Las Colinas, El Salvador - Thanks to God - and fair trade - we're not starving, the farmer told us. He was talking about the coffee his coop sells to the fair trade organization Equal Exchange (EE), some of which is bought by parishes, our parishes. It was a word of hope in a country where low prices are forcing thousands of farmers to stop farming. Our group of Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians and Catholics was visiting El Salvador to learn more about fair trade, its importance to small farmers, and the impact of the LWR Coffee Project and similar initiatives.
Meeting coffee farmers in this corner of Central America we saw for ourselves that fair trade - which means fair price, fair credit and long-term benefits - is literally a lifeline for places like Las Colinas. For example, last year the Las Colinas coop produced five containers of gourmet, shade-grown coffee. Two containers were sold at $1.26 per pound, the fair trade minimum price. The three other containers went for only 42 cents per pound, on the conventional commodities market.
While we were there, neighboring "independent" farmers were selling their crop on the conventional market for as little as 15 cents per pound. At that price, farmers cannot even afford to gather their harvest. With prices anywhere below one dollar per pound - like world prices have been for two years now - a proper diet, housing, health care and education become impossible to afford. A passionate Salvadoran economist, Juan Rojas, told our group, "The life of a small farmer here is hell."
In Las Colinas, fair trade helps 4,500 people survive on their land. "Thank you for buying our coffee," they told us. "If it wasn't for the two containers that EE bought from us our coop would have fallen apart." With that income the coop paid its members, covered its overhead and ran it's processing mill. Yet even then, people still had to supplement their income by seeking outside work. Some women went to the city to work as domestic servants. Some men worked in construction. Many children did not go to school because their families could not afford a small tuition fee, supplies or books.
During harvest season, a whole family working together - including children and grandparents - may earn as little as three dollars a day for hand-picking the red cherries that are processed into coffee beans. While our delegation struggled to maneuver through the mountain coffee groves in hiking gear, coffee pickers carrying 100-pound sacks moved deftly in flimsy sandals.
"The right to work and ability to work must go hand in hand with just compensation," said one group member, Gail Matheson, coordinator of the LWR Coffee Project at Bethany Lutheran in a Denver suburb. "These people work hard. They are thankful to work. An overriding commitment on my part is to make sure they can work for a fair wage."
Equal Exchange, the 100-percent fair trade organization in the LWR Coffee Project and the sponsor of our delegation, has bought Las Colinas coffee for ten years. It reaches U.S. parishes, homes and restaurants as their Cafe Salvador brand.