The words fair trade get bandied about a bit and most people have some vague idea that it’s an ethical concept that helps people in far-off countries. But what does it really mean when you sit down to that fair trade latte; who does it really help and more importantly, how? I traced a cup of coffee from bean in Costa Rica to cup in New Zealand to see exactly what fair trade means in real life.

My journey started in Pérez Zeledón on the farm of Adrian Bourbón and his son Ronald, 1700 metres above sea level. For me, a visitor, the vegetation was lush and the views breathtaking, but after spending some time with these coffee farmers I realised the green backdrop and stunning blue skies hid a life of hard toil and physical labour beyond what most of us can imagine.

Never again will I complain of a tough day at work after clambering through coffee bushes in temperatures of 30 plus degrees. I had enough trouble navigating the tracks, wide enough for one foot, with just my camera in hand and endured endless scratches and ant bites from fighting my way through the bush. I can’t imagine what it’s like to do that every day carrying a basket of coffee cherries which gets heavier by the minute.

And that’s only picking season. Adrian and his seasonal staff have to maintain bushes by hand, especially in times of outbreaks of the dreaded coffee leaf rust La Roya (the affected leaves have to be picked off individually). Trees also need severe pruning after they’ve finished producing to give them time to regenerate. The sun is unrelenting: it’s sweaty, hard physical graft.

Adrian’s farm is part of the CoopeAgri Cooperative, an amazing collective model that proves small farmers don’t need to be victims of the whims and price changes of large multinationals. It was formed in 1962 and now has 12,000 members, reaching 50,000 farmers, workers and their family members across 85 communities. They deal both in coffee and sugar cane and plans for cacao are afoot too. The cooperative has been so successful, it has been able to build its own supermarkets, gas stations and other facilities to provide extra jobs and streams of income which go back into building a more prosperous community.

CoopeAgri became a fair trade cooperative in 1994 for sugar and 2004 for coffee. This has given farmers further independence and helped to maintain their stability of income. “Between becoming part of the cooperative and the added bonus of fair trade, life has changed a lot for us. We can actually plan now as we know our cherries will be sold and we know the price won’t be below a certain level,” Adrian says.

“Before, everything was uncertain, but now we can even look at ways to improve our production. We could never have done that before.”

But it’s not just the guaranteed minimum price that has helped farmers like Adrian. When you purchase that coffee with beans from CoopeAgri, a percentage goes towards something called a Fair Trade Premium. This funds additional projects to help productivity and improve community life. Every year representatives
from the farms meet at a general assembly to vote on how this premium will be used.
If it’s been a terrible year, like the years when La Roya had done widespread damage and decimated crops, the premium goes directly back to the farmers to help compensate for loss of income. In other more prosperous years it goes to social, economic and environmental projects to benefit CoopeAgri members and their communities.

Sometimes the Fair Trade Premium is used for maintaining the 160 coffee receivers. At first glance I couldn’t understand why a basic storage unit was such a big deal, but after talking to the farmers I realised it was game-changing as it means they can pick the coffee cherries and deposit them there (near their plantation) where they can be picked up, rather than having to make the long journey to the mill every day at significant cost. These are not roads you want to be driving every day; my spinal alignment may never be the same!

The premium is also invested in technical assistance to help farmers with any problems they may have with their crops. It has also been used in the coffee and sugar mills the cooperative owns to install new technology to speed up production processes.

At the coffee mill we had a slightly whiffy journey through the fertiliser area (they use the pulp from the coffee beans and cane bagasse). The final product is then subsidised by the Fair Trade Premium so farmers can buy it at a reasonable cost. All very clever and sustainable.

Sustainability and environmental protection feature heavily in the equation. We visited a gorgeous river nestled among beautiful rainforest that has been saved as part of a 250 hectare forest conservation project. Adrian gets paid $100 a year, a significant amount in Costa Rica, not to farm on a part of his property so the wildlife and flora can be protected.

The Fair Trade Premium also frees up capital for the cooperative to embark on other projects. We visited one such project, a clean bright modern-looking medical centre. It has facilities for cervical health, ultrasounds, minor surgeries, orthopaedics, and much more and members only pay 25% of the cost.
“These projects are amazing,” says our guide, Enrique Calderon, from the Department of International Operations for CoopeAgri.

“It makes medical care affordable and accessible for families as it’s often out of reach financially for people in this socio-economic bracket.”

We could see for ourselves the way people live, and how something like this service would be invaluable.
So after seeing the coffee cherries at source, and the roasting process, it was time to taste the final product.

We spent a fascinating afternoon ‘coffee cupping’ and tasting the difference altitude makes on the flavour of the beans. We also learned how different markets have different requirements. The Germans like acidity but the Middle Eastern markets would send that straight back. There are even considerations on bag size depending on how the coffee is transported at the other end. In the Middle East the bags can’t be any more than 25kg as they are often moved by camel.

New Zealanders have their own preferences, too. CoopeAgri coffee is used by Robert Harris in their Latin American Fairtrade blend and by Wild Bean Café at all BP stations.

Scott Pepler, master roaster for BP says they use a mix of Brazilian and Costa Rican. “The Brazilian provides a good base but the Costa Rican has those great highlights of dark cocoa and caramel when we roast it medium to dark. It gives it the vibrancy we’re looking for.”

“We had to go with Scott’s flavour expertise when we were looking for a good fair trade coffee back in 2008,” says Scot Graham, National Food Service manager for Wild Bean. “We were fast becoming the largest retailer for barista-made coffee in New Zealand so we figured going fair trade was an easy way to give back without customers having to pay more. We’ve had a great relationship with CoopeAgri over the years and several of our staff have been out and visited. It’s so fantastic to see the impact at the end and know that a relatively small change can mean a lot to people far way.”

 couldn’t agree more. Fair trade is no longer a vague ethical concept to me. It’s a really simple process and in many cases it doesn’t cost us anything more to buy the coffee, sugar, chocolate, bananas or other products with the blue and green Fairtrade logo.

In a world where it’s really hard to know where to put your ethical dollar, I now know this is one of the easier decisions.

Reported by Alexia Santamaria for our AA Directions Spring 2020 issue

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