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Guest commentary: UA needs to switch to Fair Trade coffee

Moses Nyaribo
Guest Commentary
By Moses Nyaribo
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, September 23, 2004
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In the early '90s in a small hilly village in Kenya, I recall a longtime teenage friend named Okioi (pronounced O-key-O-ei).

O could read English. He read stories from old newspaper articles that he obtained by collecting wraps from items bought at the local shop. (Unlike the plastic bags that you get at your grocery store, merchandise was wrapped nicely in old newspapers).

On a typical evening, as the rays of the sun sank down the western horizon, around 10 kids would sit with O to listen to the translations of the newspaper stories that he had read, while we shared miniature roast bites of weaver birds that we'd caught during the day. We were particularly enamored of stories about America, that great land where Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), our hero, lived.

O could spell "onomatopoeia" and do simple arithmetic without referring to the multiplication table, and so, though he got to school late every morning, teachers treated him favorably and preferred his answers to questions that were posed in class. He always arrived late to school because, like many other families in the village, he had to work on their small coffee farm before coming to school. These families pick and sell coffee beans as their only means of subsistence.

There are over 25 million such small-scale coffee farmers around the world whose livelihood solely depends on the coffee farms that they labor on. O's family happily depended on one of those farms. With coffee being one of the most traded products in the world - second only to petroleum - the expectation is that coffee farmers are economically secure.

But that is not the case. Okioi's life dreams have been shattered by exploitative trade practices that have driven coffee revenues to a 30-year low. He dropped school midway through high school because his parents could not risk the luxury of keeping him in school when other basics like food and medicine could barely fit in the family budget. Such is the desperate fate that millions other coffee-farming families find themselves in.

A 2004 United Nations Development Program's annual report finds "extreme" poverty among hard-working families, most of them small-scale farmers in Third World countries. The report recommends an "urgent need to end extreme poverty and hunger." Never mind that the message from those turgid reports remains the same year after year. In fact, despite the excessive resources that the world has created, economic desperation has become so much a part of some countries that with current global economic and political trends, one could write a year 2010 annual report on poverty and hunger on some countries, complete with gloomy statistics, six years earlier!

The drop in the revenue among coffee farmers is a result of several business and political "middlemen" who come between you, the consumer, and the coffee farmers. These middlemen exploit farmers and keep most of the coffee proceeds. Thus, only a meager fraction of what you pay at your favorite coffee stop gets down to the farmer.

A recent survey by Oxfam America shows that millions of coffee farmers receive less money than the cost of producing the coffee beans, a situation that leaves the farmers with no option but to abandon coffee farming altogether- which means letting go of the thread that supports the lives of millions of children!

But thanks to the Fair Trade initiative, there is a glimmer of hope glowing from the consumer end that will rescue the lives of millions of these families from abject desperation.

Fair Trade products are goods that are certified by Trans Fair USA, a nonprofit organization that works in partnership with farmers' co-operatives, importers and other organizations around the world to guarantee fair returns for imported products. The products bypass extortionist middlemen in the trade chain to ensure trade equity. Fair Trade coffee usually has a discernible Fair Trade Certifiedô label. Many coffee distributors and roasters in the country are now providing Fair Trade coffee to grocery stores and institutions (mostly on request). Meanwhile, over 300 colleges around the country have switched to only Fair Trade-certified coffee on their campuses.

Our student union dining services, which supply food to 35 vendors on campus, serves lots of coffee that is not Fair Trade-certified. Saving a life of a hungry child in Peru can be as easy as switching to fairly-traded coffee on the UA campus. We can be a little more mindful of the source of our beverages.

Moses Nyaribo is an aerospace engineering junior and president of the Students for Fair Trade club.

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