Sitting down to a cup of coffee with Father James Flynn isn’t just a social encounter. It’s a political statement. An athletic but graying 74-year-old from Louisville, Ky., Flynn’s voice is soft, but there’s a strain of stubborn defiance under his dulcet tone.
There are few customers here at this hour of the morning in a small restaurant on the outskirts of Park City. The place seems barely open. Father Flynn asks, in gravelly but flawless Spanish, to speak to the manager. The Spanish-speaking kitchen staff glance up from their preparations, and the “acting manager,” a plump young woman, takes time away to field the question of a customer. Flynn goes to work.
“What kind of coffee do you guys serve here?,” Flynn asks.
“I’m not sure,” the woman responds.
Quiet determination darts from the Diocesan priest’s eyes. He presents a wealth of information: pamphlets, first-hand accounts, and the prices (and humanitarian costs) of various coffees. Flynn is thoroughly thanked by the young woman. The door closes with a jingle behind us.
“Â¿Exito?” I ask. “Success?”
Flynn laughs. “We won’t know for a while now, will we?”
Robbed Into Near Starvation
Ordained at the age of 25, Father Flynn has spent much of his life combining theology with activism. He believes in compassion above all else, and uses that ethic in pursuit of justice. In the late 1960s, decades before making his way to Park City’s New St. Mary’s Church, he joined the anti-war movement and spoke out against U.S. presence in Vietnam. In the aftermath of that conflict, he began to see war as an artifact of something else. “War is a by-product of corrupt economic policies,” he says.
He campaigned on behalf of exploited workers in Cuba, Colombia, Nicaragua and Mexico. It was often a difficult and fruitless labor. But the effort to garner a living wage and fair treatment for the working poor was not an idle gesture. Now, he has taken the moral high ground in the struggle against a different enemy. A frequent visitor to Central America, Flynn has learned firsthand that coffee farmers in the region are being robbed by an unlikely bandit: the American coffee drinker.
Actually, that depends on the coffee you buy. But Flynn knows one thing for certain: “Friends of mine face starvation because the coffee they pick is worth less than the cost of picking it.”
The Price Isn’t Right
Twenty years ago, the majority of coffee drinkers in the United States brewed already ground, canned coffee a la Folgers or Maxwell House. The coffee market has grown steadily for 40 years. But few could have imagined the explosive growth in the “coffee beverage industry” over the past 10 years. In addition to regular joe, the market is flooded with specialty brands, exotic imports, gourmets, espressos, extracts and frozen concoctions. In fact, after oil, coffee is today the second-largest U.S. import. North Americans drink one-fifth of the world’s supply of coffee, making our nation the world’s largest consumer of that beverage.
The coffee market is undoubtedly an empire. But few U.S. java drinkers are aware that agricultural workers in coffee-producing countries often toil in what Flynn describes as “sweatshops in the fields,” or that the coffee industry is frequently cited for fostering conditions akin to slavery.
According to the global humanitarian think tank Oxfam International, the world is currently in the throes of a “coffee catastrophe.” Hailed as “the worst coffee crisis of the last 100 years” by Latin American heads of state, the immediate cause is a glut of coffee beans on the world market that has driven down prices. Export prices for coffee have dipped to their lowest point in over a century. That means extremely hard times for countries like Nicaragua, where nearly one-third of the workforce is either fully or partially dependent on income linked to coffee production. As a result, coffee farmers now sell their beans for much less than it cost to produce them. Oxfam estimates that 25 million small coffee producers live on the edge of bare subsistence.
Currently, most of the money being made in the coffee industry goes to First World importers and corrupt middle buyers known in Latin America as “coyotes.” Coyotes are notorious for exploiting farmers by forcing them to sell at deflated prices, sometimes with an implicit threat of violence.
“But for just 5 or 10 cents more per pound of coffee, you can improve, if not save, the lives of countless individuals,” Flynn says.
As the price of coffee continues its plummet, Flynn sees more economic loss on the way for coffee farmers. “You’ll see people in these villages dependent upon coffee [who are] dangerously thin and undernourished. But they keep working. There is nothing else for them to do,” he says.
“You can watch the market being manipulated to the benefit of everyone but the producers and the natural environment. Why?” he asks.
But he sees hope in recent corporate trends. “There are plenty of companies whose ethical standards prohibit them from the type of exploitation we see rampant in Central America,” Flynn says. “But more people need to become conscious consumers and understand the moral implications of their purchases.”
