Certification Confusion Hurts Consumers and Producers

San Pedro Sula  Meeting with our organizers in Honduras and Mexico, we once again found ourselves struggling with the problems of certification claims for coffee and other products.  The globally certifier for fair trade coffee, the Fair Licensing Organization (FLO) is based in Bonn, Germany, but everyone and their cousin is now certifying coffee as “fair trade” or organic.  The problem faces us as we debated the costs of running a coffee operation in a new building being opened at the university in San Pedro Sula that would finance the organizing in Honduras.

We have numerous partner cooperative fair trade coffee producers in Honduras.   Our old friends with COMUCAP in Marcala near the Salvadorian border greeted us on this visit.  We have other friends nearer to Tegucigalpa who also produce excellent, FLO certified coffee.  We are committed to serving Honduran coffee in Honduras, but at $0.35 to $0.75 per cup for students, our organizers and the Fair Grinds manager wondered how we could stand out if there was no real understanding in the local market of the value of fair trade and organic coffee?  The local market is used to drinking the worst coffee beans produced in Honduras, and here we are talking about an operation that wants to serve the best and still compete.   Yikes!

We also have producer members now around San Pedro Sula growing plantains, yucca, and other stuff that are desperate for higher prices but can’t be economically exported at their small scale. Our coffeehouse here, assuming we can get it up and running, would want to compete by going “all local,” so this would help, but we would hardly be able to pay more.  Sigh.

Reading the US papers on-line I was heartened to read of a filing before the US Federal Trade Commission by Forest Ethics and others claiming the industry was false marketing paper as certified when it seemed they were self-certifying.  Everyone would love to be able to “say” they were great, certified, organic, and so forth, and get away with it.  And, in fact Starbucks self-certifies and gets away with it.  There are now splits on coffee with Rainforest Action, the former US branch of FLO, and FLO itself all issuing certifications.

We have to have consumers throughout the world care that the producers are getting a fair wage, working cooperatively, and delivering a great product, but on the street corner level there is almost no way for us as vendors to carry the weight of consumer education if big operations have a self-interest in confusion and self-certification for their own profits.

Certification Confusion Audio Blog

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Life in the Coffee Mountains with Co-ops Big and Small

Sorting at RAOS

Marcala    Thanks to our friends at the small women’s coffee and aloe vera cooperative, COMUCAP, we usually stay at their cabinas high in the mountains.  There’s no water or electricity, but the setting is beautiful and the bunks work fine for us.  They hope someday eco-tourism will come their way, who knows?  We started driving up before dark and a light, intermittent rain quickly turned some of the clay and rock road up the mountain into gumbo.  We were almost there and two large multi-ton work truckers were stuck ahead of us.  One got through, leaving deep ruts wounding the road and bleeding red clay.  The other backed down the rise, forcing us over to the shoulder.  We tried to climb through twice, each time lacking enough clearance in the small rental car to make it, and ended up backing down ourselves.  We found a $20 hotel in town with hot water, then jumped a ride with a 4×4 diesel Toyota pickup first thing in the morning to recover our gear, none the worse for wear.  Life in the coffee mountains!

COMUCAP and its hopes for eco-tourism

The late morning and early afternoon were spent in productive meetings with COMUCAP about plans to buy coffee and to sell aloe vera.  They are now fair trade certified by FLO in Germany, so we believe we may have potential customers for them in Canada, if we can figure it all out.

The trick for us in coffee is now bringing back crop samples to New Orleans so that our roaster at Fair Grinds can test the quality of various crops and see if we can get others to join us in buying a larger lot of coffee to directly ship to the city.  Before this trip is over we will lug 30 pounds of green, dried coffee beans back for roasting to see if we can organize a buying cooperative from the cooperatives, as it were.  The devil is in the details though, and we are struggling to get the pricing in line.

Cupping some of the coffee for us at RAOS

We had run into a fellow I had originally met at COMUCAP on my first visit three years ago, who was now working at another, larger coffee cooperative in Marcala called RAOS.  He invited us to take a look at their operation.  Wow!  We were impressed.  It was huge comparatively.  Two shifts of workers, including rows of women sorting out bad beans to ensure the quality and gangs of young men bagging the beans, including fair trade and multi-certified beans, as well as rakers to keep the beans dry, and other workers cupping the coffee in the lab, working the drying machines, and altogether adding up to probably 100 workers employed not as producers but in the final process after the beans left the coffee plantations.  RAOS produces enough coffee to ship 30 containers to various markets.

Filling a Fair Trade quintal at RAOS

It was encouraging to see how producers could come together to get to the next level!

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