Can Great Coffee Save the Jungle?

Persuaded that guilt alone won’t get Americans to pay more for environmentally friendly coffee, importers are trying a market approach by giving farmers the tools to grow better beans

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Today, coffee drinkers who care about the environment and want to help coffee workers have essentially two choices: organic coffee, free of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which appeals to an increasing number of individuals concerned about their health and that of the planet; and socalled Fair Trade coffee, for which importers agree to pay producers an above-market price of $1.26 a pound. (Today, the majority of Fair Trade coffee is also organic, which raises the price paid to farmers to $1.41 a pound.) The idea is catching on, slowly: Starbucks has sold Fair Trade coffee in small quantities since 2000, and says it pays at least $1.20 per pound for the rest of its beans. And late last year food giant Procter & Gamble agreed to sell Fair Trade coffee wholesale through its specialty division, Millstone.

Yet Katzeff, a Bronx-born former social worker and lifelong champion of underdogs, says neither alternative works. “Fair Trade is a totally flawed system,” he says, even though his company endorses it and has sold more than 450,000 pounds of Fair Trade coffee in the past four years. “The policy is to try to enlighten people, but you can enlighten 100 percent of people and maybe get 5 percent to change their behavior.” A case in point: when Berkeley, California, had a ballot initiative in 2002 proposing that local cafés sell only Fair Trade, organic and “bird-friendly” coffee (the latter a certification program to protect birds overseen by the Smithsonian Institution’s MigratoryBirdCenter), voters overwhelmingly rejected the plan. Today, Fair Trade makes up only about .5 percent of the $18.5 billion U.S. retail coffee market. And Katzeff calls organic coffee, which accounts for 1 percent, a “miserable waste of time—people don’t want to think about their health when they drink coffee.”

Katzeff is convinced that the answer lies in getting consumers hooked on high-quality coffee—and that the best way to help small farmers produce better beans is by putting key tools of the trade in their hands. Until recently, for example, cupping labs could be found only among wealthy middlemen. Without the lab feedback, Katzeff writes in The Coffee Cupper’s Manifesto, a Spanish/English manual, small-scale growers are like “a baseball player with poor eyesight and no glasses, facing a 90-mile-per-hour fastball pitcher.”

Three years ago Katzeff won a $291,000 grant through the U.S. Agency for International Development to establish nine such labs in Nicaragua’s northern mountains, including the one in Las Segovias. Of course, if there were ever strange bedfellows, it’s the U.S. government and Katzeff, who ran gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s 1970 campaign for sheriff in Aspen, Colorado. In the mid-1980s, Katzeff sued President Ronald Reagan and then-CIA chief George H.W. Bush for embargoing Nicaragua, which they did to cripple what at the time was its revolutionary Sandinista government. Even today, Katzeff sells coffee in bags adorned with a portrait of Che Guevara to protest the U.S. ban on trade with Cuba.

On his first trip to Nicaragua, as president of the newly founded Specialty Coffee Association, in 1985, Katzeff worried about how he’d be received by the Sandinista government, then under siege from a U.S.-supported “Contra” rebel war. Arriving at Managua’s SandinoAirport, he recalls uniformed Sandinistas whisking him past immigration officers and introducing him to a high-level agricultural official. “Nicaragua needs you to be big,” the official told him.

Katzeff says he quickly fell in love with the country—which is blessed with plentiful mountain terrain and has experienced less deforestation than more densely populated neighbors like El Salvador—and with its coffee. “It’s sweet, fruity, caramely, lively in the cup: it makes you salivate,” he says. “It’s easily among the world’s best coffees.” Adding to Nicaragua’s natural advantages, the Sandinista government organized farmers into cooperatives, well-disciplined support groups that have played a strong role in the pursuit of higher quality beans.

Coffee harvesting and processing are two of the most labor-intensive jobs on earth, and quality can depend on organization. Afew over-fermented beans, known as varros, or “stinkers,” from one careless farmer can spoil the hopes of several of his neighbors. PRODECOOP is one of the few companies that pay workers to hand-sort beans after they’ve been mechanically sorted.

This extra care is a major reason for PRODECOOP’s success despite the plummeting global coffee market. The co-op has a loyal foreign clientele and has passed on $1.10 a pound to farmer members by selling more than 80 percent of its beans to Fair Trade buyers in the United States and Europe—exceptional even for Nicaragua, where, despite all of its natural and social advantages, thousands of farmers haven’t been able to earn back production costs. It’s also evidence that Katzeff’s profit-oriented appeal to quality-conscious buyers is bearing fruit—or beans.

On this visit to Las Segovias province, Katzeff is sharing his contacts with colleagues, including some competitors, in hopes of building the market for Nicaraguan coffee. Not content to rely on importers, many U.S. buyers already spend several weeks a year prowling the rural hills of Asia, Africa and Latin America. “It would be an exaggeration to say the entire gourmet industry is moving in this direction,” says Doug Zell, president of the Intelligentsia roasting company and a member of Katzeff ’s tour. “But the leaders of the industry are doing it. About 20 guys are chasing each other around on these trips, telling the co-ops, ‘we’ll work with you to get a better result, and when you do we’ll pay you more.’ ”

Gourmet coffee is still a relatively young concept in the United States, where coffee drinkers paid virtually no attention to quality until the 1960s—about the time that the fictional Juan Valdez began promoting Colombian coffee in magazine ads and TV commercials on behalf of Colombia’s National Federation of Coffee Growers. The poncho-wearing peasant, with his trusty burro, gently educated Americans about the hard work involved in producing fine mountain-grown beans, “the richest coffee in the world.”


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