Flynn believes fair-trade-certified coffee is the answer to the ethical dilemmas that could be lurking in coffee cups everywhere.
Taking Over the Coffee Social
The fair-trade movement started in the late 1980s in an attempt to change people’s buying habits. The express goal was to help exploited producers sell their commodities to earn a stable, living wage using culturally and environmentally friendly methods. Fair trade encompasses a range of goods, from agricultural commodities like coffee and chocolate to handcrafted items such as clothing and decorative arts.
Fair-trade commodities are certified by nonprofit organizations in 17 countries, all of which affiliate with an umbrella group based in Bonn, Germany, called Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International. Its U.S. agency, TransFair USA, was founded in 1998.
The worldwide goal of fair trade, according to Father Flynn, is to change the entire economic system “using its own apparatus.”
“[It] utilizes the existing economic infrastructure to change the ways companies, producers and consumers see business,” says Flynn. “It is an industry with good intentions at heart, and the extra cost is minimal to the consumer.”
Father Flynn doesn’t just say this. He preaches it from the pulpit.
Marcy and Tom McIntosh, parishioners at St. Mary’s Church in Park City, were unaware of the conditions under which coffee farmers worked in the Third World—until they heard one of Flynn’s Sunday morning messages.
“We took over the monthly coffee social at church and had fair-trade coffee to serve as well as purchase, and literature for those who were interested in learning more,” Marcy McIntosh said.
For coffee to become “fair-trade certified,” an importer must meet stringent international criteria. Primarily this means paying a fair price, which currently translates to about $1.26 per pound—just 5 cents above the prevailing market price for conventionally farmed coffee. Because coffee is harvested only once or twice a year, purchasing companies also must commit to giving pre-harvest credit to farmers so they can make ends meet until the crop comes in. Finally, the buyers are expected to provide assistance implementing environmental protection plans, with the ultimate goal of organically farming all fair-trade coffee.
Father Flynn’s experience with coffee growers goes back to the 1980s, when he frequently traveled to Nicaragua as an independent witness to atrocities committed by the unpopular, U.S.-backed counterrevolutionary Contras. The group formed after the revolutionary Sandinista government made sweeping changes to the country, including a mass de-privatization of land. Rich farm acreage—including coffee plantations—were taken from the hands of the wealthy elite and handed over to peasant collectives.
The Reagan administration viewed these changes as a threat to U.S. economic interests in Latin America. “Soon millions and millions of dollars were going into the hands of a murderous group of rebels,” says Flynn. “Many in the Catholic Church in Nicaragua were begging for the cessation of aid to these right-wing militias, and many of these same people were then slaughtered.”
According to congressional records, the Contras “raped, tortured and killed unarmed civilians, including children,” and “groups of civilians, including women and children, were burned, dismembered, blinded and beheaded.”
The situation in Nicaragua, it turns out, was a bellwether for the entire region. Many of the same woes Father Flynn had witnessed in Nicaragua were becoming manifest in El Salvador. In 1989, the Salvadoran military entered the grounds of the University of Central America in San Salvador with orders to assassinate Jesuit priests calling for an end to countrywide massacres.
“They brutally murdered six Jesuits,” Flynn says. “And since the soldiers were under orders to [leave] no witnesses, they then murdered the housekeeper and her 16-year-old daughter. I have been to the place. It is holy ground.”
Three days after the story of the massacre ran in U.S. newspapers, Father Flynn received a death threat. An envelope without a return address arrived at his Louisville parish containing a collage of pictures of the murdered Jesuits on the ground. “This is what happens to your commie buddies, Jimmy—you’re next,” the note said. There was no return address.
Flynn took the card to the FBI, but an investigation turned up nothing. “I’m still here, 14 years later,” says Flynn, “still in the struggle.”
Why this short history lesson? It led Flynn to the conviction that political repression and economic repression often have the same effect on people. Only today, political strife and violence in Latin America has been replaced by what Flynn describes as “the violence of poverty.”
“Living under the rule of a large, self-interested U.S. corporation today is hardly better than living at the mercy of a U.S.-sponsored Death Squad,” he says. “America’s foreign policy, and trade agreements that support the rights of corporations over the rights of workers, are at fault here. The best method we have at our disposal to force their hand is our refusal to buy their products.”
