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The Coffee/Conscience Connection
By Carol Ann Morrow
The best part of waking up for those who harvest coffee in Central America is the Fair Trade movement. Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini of San Marcos, Guatemala, explains how this offers these workers a living wage.


Not So Good to the Last Drop
What Makes Fair Trade Coffee Fair?
So What's the Coffee Crisis?
Why Do Christians Care?
Quarter for Some Coffee, Mister?
What You Did for These Least
Bishop Ramazzini's Rap Sheet
Finding Fair Trade Coffee

Dr. Anthony Lazzara: Healing Peru's Children

Photo by Burke/Triolo

If you frequent any fashionable coffee shop—or even stop by on special occasions—you may conclude that the price of coffee has skyrocketed. Not really.

In truth, the wholesale price of coffee has plummeted to half its 1998 price, currently about 50 cents per pound of beans. Are you pocketing the difference, even if you drink your coffee plain and simple at home? No?

Neither are the coffee pickers. It’s safe to say that no Guatemalan coffee harvester would—or could—buy a single cappuccino, because it costs twice a day’s wages of 14 quetzales, roughly $1.75.

To be certain, North Americans benefit widely from low-cost labor by Central Americans, and coffee isn’t the only commodity worth analysis in terms of what’s fair, what’s moral and what can be changed.

But to find a cure for the coffee crisis—and this is bigger than a shortfall in your cup—requires the cooperation of the United States. Why? To understand the extent of this crisis and ways to address it, St. Anthony Messenger first interviewed native Guatemalan Alvaro Ramazzini Imeri, Roman Catholic bishop of the Diocese of San Marcos, Guatemala, during a visit to the United States.

Six weeks later, when Catholic Relief Services (CRS) launched its Coffee Project, St. Anthony Messenger spoke with Nicaraguan coffee farmer Encarnación Suarez; Joan Neal, Karen Smith and Marcel Bigue of CRS; and Erbin Crowell of Equal Exchange, U.S. pioneers in adopting Fair Trade standards as guiding business principles.

Why is a Catholic bishop struggling to affect the price of coffee? Why has he risked his life for the larger economic struggle in which coffee plays a part? Bishop Ramazzini considers these questions thoughtfully.

It’s not about coffee, he says in carefully considered English. “I really don’t care at all about coffee. I care about people. In Guatemala, I see their poverty, their suffering, their lack of a future.”

Bishop Ramazzini, 56, speaks Spanish, Mam (the language of the indigenous Mayans in his diocese) and English. But he naturally favors Spanish, so Michael Flynn, director of Su Casa Hispanic Ministries in Cincinnati, Ohio, translated for me at times.

Bishop Ramazzini has come to the United States to meet with World Bank agents in Washington, D.C., and with Guatemalans who immigrate to the United States in large numbers every year. He is also garnering support for Fair Trade Certified Coffee at Cincinnati’s Procter & Gamble headquarters, as well as among conscientious coffee consumers. That’s a lot of traveling and talking for a man carrying only one small suitcase!

Why? The bishop reiterates, “The reason I am committed to all of this is that I see the suffering of my people. I can’t remain indifferent when I see this—not as a human, not as a Christian, even less as a bishop.”

At a public gathering, the bishop speaks and the facts emerge.

Low prices are a plus for consumers—and Fair Trade coffee costs more than the typical supermarket brands. Why would people living in a nation that imports more coffee than any other on the face of the planet choose to pay more than they must? Erbin Crowell of Equal Exchange explains that Fair Trade coffee is high quality—and that, even at a higher price, it averages only six cents a cup. But cost is only one factor.

Wise consumers in an international economy are asking more questions of many products these days: Where is it produced? Under what working conditions? Is the product safe and healthy? Is the quality high?

Knowing that coffee bears the Fair Trade Certified label is reassuring on all those levels. A consortium of Fair Trade groups in 20 nations, including the United States, has established five criteria for coffee production: 1) a guaranteed fair price for all coffee, higher for organic; 2) democratic cooperatives of small farmers; 3) direct, long-term, stable trade between producers and importers, eliminating “coyotes” or multiple intermediate brokers; 4) a line of pre-harvest credit from importers, and 5) environmental protection. Transfair USA is currently the major U.S. certifying agency.

