For over ten years, the Catholic parish of St. Mary of the Angels in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts, has been a constant and significant supporter of Equal Exchange and the farmers we represent. St. Mary’s serves Equal Exchange coffee at fellowship after Mass and re-sells thousands of dollars’ worth of coffee, chocolate and other products at quarterly table sales.
A significant number of parishioners at St. Mary’s are originally from the Dominican Republic, where Equal Exchange has a close and longstanding relationship with CONACADO, the National Confederation of Dominican Cacao Producers. CONACADO has supplied us with cacao for our chocolate bars for 13 years. A coincidence a few years ago illustrated the importance of the Dominican connection. When an Equal Exchange staffer was at St. Mary’s presenting some Power Point slides of farmer-members of CONACADO, one of the parishioners in the audience pointed to a slide and cried out “That’s my cousin!”
On a recent Sunday after Mass, Abel Fernandez, one of the founders of CONACADO, spoke at St. Mary’s, to a mostly Dominican audience. He related the history of his cooperative, from its beginning in 1985 with 700 members and and growth to its current size of over 10,000; and its effect on the Dominican cacao industry. Before CONACADO, he said, Dominican cacao was of low quality, and mostly sold for a below-market price to candy companies in the United States. The industry was controlled by a few processors who set the “take-it-or-leave-it” price.
CONACADO changed the industry in the Dominican Republic in many ways. They:
The cooperative offers farmers an alternative to the oligopoly of fat-cat processors. Currently, about a quarter of the Dominican Republic’s small cacao farmers are members of CONACADO.
Abel’s presentation was accompanied by chocolate croissants and a chocolate fountain, both made with Equal Exchange chocolate. The fountain also used Equal Exchange organic and fairly traded bananas for dipping—it was a big hit with the children.
How do your fellow parishioners react when you propose fairly traded coffee for sale or fellowship hour? Do you get a yawn, or a pat on the back, but not much support? Do you quote Matthew 25, Luke 10 or Laudato Si’ to no avail?
In his book on church organizing, Activism That Makes Sense, Gregory Pierce points out a reason for apparent apathy: many people—including many Catholics—tend to feel that if an issue does not directly affect their self-interest they should leave it to people who are directly affected.
To reach those people, you need to drop the charity argument and point out that the well-being of others, especially in countries close to ours, affects us directly and immediately.
The countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador for example, are currently experiencing gang violence, high unemployment, unbalanced distribution of wealth and inadequate infrastructure. Their societies cannot provide all the jobs they need or safety for all their people. Migrants searching for jobs and safety travel to where these are available, the United States, so they can support their families back home.
In the last few years hundreds of thousands of people have travelled from Central America to the United States. Many Americans fear that these immigrants will compete for jobs in a bewilderingly changing economy. We have been told that migrants are “bringing drugs” and “bringing crime” and that we need a two thousand mile long wall to keep them out.
They’re not bringing drugs and crime, they’re fleeing drugs and crime. Spending billions of dollars building a wall on the U.S. Mexico border is like ordering the ocean tides to stop rising. It would be far more effective to help mitigate the conditions which force people to migrate.
Equal Exchange and other alternative trade organizations collaborate with small farmers who have pooled their resources in cooperatives. We offer long-term relationships, stable, above-market prices, affordable credit and collaboration in sustainable development.
In buying fairly traded coffee you are acting in your own self-interest, collaborating with the people of Central America to build safe, stable, prosperous societies on our borders, to trade with us on a more equal footing and who have the means to do what most of them want to do in the first place, stay home with their families.
Every year on Tuesday in Holy Week, the clergy of the Episcopal Diocese of California gather at Grace Cathedral to renew their ordination vows and receive newly blessed oils for healing and baptism. The oil they receive is the “Oil of Chrism,” a mixture of olive oil, cinnamon, cassia, calamus, and myrrh blended according to an ancient recipe prescribed in the book of Leviticus and prepared annually by the verger of Grace Cathedral, Charles Shipley. Priests receive two vials each year to be used in their congregations: Chrism for baptisms and Infirmorum for anointing the sick.
In March of 2016, when Mr. Shipley prepared the Oil of Chrism, one ingredient was different than usual. The olive oil in the mixture was organic and fairly traded, produced by small scale Palestinian farmer cooperatives in the West Bank. Please enjoy this video featuring Mr. Shipley preparing last year’s batch of Oil.
Equal Exchange olive oil is processed by the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee (PARC), a nonprofit organization that works with farmers and helps with overall technical assistance, water consultation and supply, storage facilities, quality control testing, and bottling. The organization also works with women and youth to promote viable and sustainable economic development.
Equal Exchange, together with the CRS Ethical Trade program, Episcopal Relief & Development, and other faith-based partners distribute the Palestinian oil in the U.S. PARC, Equal Exchange, and its other faith-based partner organizations are very committed to helping Palestinian farmers in the West Bank to make a living. One way that these farmers can make ends meet is through sales to individuals and churches around the world.