Father Flynn describes the link between 1980s Central America and the coffee Americans drink this way: “Coffee producers, coffee pickers and coffee fields were main targets for the Contras during the war in Nicaragua—since coffee was one of their principal exports. I saw with my own eyes the damage that the Contras did to the coffee production, and to a people already spiritually destroyed by impoverishment and oppression. It was the destruction of a country. I couldn’t stand by idly then, and I can’t now.”
But the collapse of the USSR and a diminishing “communist threat,” has put Central America in a position of “invisibility.”
“Large companies, middlemen bandits and corrupt governments are still preying on producers of all kinds in Latin America and throughout the world. But the situation is going unreported, because nobody is willing to accept the existence of modern-day slavery,” Flynn says.
A Battle for Human Rights
“The battle for fair wages and sustainable resources is a battle for human rights,” says Salt Lake City native and fair trade-activist Brian Emerson.
“Coffee prices have plummeted to an all-time low. Right now, the cost is less than 50 cents per pound. But many of the larger coffee companies have not lowered consumer prices, and are instead pocketing the difference,” states Emerson, currently an intern at the San Francisco-based fair-trade organization Global Exchange. This drastic fall in coffee prices means poverty and hunger for thousands of small producers, especially those in Latin America.
The world price of coffee usually hovers around $1 per pound, but most farmers earn less than 50 cents per pound, since they are forced to sell to exploitative middlemen. In a market where small producers in the Third World are often left without much business representation, the fair-trade movement is a ray of hope.
Still, the price many farmers receive for their coffee crops falls far short of their production costs, forcing them into a cycle of poverty and debt.
“They are hemorrhaging,” says Emerson. “They are bleeding coffee and capital and sustainable land.”
Intensive coffee farming can also lead to pesticide pollution and deforestation. “Basically, fair trade is about the larger notion of conscious consumption. Many of us avoid an honest assessment of our lifestyles for fear that we may discover our own complicity in the world’s problems, Emerson says.
“If people are living in abject poverty, working in unsafe conditions for insufficient wages and starving because I support the products and the economic policies that keep them enslaved in that cycle—their blood is on my hands. If the coffee I drink every morning is grown using unsustainable agricultural methods, on land that was once rain forest, then the declining ecological health of the world is on my hands as well,” he adds.
The University of Utah’s chapter of Amnesty International has initiated a campaign to make all campus-sold coffee fair-trade certified. So far, the group’s campaign has yielded little success, but chapter member Greg Ausman says that, if all else fails, he will attempt a boycott of campus foods distributor Chartwells.
But Michael Paulus, a district manager for Chartwells, says selling only fair-trade coffees would be next to impossible.
“We’ve actually tried brewing fair-trade coffee daily,” says Paulus. “But there just isn’t a demand for it.” In other words, there just aren’t enough coffee drinkers asking for it or demanding it.
As a corporate initiative, Chartwell’s strongly supports the fair-trade movement. “We’ve got fair-trade-certified coffees right now, which we even have tried to strongly advertise,” says Paulus, “but no one knows what it is.”
Currently Chartwells is trying to sell fair-trade-certified coffee by the pound instead of brewing it daily. That’s because Paulus doesn’t want to give up on the initiative.
“There are 45,000 students up here. But if only five or six come in demanding that we switch entirely to fair-trade coffee, it isn’t in our best interest. Everything that we do is consumer driven. Right now the general public is fairly apathetic,” Paulus says.
For some veteran coffee merchants, the fair-trade label is little more than a marketing scheme.
John Bolton, owner of the Salt Lake Roasting Company, sees the fair-trade movement as “an advertising device.”
“A lot of things can fall through the holes in these categorizations,” says Bolton, who has traveled to 23 countries researching his product.
“Certification costs money. For the organic label alone, a grower has to have someone from North America or Europe come in and certify their coffee. It takes a week and about $5,000 to get certified. Many of the growers I buy from don’t have that kind of money. Some of them don’t even know what ‘organic’ means, even though their growing habits would meet some of the strictest standards.”
Bolton, who buys coffee from various farmers in 37 different countries, says that while some of the coffees he buys are certified organic, it is his long-standing relationships with growers and importers that makes a transition to fair-trade certified difficult.
But to some consumers, that reasoning doesn’t cut it. John Jensen, a Salt Lake City activist and coffee connoisseur, says that while Bolton may be an exception to the coffee-conglomerate rule, he overlooks some important considerations.