How do these criteria play out in Guatemala? In this poor Central American nation, some farmers acquired small plots suitable for coffee in a few brief years of agrarian reform in the early 1950s. Bishop Ramazzini points to land reform as a central urgent need. The current system “leads to poverty, malnutrition and no future,” he says.

In addition to the justice dimension of land redistribution, small is better for coffee in several ways. Though sun-resistant, fast-growing hybrids were developed in the 1980s, leading to immense coffee plantations, those hybrids require high levels of fertilizer and pesticides. “Organic” almost always means shade-grown. Shade-grown implies small. To many coffee connoisseurs, shade-grown also indicates a slower-growing coffee with a richer, fuller flavor.

A canopy of larger trees among the lower, rounder coffee trees shades the coffee. Deep roots also fix nitrogen in the soil while nesting birds keep down insect pests. Further, the trees provide a habitat for many species of birds that migrate seasonally to the U.S., leading to the term “songbird-friendly” coffee.

Coffee is the second-largest world trade commodity, surpassed only by oil. The current drop in coffee prices has international repercussions, since coffee is grown not only in Central America, but also throughout the developing world.

Agricultural exports fuel most Third World economies and Guatemala is no exception. Bananas, sugar and coffee are its three major cash crops, with coffee accounting for 25-35 percent of foreign exchange earnings.

Bishop Ramazzini ruefully explains that the nation’s fourth source of income is “family in the United States, sending money back, working 18 hours a day to do this.” Even this “foreign aid” isn’t enough to keep many small farmers and seasonal workers afloat these days.

What has changed? In a sentence, the United States bowed out and Vietnam weighed in.

The United States had been a major participant in the International Coffee Organization (ICO) since its beginning, but withdrew in 1989 from an international agreement that kept prices stable. Without the participation of the largest nation of coffee consumers in the world, the ICO is powerless. (The Mennonite Central Committee has organized a letter-writing campaign urging President Bush to rejoin.)

On the heels of this instability, Vietnam moved from almost no coffee production to fourth-highest (behind Brazil, Colombia and Indonesia), glutting an already overcrowded market.

Bishop Ramazzini’s diocese of San Marcos, bordered by Mexico and intersected by the Sierra Madre Mountains, has been devastated by these developments. San Marcos, he says, lived on coffee. Now the bishop sees massive waves of desperate departures. Over 65,000 Guatemalans have tried to leave every year for the past four years. Why? “Not because of revolution,” Bishop Ramazzini observes. “The reason is poverty.”

“The question of immigration really puts to the test the quality of our faith,” says Bishop Ramazzini. “Jesus says, ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’ But I’ve seen that many communities that call themselves Christian close their doors to the immigrant.”

The bishop admits that in his own diocese some Catholics don’t want to open their doors to Hondurans or Salvadorans, their own regional immigrants. But “we insist that your faith has to make you live a life of Christian solidarity,” he says. “It’s not only giving food to the person who’s hungry. It’s also supporting local unions and the organization of peasant farmers.

“It’s trying to open other markets—like Fair Trade does. It’s defending the workers’ rights, going with workers to the courts so that they feel supported in the struggle for social justice. It is a commitment that is very broad and extensive,” the bishop says with conviction.

Bishop Ramazzini was less encouraged by CAFTA (Central American Fair Trade Agreement). Trade representatives “make agreements about money, not human beings,” he says. A more desirable agreement would “promote partnership from all sectors of society.” He adds, “The current reality in Guatemala is contrary to what God wants.”

The bishop’s words follow in the tradition of many popes and Church councils. In 1997, Pope John Paul II convened a synod for the bishops of  America. Two years later, he issued Ecclesia in America, a post-synodal summary, which is replete with references to human rights, globalization, poverty, social teaching and solidarity.

