, insipid watery brews abound. And I couldn’t help but wonder whether I was to blame?

coffee-cup.jpg
A cup of weak coffee at a restaurant in Antigua. (Amber Hildebrandt/CBC)

Most of Guatemala’s best coffee gets exported, with most going to discerning drinkers in the United States. (A large chunk ends up getting sold at Starbucks for several bucks a cup.)

Anacafe, the Guatemalan coffee bean growers association, reported last year that more than 3.7 million 60-kilogram bags of coffee beans were exported in the 2006-2007 growing season.

About 400,000 bags of lower-quality coffee was kept for local production.

The fact that locals get little opportunity to enjoy their superb coffee quickly became evident to my travel companion (a former Starbucks barista) and I as we travelled the country.

Every morning, we went out on our bleary-eyed search for the perfect cup. Soon enough we gave up on café quality, desperate for anything that resembled anything other than instant. Exceptions to the rule (thankfully) were found in touristy sites, such as restaurants run by foreigners or on the coffee plantations.

At one coffee plantation we toured near the colonial town of Antigua, white blossoms had just begun to appear on the shade-grown coffee bean trees.

Workers, meanwhile, scrubbed away at the machinery dirtied by the last harvest. In the warehouses, large canvas bags of green beans were piled high to the ceiling.

Tempted, I asked my guide if I could buy one. He laughed.

Despite having a hankering to steal away some green beans for myself, I couldn't escape the irony of ‘coffee, coffee everywhere and not a drop to spare’ for the local population. It does beg the question: how fair is it that we're hogging all the good stuff?

Don't the locals deserve to enjoy some of their high-quality coffee?

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Comments

Lily Erlic

canada

Coffee in Canada is superb in the specialty coffee houses. I feel better when I buy fair trade coffee and I know the farmer is supporting her family. I can drink the coffee knowing that she can put food on her table for her and her loved ones.

Posted June 10, 2008 12:55 PM

wade

toronto

"Don't the locals deserve to enjoy some of their high-quality coffee?"

deserve it? Yes.

afford it? No.

Much like us and oil...

Posted June 10, 2008 03:52 PM

Starship

Montreal

Yes, you and I are to blame.
Your cup of coffee, shoes, clothes, etc. has been handled by the very less fortunate to be purchased by another bunch of less fortunate (us,as we get ripped off and get sucked into buying for outrageous prices...suckers!
However it's been as such for many many years.
My philosphy is that the true problem is us, the consumer. Because of our demands we created a non stop vicious cirle. We feed the powerful people and deprive the poor.
We have gone too far, disconected from reality and live in a material world.
Money is spent on the un necesities of life ,we don't value things as they used to in the old days.
There is too much out there.
If we boycotted or were careful about our choices it might make a difference.
Greed is the word.

Posted June 10, 2008 05:32 PM

Gregory Hunter

This is a common phenomenon. It is frequently difficult to buy good produce in the producing region, because the good stuff brings the best prices. Perhaps the locals would prefer to have the things that their coffee earnings can buy rather than the coffee itself.

Posted June 10, 2008 09:06 PM

Greg James

Ottawa

In economics this is known as opportunity costs: essentially, choices have to be made. They can consume it or they can sell it. The fact that they choose to sell it means that for them it is more valuable to have the cash than to be drinking nice coffee.

And that's fine. Plenty of people here in Canada make the same decision, choosing cash in the pocket instead of expensive coffee.

Remember, this is a cash crop. These are farmers growing a crop to sell. If we stopped buying it (lowering the price), they wouldn't keep putting the same resources into making nice coffee for the local market. They would switch to a crop that they could sell for the most profit.

Posted June 11, 2008 08:31 AM

Roger

I don't know how difficult it is to buy produce in the producing region, seeing as how things like shipping and middlemen aren't necessary. I think it's important to buy locally, and to try eating what's in season instead of importing so much. But that's beside the point. Regarding coffee, I think it's true that we have created a divide between us as consumers and poorer countries as producers, to the extent that they are unable to justify drinking coffee they could sell to feed their families. That's why things like Fair Trade and UZT Certification are so important, and hopefully people will be much more aware of what they buy, and be willing to pay a higher (and more just) price. Just like how "Organic" seems to be the hot trend.

Posted June 11, 2008 08:56 AM

Joe

Drawing from personal experience - my girlfriend's father happens to be a coffee farmer in Coban, Guatemala - we drink nothing but the best while we're there, straight from the farm. Aside from what is sold onto the market, a few bags 50 kilo bags of green beans are held onto to for personal consumption and to be sold to locals, primarily friends, and friends of friends.

So, good coffee is available for local consumption, just not on a large scale. As was mentioned earlier, this is an issue of opportunity cost. You keep what you and your friends need, and sell the rest. Finding that "perfect cup" in Guate is definitely a matter of who you know.

And just to put the cost of things in perspective for everyone, Starbucks pays $1 per pound (green beans) for certified shade grown, hard-bean, fair trade coffee from Guatemalan farmers. 1lb of beans ends up making about 20 to 30 cups of coffee at Starbuck's where we pay $2 per cup. They make $40-$60 per pound, making the margins astronomical.

Posted June 11, 2008 01:18 PM

Michael

The canonical response to this is "the shoemaker's children have no shoes". With almost any commodity you can name, it is more profitable to sell it elsewhere than keep it for yourself. Whether we talk at the micro scale with the proverbial shoemaker or at the macro scale like Guatemalan coffee or Canadian oil the maxim proves itself fairly robust.

Posted June 12, 2008 04:58 AM

Stan Harris

Joe wrote:

"Starbucks pays $1 per pound (green beans) for certified shade grown, hard-bean, fair trade coffee from Guatemalan farmers. 1lb of beans ends up making about 20 to 30 cups of coffee at Starbuck's where we pay $2 per cup. They make $40-$60 per pound, making the margins astronomical."

When you say "margins" I assume you mean profit margins.

In fairness to Starbucks and other retailers, there is much more than the cost of the raw or roasted beans that goes into the cost of operating a business, like rent, wages, utilities, non-food supplies, taxes and so on.

All these costs have to be factored in before determining the profit margin. Starbucks profit margins would be good, else why bother to run a business? Their profits would not, however, qualify as astronomical.

Posted June 16, 2008 03:58 PM

Mary Anne Goodman

A Brazilian collegue has told me the same thing about fruit in her home country.
It would seem they export all the good stuff.
But just to play the devil's lawyer:
Canada is the largest grower and exporter of mustard seed in the world - the French import it from Canada to create their famous Dijon mustard - It's unfortunate that Canada does not produce anything really marvelous with our
'cash crop' that would make us world famous for the mustard we grow. I'd like to say they prefer bad coffee like Canadians prefer bad mustard - but we all know that's not possible.
A good cup of coffee is a good cup of coffee.

Posted July 7, 2008 08:02 AM

Josh

Same scenario applies to Peru and Bolivia. While known more for Cocoa teas than Coffee, both countries produce excellent coffees. However, when you travel within them you will be hard-pressed to find anything other than instant coffee... or "nescafe" named after the popular brand of instant coffee by Nestle. I buy green beans from both countries often and was pretty bummed out about the lack of fresh coffee while traveling down there.

Posted August 13, 2008 04:17 PM

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Amber Hildebrandt Amber Hildebrandt writes for CBCNews.ca in Toronto. Growing up on a farm in Manitoba, she acquired an insatiable appetite, but it was during a stint in Japan that she developed her discerning tastebuds and "foodie" ways.

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