“The fair trade certification doesn’t cost a penny to the farmers who apply for it. An importer might pay a nominal fee, but it is worth it. The label saves lives. If we can make the demand for responsibly grown coffee as high as the demand for organics, we’ll be making an important change in a world system that preys on small farmers. Fair- trade-certified coffee is out there, but every year 70 percent of the product is wasted because there is no demand for it,” says Jensen, currently studying sustainability issues in Ladakh, India.
Bolton says he is concerned about the conditions of coffee farmers. And even if his coffee isn’t fair-trade certified, he adamantly maintains that he pays a fair price. “My motive for paying a living wage to farmers is a selfish one. I need to keep these people happy and maintain a healthy relationship with them to continue buying quality coffee from them.
“Quality coffees, sustainable agriculture and fair labor practices go hand in hand, but the organic- and fair-trade labels are new to the industry,” says Bolton.
And it’s quality coffee that has kept Bolton in business. “The caliber of coffee worldwide is declining. To get a higher yield, companies like Dow Chemical develop hybrid coffees and then force larger plantations to become reliant upon their fertilizers—via inside deals with various shady governments. I don’t deal with those kinds of people,” said Bolton, who equates the coffee he buys to old-growth wines.
“If [people want] to spend 15 minutes with me discussing ethics—maybe I could convince them, but after 23 years in the business I don’t feel I should have to do that,” Bolton says.
Although fair-trade coffee constitutes a mere 1 percent of the coffee market nationwide, its share of the specialty-coffee market, where sales efforts are being directed, is 3 percent and climbing.
“To date, we’ve signed up more than 200 companies, ranging from Starbucks to Thanksgiving Coffee and Dunkin’ Donuts,” says R. Haven Bourque, marketing and communications director for U.S. Fair Trade Certifiers Transfair USA. “We estimate that fair-trade coffee is available in over 12,000 retail establishments nationwide.”
Alan Hebertson, owner of the Ninth and Ninth area’s Coffee Garden, says his choice to brew fair trade stems from consumer requests. Because of high demand, the Coffee Garden now serves fair-trade coffee roasted by Caffe Ibis, a Logan-based coffee importer registered with Transfair for as long as it has been certifying fair-trade coffee. Hebertson, who had sold Seattle’s Best coffee for the past 10 years, had multiple incentives to change his inventory.
“Starbucks bought Seattle’s Best, a company that was getting way too big anyway. If Starbucks has the $74 million to buy [Seattle’s Best] out, they don’t need any more money from us,” Hebertson says. “We want sustainable coffee that earns people a living wage. Caffe Ibis just seemed to fit the bill. And the coffee tastes better!”
Randy Wirth, co-owner and “roast master” at Caffe Ibis, is among the original six roasters of fair-trade coffee in the United States. Eighty-five percent of Caffe Ibis’s coffees are fair-trade and organic certified.
“I found out about conditions on coffee farms in 1966 while on a trip to Mexico. I have always been shocked at the desperate lives of farmers in developing countries,” he says. But expanding the fair-trade coffee market is all about educating the public. Although a Utah original, Caffe Ibis Coffee sells more product on the West and East Coasts due to activist efforts.
Even Starbucks, one of the most complained-about organizations on the planet, has gotten into the fair-trade spirit. According to the company Website, the mega-chain offers several varieties of the coffee for sale in bulk, and brews fair trade in its stores once a month, or by customer request.
To Flynn, these are token gestures. “Sure, they offer fair trade coffee,” he says, “but what’s once a month?”
Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, said Starbucks has a history of misleading consumers about its corporate standards. “About 1.5 percent of Starbucks Coffee has Fair Trade or Organic certification. But you walk into one of their stores and you are inundated with ornate displays—brochures and pamphlets proclaiming the good deeds and ethical standards of Starbucks. It is ‘greenwashing’ at its worst.”
Flynn likes to make his point on a street corner of Ninth and Ninth, where he points toward the Coffee Garden, then to the Starbucks on the opposite corner.
“There are moral implications behind every action you make,” he says. “It should be a simple decision.
“I feel that as a priest and a preacher, not only in the pulpit but in the press and in the streets, it is my duty to speak out against injustices.”
And his parishioners agree. Father Flynn “doesn’t just speak his beliefs; his whole life is a model of them, and he successfully motivates others to act as well,” says Marcy McIntosh.
Flynn feels his religious life is all the better for his activism. “In all of my experiences, I feel that I have developed a kind of spirituality that is so far removed from any ‘spirituality’ that I was expecting in my younger years,” he says.
And all that activism requires of any of us is paying 5 to 10 cents more for a pound of coffee.