There are many reasons to love specialty coffee and the industry that makes it possible. We love how it presents us with the opportunity to meet, befriend and work with people from all around the world, how we get to visit and be surrounded by natural paradises in producing countries, the countless ways we can roast, brew and enjoy the final product. These are all things we love, but it also presents us with a huge dilemma: the romanticized version of our industry vs. the reality going on behind the cup.
Traces of Colonialism in the coffee industry
If you’re reading this, then you probably know that coffee is not native to Latin America. It’s roots trace back to Africa before colonization and the slave trade brought coffee around this hemisphere. Colonialism back then was based on the exploitation of slaves and indigenous population and, as hard as it is to admit, these colonial structures are still present in our industry today.
Many producers, especially small scale farmers (which are a majority in Guatemala) are still marginalized and their success in the industry is directly linked to volatile “C-prices” that may determine if their farm will remain profitable or will operate at a loss. The fact that coffee is still widely treated as a commodity by many, without regard to the human role in the value chain, highlights the power imbalance and marginalization of these communities. We find ourselves in an industry that advocates for transparency and traceability but refuses to provide market access and opportunities for stakeholders in the lower end of the value chain.
This market exclusion and lack of resources trickling down to local farmers leaves them at mercy of international market demand, unprofitable sales contracts and lack of capital to invest in their farms, thus reducing the quality of coffees and resulting in less profitable operations year after year. What these producers can hope for is to get approved for loans that in most cases have astronomical interest rates reaching up to 20-ish% that are simply unfathomable for a small-scale operation. This same market exclusion prevents producers from understanding the consuming end of the value chains, allowing other stakeholders to take advantage of the centuries old colonial structures implicated in running a “profitable business”. These issues are systemic and we need to actively work to turn the tables around. A great way to start is by making sure to know your suppliers, pay sustainable prices that reflect the quality of the coffees you buy, invest in their communities and work with them to ensure the long-term economic sustainability of their operations.
As Guatemalan-based importers, we have had the opportunity to live closely with our producers, allowing us to understand their needs and those of their communities. Forging these relationships are crucial to a more sustainable future in the coffee industry!
Industry trends: Where are we shining the spotlight?
It’s great to see how many stakeholders in coffee’s “third-wave” are actively looking to improve the quality of life of producers, but unfortunately, many of them are still not impact-driven. While we highly value the knowledge and skill behind pouring the perfect shot of espresso, or manually-brewing your favorite pour-over dripper or developing the perfect roast profile, many people would still like to spend time arguing about the best brewing method and shaming people for drinking decaf or coffee-based drinks instead of focusing about the issues at hand.
On the consumer level, that’s fine. People will always have their preferred methods to enjoy their coffees and we even encourage people to explore various methods so they can have the best coffee experience. But for us, stakeholders in the value chain, our focus should be elsewhere. However, many coffee shops and coffee roasters spend way too much time criticizing more “commercial” or “2nd wave” methods of consumption without taking the time to think: is this really what’s wrong with our industry?
As we mentioned above, colonialist structures are still in place and actively hindering production in origin countries. This is not only detrimental to the quality of life of local farmers and communities but if we don’t change the way we view our value chain to a more sustainable approach, the production of high-quality coffees itself will be threatened. Without the necessary support or platforms to produce and sell specialty coffees at a sustainable price, this type of production is simply not viable for producers, especially small-scale ones. The amount of effort and money that needs to be invested to maintain a specialty coffee farm year-round is considerable and this financial burden is the main reason as to why farmers are letting entire plantations uncared for, if not abandoned. It has reached a point where it’s easier to lose the crop than to continue to operate the farm at a loss year in and year out. This financial burden is also the main divergent for future generations of coffee producers, who are opting to pursue alternative industries and labor opportunities that may seem more profitable and stable in both a local and international scale. So in the grand scheme of things, should we really be scrutinizing the wide array of consumption trends out in the coffee landscape while avoiding the deep issues that present an actual, immediate threat to our industry?
This all may seem daunting but it is far from hopeless. We are proud to see so many roasters and shops across Europe actively working towards a more equitable and sustainable industry, while maintaining exemplary quality standards for consumer markets. As our name suggests, we are honored to be surrounded by amigos both in Guatemala and in Europe that are placing special emphasis to make the coffee value chain a level playing ground so we can all rise together.
Let’s move forward together
Personally, we find it extremely hard to avoid thinking about all the negative stuff happening in our industry, but rather than complain about it, we’d rather make a difference. We believe that it is no one stakeholder’s responsibility to solve all the issues in the coffee value chain, but rather all of our responsibility that no one is being left behind.
We are heart-warmed to be experiencing this first hand with White Flag Coffee. If there’s a prime example of how the industry can lift each other up is through all our partners, at origin and in Europe, efforts to help relieve the distress caused by the COVID-19 health crisis. Teo from Finca La Bella provided us with an amazing White Flag Coffee Blend, while our roasting partners across Europe didn’t hesitate to purchase it and help support Guatemalan communities in need. It’s these friends and family that give us hope that the future of the coffee industry will be a better place for everyone involved and our motivation to continue to share Guatemala’s best coffees with the world.
If you’d like to get involved in White Flag Coffee, feel free to reach out to us. We’d love to have you on board!