Bishop Ramazzini was very encouraged by the synod and the document that followed. He feels that it strengthened connections among the bishops of the continent and fostered new understanding about immigration. “A door is open for us,” he says.

More than one, it would seem. Bishop Ramazzini has found Oxfam to be a powerful ally. Oxfam, a federation of 12 non-governmental organizations in more than 100 countries, focuses on organizing poor people, lobbying the powerful and raising awareness of issues through the media and through alliance-building.

Oxfam assists Bishop Ramazzini’s flock in multiple ways, one of which is analysis of the coffee crisis. While Oxfam espouses Fair Trade as a way out of poverty and a boon to the environment, it wants more. Oxfam is calling for a “Coffee Rescue Plan” and a long-term commodity management initiative to ensure a more stable market.

Catholic Relief Services (CRS), a presence in Guatemala since the ’60s, is also active in Guatemala. Recently, the agency provided food and health services through its emergency fund to 191 families in Bishop Ramazzini’s diocese. As a direct result of the coffee crisis, these families have been ill and hungry. CRS has also funded long-term sanitation upgrades in another area of the Guatemalan mountains—and has contributed to relief efforts in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.

They are now launching an effort to link parishes of coffee-drinking Catholics to those who grow and harvest the beans. In late November 2003, CRS convened a press conference to announce its “Coffee Project,” aimed at relieving poverty among thousands of small coffee farmers not only in Latin America but in Africa and Asia as well.

Joan Neal, deputy executive director, explains CRS’s decision to launch this project. “The choices we make as consumers have a direct impact on small coffee farmers....The choice to drink CRS Fair Trade coffee has the potential to change that dynamic [of trade] dramatically.” This project forges a direct link between coffee farmers and U.S. Catholics. It’s an “opportunity to put faith into action,” Neal says.

Nestlé (Nescafé), Philip Morris, now Altria (Maxwell House), Procter & Gamble (Folgers) and Sara Lee (Chock full o’Nuts) are the Big Four of international coffee sales. Sara Lee began selling Fair Trade coffee (to restaurants and other food service operators only) in 2001. Just months ago, Procter & Gamble announced that it would include a Fair Trade Certified coffee, “Mountain Moonlight,” in its Signature Collection of online offerings. This premium coffee is not yet available in stores. Altria and Nestlé have yet to make a comparable gesture.

Coffee is not actually a necessity, although it appears to fuel the American engine almost as much as foreign oil. So what’s it worth to coffee drinkers who care about justice these days?

Bishop Ramazzini says, “It is important to support small farmers, who receive direct economic benefit.” As the harvest winds down in February, the bishop describes an influx of Mayans, the poorest of Guatemala’s poor. They are seasonal workers, harvesting alongside those who have cared for the crop to this point. Mayans receive “inhuman treatment in an economic system that doesn’t respect the dignity of human beings.”

The Catholic Church in Guatemala is countering inhuman treatment with active support of workers. In 1992, the San Marcos Diocese assisted the formation of APECAFORMM, a Spanish acronym for The Mam Mayan Association of Small Organic Coffee Producers. They have since allied with Manos Campesinas, a sales and export cooperative founded by the neighboring Diocese of Quetzaltenango.

Bishop Ramazzini is proud of initiatives like this. He cites the Judgment Day passage in Matthew 25, in which good works that help the “least” are tickets to the Kingdom. The bishop calls this Scripture the “rationale for my episcopal ministry.” He explains, “We cannot distinguish between our commitment to faith and our commitment to society.” He urges all Americans to do the same.

Joan Neal of CRS agrees. The humanitarian aid CRS provides can sometimes seem anonymous to contributors, she explains. The Coffee Project creates an “actual connection between struggling coffee growers and U.S. Catholic coffee consumers.”

Erbin Crowell of Equal Exchange adds, “This represents a shift from treating coffee and other food products as faceless commodities traded on markets to a product grown, harvested and processed by real people. We believe that working directly with those people who grow our food—understanding their lives, understanding how trade affects them and trying to create a model that helps them sustain their lives and feed their families—is a much more rational approach to trade and globalization than the one we’re currently engaged with.”

