The farmers squinted into the cameras, their mouths bound by gags, their hands cupping coffee beans. They stood in silence, demonstrating what it feels like to be cut out of the debate.
Last September, coffee farmers from seven countries traveled to Salvador, Brazil, to add their voices to the World Coffee Conference, a special meeting of the International Coffee Organization. The ICO is an intergovernmental organization that brings together coffee-producing and coffee-consuming countries.
The World Coffee Conference kicked off Oxfam America's campaign to influence the next International Coffee Agreement. That agreement was a key issue at the ICO meeting in London this past week, but no specific proposals were forthcoming to solve those ongoing economic problems.
Oxfam has been working to make the agreement better reflect the needs and concerns of small-scale farmers who are struggling with the changing face of the coffee crisis.
"I wonder if the participants at the World Coffee Conference know what the coffee crisis has truly meant for producers," said Pradeep Nandipur of the Karnataka Growers Federation in India.
"In my region, farmers committed suicide because they could see no way out of their mounting debt. They had no way to repay it because their income was gone."
To survive these challenges, farmers and farmworkers said they require some stability, the kind that only comes through long-term capital investment, access to markets, and political representation.
Cooperatives In crisis
When the international price of coffee dropped to historic lows in 2001, family farmers in places like Guatemala and Ethiopia fell into crisis.
With a glut of coffee on the market, many couldn't find buyers for their crops. Others couldn't pull in enough profits to pay off their farming expenses and feed their children.
Many farmers who survived the price drop were members of fair trade cooperatives. By agreeing to certain principles, such as transparency with members, democratic elections, and setting aside a percentage of profits for the community, cooperative members received a guaranteed minimum price for their crop.
"When the prices were low, fair trade was the best market we had," said Moise Coz, administrator of the IJATZ coop in Guatemala.
Farmers who were part of fair trade cooperatives said they made enough money to buy food, clothe and educate their children, and buy more farmland. Some coops even had enough money to buy mills to process their own coffee or to help local schools buy chalkboards and desks.
But even as farmers were counting the benefits of their fair trade premium, the crisis was changing. The price of coffee began to recover, creating competition between the coops and local middlemen representing importers or mega-roasters.
Some farmers now find themselves in an awkward position. They can sell their coffee to their cooperative for less and wait a few months for payment. Or they can sell to middlemen, called coyotes, willing to pay a higher up-front price.
The cooperatives try to remain competitive by using some of their savings to pay the difference between their price and the coyotes' price. But many fall short.
They need to use their savings to pay the administrative staff or electricity bill. In the end, the best thing cooperatives can do is try to remind farmers that what goes up must come down. When the international price drops, the cooperatives will be the only ones offering a price safety net and specialized training.
"We explain why they aren't receiving the money up front. We have costs to pay off," states Guillermo Campa, President of the IJATZ cooperative.
"We tell them that they need to think about the future. Think about the price dropping like it did in the past. If they work with fair trade, they can have a stable price."
But that argument doesn't always work. "People who live day to day can't just depend on what happened in the past," said Carlos Reynoso, manager of Manos Campesinas cooperative in Guatemala.
What Can Be Done?
So how do coffee cooperatives respond? How do they get their members to sell them enough coffee so they can fulfill their contracts with importers and roasters? And how does the International Coffee Organization help?
Stronger cooperatives are more competitive in a fluctuating market. In order to get there, cooperatives need access to debt refinancing, low-interest loans for working capital, long-term capital investment, information, and markets. With a voice at the ICO, small-scale farmers and their cooperatives can advocate for these interests.
At the World Coffee Conference, Oxfam America and its partners presented coffee producing and consuming countries with a declaration articulating the needs of small-scale farmers and their cooperatives. The declaration calls for these issues to be addressed in the next International Coffee Agreement.
This is just one component of a strategy to give the world's 25 million coffee farmers a real chance to do what they've done for generations—and turn a profit that makes it all worthwhile.
"We need to take advantage of this historic opportunity," said Seth Petchers, Coffee Program Manager at Oxfam America. "We can use these negotiations to put measures in place that better address what these farmers face."