By Rebecca Randall, special to Humanosphere
One paycheck is all many coffee farmers get each year, which inevitably creates “los meses flacos”—the thin months.
All around the world, from Nicaragua to Rwanda, the farming families that provide us with the caffeine beans we need for our morning jolt suffer long bouts of hunger.
The income many of these coffee farmers receive is usually less than their annual spending needs, which means harvest season is routinely followed by seasonal hunger and malnutrition, according to a report by the Specialty Coffee Association of America.
This is even true of farmers who receive a premium price for fair trade or organic certified coffee.
The report, “A Blueprint to End Hunger in the Coffeelands” came out last year but the problem is hardly new, and it persists.
The specialty coffee trade group met in Seattle for its annual meeting last week and, in addition to figuring out how to keep convincing consumers to pay for high-priced java, they had forums focused on ‘sustainability.’
The trade group recognizes that making this popular – and somewhat vague – buzzword of sustainability into reality means going well beyond the simple concept of fair trade to work with coffee farmers ensuring they can achieve year-round income stability while also encouraging best environmental practices in agriculture.
“We owe a lot to fair trade. (The strategy) created a paradigm shift during a time when the coffee industry really needed it in the 90s, when coffee prices were really low,” said Sarah Beaubien, the vice chair of the sustainability council at the specialty coffee group, SCAA.
But Beaubien indicated that there is still much work to be done.
“There is good work happening in coffee, but it’s not connected and we are still facing a lot of issues, food insecurity and household resilience are still issues in the coffeelands.”
Today the industry is more aware that children of coffee farmers still go hungry and broader efforts need to be made to address economic shortcomings in the places where coffee farmers live.
In 2011, a powerful film, “After the Harvest: Fighting Hunger in the Coffeelands,” incited action on the part of the industry. The film highlights seasonal hunger of farmers in Latin America.
The film inspired the formation of the Coalition for Coffee Communities, which combines the efforts of industry members. The collaboration includes the SCAA and some of the biggest companies in coffee—Starbucks, Green Mountain Keurig, Farmer Brothers, S&D, Counter Culture, and Sustainable Harvest—and partners with the international development organization Mercy Corps.
“The food security project that we’re doing is more to develop an alternative revenue stream so that they aren’t completely invested and reliant on coffee,” said Beaubien.
Diversifying crops is one of the recommendations given by the SCAA’s report, which also suggests introducing fruit trees, beekeeping, and animal husbandry as possible sources of additional income.
The coalition’s project provides loans to women in coffee growing families in Jinotega, Nicaragua, to grow six different vegetables. Additionally, it creates a food hub, where the food can be cleaned and sold to local and multinational grocery stores.
However, besides obstacles typical to farming, such as pests, disease and bad weather, the farmers in Nicaragua and in virtually all coffee-growing countries face political and economic gaps that prevent businesses from being successful, including lack of infrastructure, poor governance, lack of quality education and limited access to financing, presenting further challenges for success.
The coalition is beginning first-hand to see how governments play a role in the effectiveness of development projects.
Currently, the food security program runs in three municipalities in Nicaragua. The program, which leverages a law requiring municipalities to implement food security efforts, works best in one municipality, while the other two communities are lagging. “In the community that’s making progress, the political party is supporting the work. In the other municipalities, the law kind get ignored,” said Beaubien.
“It’s definitely emerged through the work that I’ve done with farmers… there is a role to play in the influencing of policy,” she said.
Eventually the goal for the coalition is to expand food security projects to other coffee growing regions.
“We’d want to be working in the three major coffee growing regions – Africa, Asia and Latin America. We’re very aware that the situation is very different in those three continents,” said Beaubien, who added that the programs couldn’t be “cookie cutter.”
SCAA’s sustainability report also suggested other ways coffee companies can help farmers, including assisting with technical improvements and constructing better food storage to prevent spoilage or pest damage.
Another gap the 2011 report found is that nearly all research into food security among coffee farmers has been done in Latin America and has neglected farmers in Africa and Asia.
In view of that, this year, the SCAA is recognizing the work from the African coffeelands: the Bukonzo Joint Cooperative Union in Uganda. The group earned the SCAA’s annual Sustainability Award for its program encouraging women’s decision making on the farm.
Bukonzo organized the Gender Action Learning System (GALS) in 2004 to promote women’s contributions to the cooperative and in decision-making and planning for family coffee businesses. In workshops, the group uses drawings and diagrams to illustrate gender balance in the family. The use of pictograms makes the presentations accessible for illiterate farmers and also has been useful cross-culturally in workshops held in Tanzania, Sudan, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Rebecca Randall is a journalist, wife, mother, hobby baker, and dreamer. She’s a graduate of the University of Washington Jackson School of International Studies and is especially interested in agricultural development issues. Check out her blog Humanity in the Mirror and follow her on Twitter @beccawrites