For Encarnación Suarez, Fair Trade coffee provides her and her family the “energy and will to continue working.” Without it, her children would be hungry. It is a face like hers—not the fictional Juan Valdez—that Catholic consumers are being invited to associate with their cup of steaming coffee.

One expression of our own Christian commitment can become as pleasant—and as simple—as choosing our coffee with care. Catholic Relief Services hopes that 10 percent of this nation’s 19,000 Catholic parishes will make a new choice: the CRS Coffee Project as their supplier.

Then that cup of coffee after Mass will also be a cup of blessing.


Born in Guatemala City, Alvaro Leonel Ramazzini Imeri, 57, has a name with foreign overtones. He explains that, on his father’s side, his great-grandparents were Italian (Ramazzini) and on his mother’s side, French (Imeri). He is a man of his people and has served as their bishop since 1988.

In 2002, Bishop Ramazzini was awarded the Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award. This award is named for two martyrs to international terrorism and was founded by their colleagues at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., to honor other heroes of the human-rights movement from the Americas.

At that presentation, the bishop was described as a “champion of the rural poor who lives under the constant threat of death for his efforts to promote genuine land reform....[He] worked closely with Bishop Juan Gerardi on the Recovery of Historical Memory Project (REHMI), which investigated human-rights abuses committed during the [36-year-long] civil war. Gerardi was bludgeoned to death two days after the 1998 release of the REHMI report, which attributed almost 90 percent of the atrocities to the Guatemalan army and paramilitary.”

Bishop Ramazzini continues, in the words of the Institute of Policy Studies, “to promote genuine land reform in a country where two percent of the population controls 67 percent of the land.”

Bishop Ramazzini does not have the air of a firebrand demonstrator. He speaks gently, has a warm and engaging smile and an affable demeanor. But he acts with passion. He says, “I want all people to understand reality from the perspective of individual dignity so that this dignity will be respected.”


Fair trade coffee is all around, but it can seem invisible when surrounded by nationally advertised brands such as Folgers and Maxwell House. Here’s a sampling of places to buy and drink a brew that is frequently organic (better for you and for the environment) and Fair Trade (better prices for small farmers).

If you don’t go near coffee, but still want to get involved, Coffee Kids (phone 800-334-9099) is an international nonprofit membership organization that partners in Central American projects that promote health care, education and economic diversification.

By the Pound on the Internet/Telephone

Equal Exchange, a worker-owned co-op: phone 781-830-0303

Cooperative Trading, a not-for-profit membership organization: phone 800-401-2672

Global Exchange, a human-rights organization with campaigns around Fair Trade coffee: phone 415-255-7296

Millstone Signature Collection, phone 800-729-5282

The Catholic Relief Services Coffee Project, phone 781-830-0303, ext. 228. (The CRS Coffee Project is partnered with Equal Exchange. Prices are wholesale, six packages to a case. Tea and cocoa are also available.)

By the Pound in Person

• Equal Exchange coffee may be on your grocer’s shelf. (Other less-familiar brands may also be grown in an environmentally responsible manner but the Fair Trade Certified label ensures that farmers earned a living wage.)

Ten Thousand Villages, a nonprofit program of the Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Churches in America, with retail outlets in 34 states: phone 717-859-8100

Wild Oats Markets, Inc.: phone 800-494-WILD

By the Pound at Your Parish

Interfaith Coffee Program

By the Cup

• Dunkin’ Donuts (Its espresso beverages are slated to use Fair Trade Certified in February 2004.)

• Starbucks (At some outlets, it’s featured once a week as the Coffee of the Day. Otherwise, available upon request.)

Wild Oats Markets, Inc.


Carol Ann Morrow is assistant managing editor of this publication. She had her first espresso in Nazareth, her first cappuccino in Rome and her first Turkish coffee in Amman. Her first cup of Fair Trade Certified coffee was at Su Casa in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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