by Rosemary Trent, executive director of Pueblo a Pueblo
“Sustainability” is an interesting word, and one that is used all the time when we talk about the coffee industry. But, like many buzzwords, it means different things to different people. The dictionary defines sustainability as “the quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting long-term ecological balance.” Most often, in the coffee industry, people use the term when referring to the farm in the context of our need to help farmers treat the land in a way that will ensure it can provide future yields. Sometimes sustainability is also used when referring to work farther up the chain — for example, roasters and retailers can be encouraged to choose environmentally responsible suppliers and materials, and recycle their waste to minimize impact. While this is important, I’d argue that sustainability really does have to begin with the individuals who work in the fields, their families, and their communities.
The key is to think of farm workers and their families as natural resources worthy of being nourished. In that case, sustainability requires that those who do the hands-on labor be willing and able to do their jobs, and that future generations of farm workers be interested and available to work the land. Just as a roaster needs good equipment and a coffee shop needs the right coffee, the right baristas, and the right atmosphere — the coffee farm needs a healthy, reliable, and knowledgeable workforce to grow the coffee in the first place. So, when we talk about sustainable coffee production, shouldn’t we expand the discussion from improving farms and processes, to what’s needed to sustain the farm workers and their communities?
The typical rural farm worker earns very little of the coffee’s retail value — often not even enough to live on. Like most crops, coffee is seasonal, with one harvest per year lasting just a few weeks — something most coffee drinkers are unaware of. But the workers feel this acutely. Often, they are left to rely on the income from this one harvest to sustain them year-round, exposing their families to periods of seasonal hunger. What’s more, living in rural coffee communities often means limited access to education, clean water, healthcare, and alternative economic opportunities.
Nevertheless, there is much we can do to improve the sustainability of coffee-farming communities. By supporting coffee workers, their families, and their localities, we are ensuring the availability of a healthy, reliable, and knowledgeable workforce in the future. It just takes some thoughtful investments.
- At the community level, investments in projects like water and sanitation can lead to a more productive agricultural base, helping the entire community to stay healthy and prosper. Collaborating with local government and civil society to provide clean water and build infrastructure can contribute substantially to eliminating the many diseases that sap the energy and productivity of rural farm workers and their families.
- Investment at the family level is vitally important because healthy families are the building blocks of a sustainable local economy. Low-income families whose members are working as day laborers in the coffee industry need other economic activities to complement their wages. Getting the opportunities to learn new skills and access the capital needed to begin animal husbandry, beekeeping, organic farming, or other small-scale economic activities, will help these families survive the lean months when there are no wages from coffee, and endure the many environmental stresses these rural communities often face.
- At the individual level, we need to think about investing in the children. Fewer and fewer young people follow their parents into coffee farming. Instead, they tend to flee the poverty of their communities for the city. But, by providing educational support and health and nutritional safety nets, we can make a real investment in a sustainable future for these children. Early childhood development programs, or projects that help keep children in school (such as scholarships), or school lunch and agriculture programs, will help build future generations who have more opportunities to engage in economic activities. These strengthen productivity and build the economic capacity of coffee-farming regions.
- Investment in people. It’s a simple, but important, message — one that often gets lost in the bigger discussion around the specialty coffee industry. That’s why events like the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s Annual Exposition and Symposium are so important. They provide a perfect way to build relationships in the industry all along the supply chain, and to reinforce the message that coffee-growing communities — the workers and their families — need support to remain sustainable. The SCAA Event creates direct links between the organizations working with the families in coffee-growing communities and the people who have the most to gain from ensuring the sustainability of those communities. By bringing the larger coffee community together with civil society, we are making a difference, and we are making an investment in the future of the specialty coffee industry.
All around the world, we awaken to the wonderful aroma of that first cup of coffee. Coffee keeps us focused and motivated throughout the day. In coffee shops, we work, read, and socialize over coffee. It is paramount that all of us remember that, way down at the very start of the coffee supply chain, a human being is tending next year’s coffee crop — and, more often than not, that person is struggling to feed a family. For that person, sustainability means being able to provide for their family while investing in the future. For the coffee industry, it means having a healthy, reliable, and knowledgeable workforce getting the crop to the cup.
Rosemary Trent, executive director of Pueblo a Pueblo, leads a team committed to improving the lives of indigenous Guatemalan women and children. Over the last four years, she has created and grown successful grassroots programs that partner with local schools to provide access to education, health care, improved nutrition, and food security in coffee-growing communities. She speaks Spanish and Portuguese.