SEEDS OF SUSTAINABILITY
Hunger in the Coffee Lands
For 25 years, the specialty coffee trade has been making an extraordinary commitment to sustainability at origin. And yet, hunger in the coffee lands is still commonplace.
Hunger is commonplace in fair trade cooperatives, direct trade relationships, on large estates and among small-scale growers. Hunger is commonplace in communities supported by NGOs large and small, local and otherwise, and hunger is present despite the best minds and the most committed people. And yet, while hunger is commonplace at origin, whether we are commercial businesses or non-profits, the word ‘sustainability’ is used over and over again to describe our work. We even give ourselves sustainability awards.
Seeds Not Roots
Like many of my friends and colleagues, I have spent the better part of the last 25 years in pursuit of sustainability for coffee farmers and their families. From time to time, I have come upon some of the roots of sustainability: education, health care, food sovereignty, and economic diversification. I have even employed an integrated approach toward sustainability by employing a comprehensive development program utilizing all of these components supported by an intensive capacity building program for the local, participating NGOs. What I did not realize was that I should not have been searching for the roots. I should have been searching for the seeds.
Why Seeds? Seeds Reproduce.
There are numerous NGOs promoting education, health care, food security and economic diversification at origin. And, there are many examples of successful efforts. However, those efforts are most often limited to the region and the project supported by the NGO. Rarely do these projects spread on their own to other regions. That said, if sustainable growth always requires an NGO or an outside donor, there are simply not enough NGOs or donors in the world to help 25 million coffee-farming families develop into sustainable communities.
True sustainability will only take root and grow when the seeds of sustainability sprout without outside support.
I refer to this as spontaneous replication. And, I now recognize that sustainability will not occur unless successful solutions toward overcoming poverty are replicated spontaneously from farmer-to-farmer, without the help of professional NGOs.
Recently, frustrated over the discrepancy between the language surrounding sustainability and the hard-to-accept reality of sustainability, I discovered one of those seeds, not the only seed, but one of the seeds that fosters true sustainability. I witnessed this seed growing quite effectively in Guatemala and Honduras.
The seed is actually commonly known. In fact, most of my friends and colleagues have known it for some time. But, nourishing the seed has proven to be extremely complicated. It requires extraordinary patience, uncompromised commitment, perseverance, and faith in human beings. The seed is self-empowerment. While self-empowerment is hardly a secret to anyone serious about sustainability, unintentionally, for 25 years we have not been nourishing it.
Coffee Buyers and the Power Dynamic
When coffee buyers promote a development project in a community from which they purchase coffee, no matter how important the project may be, it cannot promote self-empowerment. Why? Simply because of who they are. Coffee buyers come to each community with a power-dynamic written all over them. Coffee is the single most important cash crop to the community. It only takes an element of common sense to realize that no one in the community will object to the interests of the coffee buyer for fear of offending the coffee buyer.
More importantly, even if the buyer supports a project that is not only valuable, but extremely important to the well-being of the community, even if a thorough and respectful diagnostic has been done, the subtle message the farmers receives is, ‘The coffee buyer is powerful and wealthy. I cannot possibly know what the buyer knows. I cannot possibly accomplish this on my own.’
The farmer may copy the project, but never takes full ownership of it because it is not his or her project. It’s the buyer’s. Instead of promoting self-empowerment, self-empowerment is unintentionally undermined. In fact, the message the farmer hears is, ‘I can’t do that’, which is anything but self-empowerment, and anything but self-sustaining. This is top-down development and can only serve to limit growth, not promote it.
No wonder, after 25 years, hunger is still commonplace in the coffee lands.
NGOs and Top-Down Development
When NGOs promote development, a power dynamic is still present, as the NGO comes with a resource desperately needed by the community – money. However, without the commercial interest, the power-dynamic is lessened and a community may, indeed, feel more freedom to disagree with the NGO and even suggest alternatives. In such cases where the NGO may have overlooked or misunderstood the community’s cultural values, a professional NGO will pride itself on listening to communities and responding respectfully. A professional NGO will adjust the plan to become more sensitive to the values and culture of a community. The revised project may be undertaken. The recipients are grateful.
However, while the farmers may experience the respectful dialogue with the NGO, it is the NGO that organizes and funds the project. The NGO provides the resources and any new technologies. The overarching reality is that the project could never have been developed without the initiative resources and or support of the NGO. The unintended message received by the farmer is all too familiar. ‘The NGO is creative and capable of solving the most complex problems. I could never do this on my own.’
