Just consumption: Goshen College media team reports from El Salvador on fair trade coffee issues

GOSHEN, Ind. — Julio Ascencio Garcia was glad to welcome an interfaith group of Christian North Americans to his community, and relieved to be inside the cool walls of an old hacienda house while taking a break from his duties on the sunny patio where he and his colleagues rake coffee beans still in husks — café oro — into piles to dry. In greeting the interfaith delegation arranged by Equal Exchange, the largest fair trade coffee company in the United States, Garcia instinctively linked all Christians as children of God who should share as equals.

“In addition to you feeling at home I want you to feel like we are all part of one family, the family united in Christ,” he said. “I pray that God will move the hearts of the rich, the ones that He decided to make rich, so that they would understand our plight. Right now maybe we cannot walk together side by side but perhaps someday we will walk together side by side.”

In January, a Goshen College delegation including Associate Professor of Communication Duane Stoltzfus, Director of Public Relations Rachel Lapp and four students — seniors Mark Gingerich of Iowa City, Iowa, Celeste Kennel-Shank of Washington, D.C., and Anna Newburn and junior Joel Fath, both of Goshen. Focused on peace and justice witness through excellent journalism, the trip was supported by grants from Mennonite Central Committee, MCC-Great Lakes and Goshen College’s Cultivating Authentic Leaders for Life and Plowshares programs.

Stoltzfus said the trip to El Salvador offered “a wonderful opportunity to participate in the best kind of reporting. The mainstream press is often so caught up in providing entertainment rather than news that matters. Here is a subject, the production of coffee, which has global ramifications and also links to nearly every person and congregation in the United States.” He would like to see future teams of college journalism students pursuing underreported stories in partnership with MCC and other agencies that sponsor significant grassroots programs around the world.

The group, based in San Salvador, learned about the history, economics, agriculture and political situation in El Salvador and traveled to two small rural coffee cooperatives, El Pinal and Las Colinas. In addition, two students visited La Florida, where Linford Martin and Chloe Grasse and their daughters who are serving in the refugee farming community in working on permaculture projects including organic coffee production.

The Goshen faculty and students stayed overnight with farmers at Las Colinas, a coffee cooperative of more than 100 members located in the northwest department of Sonsonate near the Guatemalan border. Everyone in the community helps out during the harvest season. Grown at medium to high altitudes under shade trees, this is gourmet coffee bound for North America through Equal Exchange. The Las Colinas beans will be roasted and packaged as the Café Salvador blend, which is also used in the Fellowship Blend sold to churches through denominational partnerships with Equal Exchange, including the Mennonite Central Committee-sponsored Coffee Project. By working with Christian denominations, Equal Exchange feels it can offer a way to practice justice — cup by cup.

Las Colinas cooperative president Pedro Antonio Ascencio’s understanding of coffee production and distribution extends thousands of miles into the homes and churches of North Americans and into our mugs and Styrofoam cups. If Las Colinas can sell more gourmet coffee to Equal Exchange at “fair trade” prices, members can earn year-round wages and pay off more of their land debt — which, with exorbitant interest rates, is significant. While they only sell two-thirds of their annual crop to Equal Exchange, Las Colinas is fortunate: most coffee farmers in El Salvador and other Central American producers are trapped in a commercial system that denies them direct access to world markets and grants them only the smallest profits in a complex economic chain. Fair trade coffee companies pay $1.26 for conventionally grown coffee and $1.41 for organically grown coffee. A five-cent “premium” is paid per pound — monies democratically designated by the cooperatives for projects, training or services that benefit the community. To qualify as a “fair trade” company, merchants must also make pre-harvest investments and establish long-term relationships with farmers. Unfortunately, fair trade coffee only makes up 2 percent of the U.S. market for coffee — a globally traded commodity that was once second only to oil.

“Thank you for your international support for our product,” Pedro said, welcoming the ecumenical group to Las Colinas. “We are continually trying to improve our product.”

With stories like that of the Las Colinas cooperative, and the taste of gourmet coffee to take home with them, the Goshen College group has been busy turning the notes, video and photographs they collected into articles and presentations to churches, schools and organizations. Everblue Media of Goshen is now working on a video project from the footage gathered by Gingerich and Newburn.

Said Gingerich, “I felt I was successful in what I was trying to do as far as combining my talents and knowledge in videography and an interest in using my gifts for service in some way. I also learned about myself. I was again struck by the poverty that surrounded me which pushed me to consider my lifestyle of consumerism and to push myself to be that socially conscious person I want to be.”

“I think the thing that struck me most about our interaction [with] coffee growers in El Salvador was the chasm between our level of awareness about not only how a bag of coffee comes to rest on the shelf of a store, but also about U.S. and international trade agreements and how those policies impacts their country,” said Newburn, a communication major who conducted interviews in El Salvador in Spanish, sharpened by a college semester in Cuba through Goshen’s Study-Service Term. “In the U.S. we have the ability to live as an island, and many people don’t consider the vast network of lives encountered even when making such simple purchases like buying a pound of coffee. To recognize that this interconnectedness exists is to begin demanding better treatment of each person involved, which can lead to an expansion of consciousness that promotes better decisions as consumers,” she continued.

Fath is also creating a Web site focusing on the trip and fair trade coffee issues as part of a multimedia class, to be launched in April. A Web site photo album from the trip can be accessed by visiting https://www.goshen.edu/virtualgc/photoalbum/ElSalvador

Goshen College, established in 1894, is a four-year residential Christian liberal arts college rooted in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. The college’s Christ-centered core values — passionate learning, global citizenship, compassionate peacemaking and servant-leadership — prepare students as leaders for the church and world. Recognized for its unique Study-Service Term program, Goshen has earned citations of excellence in Barron’s Best Buys in Education, “Colleges of Distinction,” Kaplan’s “Most Interesting Colleges” guide and U.S.News & World Report‘s “America’s Best Colleges” edition, which named Goshen a “least debt college.” Visit www.goshen.edu.

View photos from the El Salvador fair trade coffee trip.

Editors: For more information, contact News Bureau Director Jodi H. Beyeler at (574) 535-7572 or jodihb@goshen.edu.


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