With Lent in full swing and Holy week around the corner, the Chrism Mass will soon be prepared and celebrated across several denominations including the Episcopalian Church, the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches.
Consider asking your Dioceses to include fairly traded, organic olive oil from the West Bank as part of the blend this year. The Chrism oil must be made with pure oil of olives. What’s more pure than olive oil made by workers in the Holy Land who are paid a fair price for their harvest? It adds the element of Justice to the Oil of Chrism.
Contributed by Peter Buck and Susan Sklar, Equal Exchange Interfaith Team
In July, the “Nuns on the Bus” let loose again, starting in Wisconsin in mid-July, and hitting towns and cities—and congressional offices—in the northeast, on the way to both the Republican and Democratic conventions to challenge public officials and candidates to “Mend the Gaps” in Wealth and Income Inequality.
Network Lobby, the year-round home of the Nuns, is a long-time customer of Equal Exchange, and we proudly donated the coffee, tea and chocolate for the trip.
Peter Buck, from Equal Exchange, spoke at their July 23rd rally in Boston. See a video of his speech from the rally.
It’s bad enough that small coffee farmers get peanuts for their beans, and face natural and human disasters like unusual hurricanes or gang violence. The latest crisis to burden them is a fungus called coffee leaf rust, which causes blemishes on a coffee plants’ leaves, damaging the health and productivity of the plant, and in the worst cases killing it.
Over the past several years, coffee rust has reduced harvests in Central and South America by as much as 80%, destroying the livelihood of many small farmers who frequently lack the resources to control the damage.
There is general agreement among coffee experts that the spread of coffee rust is sped up by changing weather patterns: storms of greater intensity, unusually heavy rainfall, waves of intense heat, or prolonged dry spells.
Older and weaker trees are more likely to contract the fungus, and one solution is to remove the affected trees and plant new ones. However, many small farmers, already suffering from a drop in income, cannot survive the four years it takes a tree to produce its first saleable harvest. Shorter term natural solutions, involving soil enrichments, are also expensive.
Both Catholic Relief Services and Equal Exchange are deeply involved in collaborating with farmers to fight this plague and develop farmer resilience. And our farmer partners and international activists have agreed, to quote the report of the recent Coffee Rust Summit, that “long-term purchase commitments and viable pricing structure” are necessary from trading partners in order to combat this crisis.
As a fair trade buyer, Equal Exchange’s commitment is to the “viable pricing structure”. In 2015, this commitment included paying coffee farming communities a total of about $7 million over the market price for nearly 7.9 million pounds of coffee.
Our “long-term purchase commitments” also include broader collaboration with our trading partners, aimed at mitigating natural disasters—whether coffee rust, or hurricanes—and supporting economic progress. Such projects have included rebuilding a flooded road in El Salvador with funds from our church customers, facilitating farmer-to-farmer seminars on soil productivity in Central America, and training in coffee quality in the Congo, empowering farmer cooperatives to know the value of their coffee.
Over the last year, Equal Exchange has made special efforts in the fight against coffee leaf rust for several coffee farming communities in Mexico, El Salvador, and Peru. These co-ops have received more than $250,000 in investment through the Coffee Farmer Resilience Initiative, including over $100,000 from Equal Exchange. The investments have been used to replant more than a million coffee trees in the last year, and improve training, technology and productivity.
Catholic Relief Services (CRS) is the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. Since 2003, CRS has conducted 20 projects in coffee communities, in 14 countries, committing over $47 million and involving over 50,000 smallholder families.
Along with its development projects, CRS is committed to combating the effects of climate change, specifically as it relates to the coffee leaf rust crisis. Typical of the communities CRS works with is Nuevo Eden in the department of San Marcos in Guatemala.
In addition, CRS is launching the CRS Coffee Program, “situated at the intersection of coffee and development” where a cash crop can enhance the prosperity of a farming village.
The Program envisions a world of prosperous smallholding coffee farmers; empowered coffee farmworkers; and coffee-lands where farming improves the environment, mitigates the impacts of climate change and delivers clean water to communities downstream.
The Program is a three-year, $4.5 million initiative which will place full-time expert staff in Central and East Africa, Central and South America and the United States, who will coordinate CRS’ coffee projects in those regions.
Peter Buck is a Senior Representative of the Interfaith & Community Sales program at Equal Exchange. This blog post is part of an ongoing series of reflections on the relationship between Fair Trade and Catholic teachings.
Pope Francis’ trip to Mexico, and particularly his visit to the state of Chiapas, reminded me of one of my visits there, when I saw how God transmits social teaching to His people.
Formal Catholic Social Teaching is defined by a set of Papal documents, starting with Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical on the condition of the working class, Rerum Novarum. Ultimately, however, it originates in how God speaks to us in scripture. On a trip to Mexico, I saw how God transmits social teaching to a group of His people there.
In 2008, I led a delegation of our church customers to visit coffee farmers in the Mexican state of Chiapas. We were guests in the village of La Ceiba, and on our first night we were surprised to be greeted with a brass band, speeches of welcome, and a Catholic liturgy led by a local deacon.
The reading was from the book of the prophet Amos. In the eighth chapter Amos delivers God’s warning to those who act unjustly toward the poor, in this case unscrupulous grain merchants in ancient Palestine:
For the farmers of La Ceiba this reading isn’t symbolic, it’s a precise description of how they have been cheated for generations.
Before they formed a cooperative, the farmers had only one buyer for their coffee beans—the same plantation owner whose land they used to till as debt peons. At harvest, if they took a 60 kilogram bag of coffee to the buyer, it would only weigh 55 kilograms on the buyer’s “fraudulently-tampered” scale; on top of that, the buyer would offer a low price, “buying up the weak for silver.”
With the help of their Bishop these farmers formed the CIRSA cooperative and ultimately found Fair Trade buyers like Equal Exchange who would weigh their coffee honestly and pay an adequate, stable price. The farmers of La Ceiba were happy to welcome us with a brass band, speeches and some instruction in Catholic Social Teaching.
There’s excitement here at Equal Exchange about Pope Francis’ encyclical letter on the environment, “Laudato Si’ (Praise Be): Care for our Common Home.” In the Pope’s encyclical, he makes a powerful call for urgent action on climate change and environmental pollution. These issues are of paramount importance to many, including us at Equal Exchange.
A central theme of the Pope’s encyclical is that there can be no solution to the climate crisis without redressing the gross disparities of wealth between the global north and the impoverished global south, and bringing real, sustainable economic progress to the developing world. The problem, he says, is not just one of education or resources, but of unequal power relationships between the north and south, the wealthy and the poor, and the disproportionate effect of pollution and climate change on the most vulnerable communities. As a Fair Trade organization, these issues are ones we know well, and challenging this inequality is at the heart of our mission.
In the first chapter, Pope Francis discusses pollution, climate change, water, and the decline of biodiversity. He emphasizes the ways in which the poor, individually and as nations, bear the brunt of environmental degradation and climate change. These problems are worsened by the reckless business practices of “companies which operate in less-developed countries in ways they could never do at home.” When such companies close down their mines, factories or plantations, “they leave behind great human and environmental liabilities” like unemployment, deforestation, open pits and polluted rivers.
In illustrating an alternative, the Pope highlights communities of small farmers, like those who partner with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and Equal Exchange. He describes them as “co-operatives of small producers [who] adopt less polluting means of production, and opt for a non-consumerist model of life, recreation and community.” We were thrilled to see the Pope recognize and promote the importance of small farmer co-ops and their role in driving forward a more sustainable farming model.
Equal Exchange and our interfaith partners have had close relationships with such communities for decades, and we strive to champion and support them in all we do. For example, Catholic Relief Services has helped farming communities develop organic coffee farming and processing systems, among many other projects. Equal Exchange has consistently offered a premium price to communities which produce their coffee organically and helped encourage organic innovation wherever possible. Recently, both Equal Exchange and CRS have worked to support efforts to implement organic solutions to the one of the most pressing environmental issues in Latin America: coffee rust fungus, a widespread and devastating crop disease exacerbated by climate change.
The Pope also praises the “great variety of small-scale food production systems which feed the greater part of the world’s peoples, using modest amounts of land and producing less waste.” He describes the central problem that Equal Exchange and other Fair Trade organizations work to resolve: “[Communities’] attempts to move to other, more diversified means of production proving fruitless because of the difficulty of linkage with regional and global markets, or because the infrastructure for sales and transport is geared to larger businesses.”
Finding access to the market as a small farmer is a serious challenge, and historically it has not favored the farmer. Trading with small producer co-ops and giving them market access, without middlemen or exploitation, is a central tenet of Fair Trade. Co-ops also allow farmers to pool resources to build up the essential “infrastructure of sales and transport,” supported by Fair Traders like Equal Exchange and development organizations like Catholic Relief Services.
Pope Francis has written a profound, rich document that warrants several careful readings.
His Holiness delves into the science, politics, economics, and theology surrounding the global crisis. I have just commented on a small piece of it that speaks most particularly to our work. Read the Pope’s encyclical and you will find many passages that speak particularly to you.
Peter Buck has been at Equal Exchange since 2002, and is responsible for its relationship with Catholic Relief Services and the Catholic community generally. He is a a parish councilor, lector and minister of coffee and donuts at Sacred Heart Parish in Roslindale, Massachusetts, and a member of the Boston Archdiocese Pastoral Council.