The True Cost of Coffee

A Story by a Peace Corps Volunteer

By Joan Heberger - Peace Corps Volunteer: Honduras (2002-2004)

January is the "mero mero," or height, of coffee season in Corquín. Everything I had heard about the coffee season is true: The world revolves around the harvest; it is cold and wet; there are a lot of new people, cars, and businesses. Corquín is full of workers from many other towns, workers who live and work in extremely poor conditions for little pay. It was a bad year for a lot of people. Prices were low, about 30 or 40 cents a pound! This year's harvest was about half as big as last year's. The cold weather made it hard to find enough willing workers, and the coffee berries began to fall off the trees, threatening the health of the trees for next year's harvest. Despite all this, harvesting and processing coffee is the most excitement Corquín sees all year. People who manage the farms work from before sunup until 9 or 10 at night driving workers, washing, depulping, drying, bagging, and selling the coffee. The people who stay home cook all day for many new people.

The process of cultivating and harvesting coffee leads to a huge contamination of Corquín's streams and rivers, as well as all the water that runs downhill from us. This year, the environmental arm of the mayor's office and the local development nonprofit ODECO tried to diminish the environmental impact with several new ordinances and training. One obvious problem is that people chop down forests to plant farms. Another major problem is the aguas mieles, or honey water, that comes from washing the pulpy sweet part of the fruit. Still another problem comes from the thousands of workers. The living conditions consist of several families, plus other individuals, living on the farms in makeshift shacks, sleeping on the ground, cooking where they can, and (here comes the contamination) going to the bathroom where there are no bathrooms. Some farms have latrines, but a lot of them don't, and even if the farms do, coffee cutters don't have latrines at their homes, and so they aren't used to the latrines and don't necessarily like using them. If you don't grow up with a toilet, it is not that easy to use one.

These are big, complicated problems. Most of us are not visionaries and do not think long-term or worldwide. It is hard to convince someone that deforestation is bad when his family needs firewood to cook every day. Coffee is the only source of income for the majority; they are concerned with getting paid for the biggest harvest possible today, not with the illnesses they or their neighbors might develop later from contaminated water. And most of us do not make the connection between our everyday actions and the fact that there are no longer fish in the river or that the fresh, cool breeze that used to blow where there were trees no longer does.

Consider the case of my friend Juanita, a 55-year-old widow who takes care of several acres with help from a few people. During the harvest, Juanita walks an hour uphill to her farm every day. She has no lagoon for treating the water, and the families that live on her property do not have a latrine. Like most women, she does not attend the community meetings, where men discuss these problems. She is too busy taking care of her farm and her grandchildren, and is probably not invited.

The mayor's office said that all coffee farm owners needed to have a certain number of latrines for their workers, and that they had to build lagoons to treat the water from the coffee-washing process. And they are trying to do a good job with follow-up. A lot of people got angry with the news, or just ignored it. The authorities needed to guarantee anonymity to anyone willing to denounce a neighbor. I am not confident that anonymity exists in Corquín. Everyone is family! Who will denounce his or her cousin to the police? I am hopeful that the program will make a difference, but I will not be surprised if the impact is small.

A positive change is that there are several model farms in our area, where the farmers are using organic fertilizers and pesticides and soil conservation techniques. They receive training in how to grow and process coffee safely, and in how to grow other important plants and trees in their coffee farms. They work as ideal educators in their communities.

I have hope for our environmental problems. I can't do much about the contamination from harvesting coffee; instead, I focus on a more visible problem—trash. During the coffee season, I invited a group of kids over to make environmental signs to hang in convenience stores. The kids drew pictures, and I wrote messages like, "Please don't throw your trash in the river," "I love Corquín. Do you?" and "A Clean Corquín Is a Pretty Corquín." Then the kids asked store owners to hang up the signs. Later we made art projects out of junk food wrappers found in the street. In the last few months, we have gone on hikes to our water sources, seen the effects of forest fires, and continued with our environmental poster campaign. It's a small start! 

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