Instead of promoting self-empowerment, self-empowerment is unintentionally undermined. Similar to buyer-initiated development, NGO-initiated development is top-down development, and can only serve to limit growth, not promote it.
No wonder, after 25 years, hunger is still commonplace in the coffee lands.
Unintentionally Undermining Self-Empowerment
In the enthusiasm to promote valuable projects, and show progress in ‘a reasonable amount of time’, donors and NGOs measure achievements periodically. Understandably, the donor, buyer, or NGO wants some level of success to demonstrate the value and productivity of the project and to provide the base for further funding. The project moves right along from benchmark to benchmark, yet usually well ahead of a healthy, organic pace. There is not enough time that allows for backtracking from lessons learned, or reaping the benefits from errors and failures.
Regardless of the understanding or intent, regardless of diagnostic and/or listening skills, buyer-driven or NGO-driven projects undermine self-empowerment the moment they introduce their intent to undertake a project – even a project sensitive to the priorities, values and culture of a community. From the very beginning, the long-term sustainability of the project is doomed, unless it is driven by farmers, and community participants; not by buyers, and not by NGOs. But, how do farmers gain the knowledge they need without outside support>
A Role for Buyers and NGOs
Whether specialty coffee buyers are looking to ensure a fluid line of supply, or if specialty coffee buyers are genuinely concerned about the well-being of their coffee-farming partners, they can have a valuable role to play in helping coffee-farming families to improve the lives. Buyers can research responsible, local NGOs and provide resources to these NGOs. However, the local NGOs must focus on facilitating opportunities instead of taking too much responsibility for the development of the program.
Local NGOs have a role to play that coffee buyers cannot play. But, local NGOs should not offer solutions, not even valuable solutions. Instead, local NGOs must research local solutions from nearby farmers who have addressed and solved problems similar to the problems faced by their community. Once discovered, NGOs should focus on bringing these farmers together to share their knowledge and understanding. In this way, solutions are shared among peers whose experiences and values are the same, and live under similar circumstances. In this way, information comes laterally, not come from the top down. And, it doesn’t come from the outside or from resource-rich or powerful interests.
Most importantly though, buyers and NGOs should operate behind the scenes and steer clear of direct control over projects.
Farmer to Farmer
Sharing knowledge from farmer to farmer, among people of the same or similar culture, socioeconomic and cultural strata, comes along with a very powerful message. Farmers see a solution to their problem solved by another farmer exactly like them. The not-so-subtle message they receive in the process is, ‘He or she is just like me. Look what they did! I can do that.’ This experience is the complete opposite of an experience promoted by a buyer or NGO. Sharing knowledge amongst farmers is the goal. The concept of sharing can be promoted by the NGO. However, any solutions, strategies and new technologies must be shared from farmer to farmer.
The Process is Not Linear
There are a lot of challenges in this process. Solutions meander from challenge to challenge. However, within each challenge lie the seeds that eventually lead to success. This process takes a long time, often much longer than NGOs, donors or buyers are willing to wait. Success is achieved slowly, far slower than a timetable set by donors and NGOs who need to meet fiscal year targets. NGOs must have the patience, commitment, perseverance and faith to allow farmers to find their own way. In the end, problems are solved and spread organically, once again, from farmer to farmer.
Success from farmer to farmer programs promote self-empowerment. Maybe more importantly, the sharing of information is rarely one way. It’s a lateral relationship, not a top-down, mentor-mentee relationship. All parties share something, and quite naturally, they share what they have learned with their friends and neighbors. What results is spontaneous replication. Spontaneous replication promotes valuable information beyond its intended region without help from the coffee buyer or even the best of the NGOs. Spontaneous replication is the clearest evidence of sustainability. It’s proof that new seeds are sprouting organically, at their own pace, not at anyone else’s pace.
Sustainability Without Boundaries
Coffee farmers live on some of the world’s richest lands, from which they provide coffee that makes our taste buds tremble. Yet, despite an unprecedented effort to promote sustainability at origin, hunger in the coffee lands remains unchanged. If we continue to do the same things we have been doing, we will achieve the same results and we will be discussing this discrepancy in another 25 years.
We need to dig deeper to nourish the seeds of self-empowerment. If we do, those seeds will produce and reproduce sustainable solutions, and hunger will no longer be commonplace in the coffee lands.
The Coffee Trust does not have all the answers. But, we are not afraid to ask the tough questions, of others and of ourselves. Please help us as we nourish the seeds of sustainability through the farmer-to-farmer approach to sustainable development.
MAKE A DONATION TOWARD SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT