Santa Fe, New Mexico –Bill Fishbein fell in love with coffee when he was 19 years old. (It’s a long story.) After stumbling through his first business ventures, he started Coffee Exchange in 1984. . . on a shoestring,.. that he borrowed from a friend. (That’s right… he borrowed the shoestring.) By 1988, coffee had literally pulled him out of a financial abyss. Fortunately, through a Tennessee Williams play, a John Steinbeck novel, and a series of powerfully enlightening dreams, Bill was able to confront the reality that coffee was not so generous to the people who grew it, people upon whose shoulders he stood to earn his living. So he traveled to Guatemala to meet coffee farmers for the first time in his life. He met extraordinary people; people who struggled in the deepest poverty, yet despite their poverty, they had a joy about them, a spirit, and generosity so compelling he wanted to learn from them. When he returned to the US, he started Coffee Kids, a nonprofit organization established to help coffee farmers and their families improve their lives. He also started the organization to remain connected to the people who had profoundly impacted him. Until Coffee Kids was created, there were no other nonprofits dedicated specifically to helping coffee farmers.
Coffee Kids started out by supporting an international nonprofit organization. But, Bill soon learned that the programs implemented by the organization were managed from the top down. The people had little voice in their own growth and development. He began to explore different methods of development that placed the locus of responsibility on the shoulders of the people themselves. Bill led Coffee Kids for twenty years; working in numerous communities throughout 6 Latin American countries; continuously refining community development efforts to promote programs promoting self-reliance and self-determination. He introduced women’s savings and micro-credit programs to add to the paltry income from coffee. He established health care training in medicinal herbs and traditional medicines to address easily preventable yet debilitating illnesses. Education programs helped send kids to school instead of to work in the coffee fields. And, food programs were created to help coffee producers face chronic hunger in the coffee lands.
When Coffee Kids started in 1988, it was the lone non-profit working on behalf of small-scale coffee farmers. Initially it was not well received. However, once it became obvious that social and environmental issues for coffee farmers became good for business, almost every coffee roaster had a cause to support. Starting out as the lone non-profit in the trade, soon a plethora of nonprofits entered the trade, so much so, that social and environmental issues for coffee farmers have become a natural part of the specialty coffee trade. These issues have taken on many different forms, from fair trade, to direct trade, to rainforest coffee, to shade grown coffee. . . the list goes on. When Bill created Coffee Kids, he not only provided a means for coffee farmers to improve their lives, he also broke an old system that could not see the value of supporting social and environmental issues at the roots of the trade.
The Coffee Trust
After leading Coffee Kids for twenty years, Bill stepped aside to allow for a new generation of leadership. By 2008, thousands of coffee farmers and their families had improved their lives. However, hunger was still chronic for coffee producers and the poverty that characterized coffee producing communities in 1988 was eerily present twenty years later. Families had surely been helped, but villages were still poor.
Shortly after leaving Coffee Kids, Bill created a new nonprofit, The Coffee Trust, to pursue a more focused approached to sustainable development. Bill envisioned an effort that would have a much greater impact on many more coffee farming communities. To achieve a much greater impact, Bill decided to go small. Unlike Coffee Kids, whose work encompassed 6 countries and numerous municipalities, The Coffee Trust would focus its work primarily in one coffee-producing region, the Ixil (pronounced EE-Sheel) region of Guatemala.
The Ixil region is deeply indigenous and one of the poorest coffee producing regions in the world. Extremely impoverished and ravaged by Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, the Ixil people were further damaged by large international nonprofits that came to the region after the war. These large non-profits came with give-away programs that literally created a culture of dependency among a population that had somehow survived on its own despite war and poverty. Lacking trust and feeling victimized, the proud, Ixil people were trapped in downward spiraling poverty.
The Coffee Trust was established to develop a program that could help the Ixil people carve out their own sustainable future. If successful, the extremely impoverished Ixil people could become a beacon of hope for other struggling communities, and a sterling example of how even the most impoverished communities could take control over their own sustainable development.
The Coffee Trust established a comprehensive, integrated approach to development and began working in the Ixil region in 2008 supporting 1) a women’s savings and micro-credit project, 2) an education project, 3) a food sovereignty project and 4) an agricultural sustainability program. The women’s savings and microcredit program has been wildly successful. It started with 20 women and now has 1,000. It is now totally, financially self-sufficient. The education program has provided scholarships to middle school, high school, technical school and the university. The Food Sovereignty & Health Program is beginning to show signs of sustainable development. However, a devastating fungus, La Roya, (Rust in Spanish) has attacked coffee plants throughout Central America and the Ixil people have lost 75% of their coffee production. Imagine losing 75% of your income! So, to help the Ixil coffee farmers defend their plants against La Roya, replenish their soil, and learn to care for their plants protecting against future blights and infestations, The Coffee Trust has created The Roya Recovery Project.
Your Coffee is in Trouble
La roya (Hemileia vastatrix) is a fungus that looks like rust as it eats away at the leaves
of coffee plants, preventing them from flowering or producing coffee beans. In recent years, the fungus has devastated coffee production in Central America.
While common to low lying regions, the fungus has spread to higher altitudes where superior quality coffee is grown. Many experts point to climate change as increased temperatures allow the fungus to thrive at higher altitudes. Many farmers have lost up to 75% of their coffee crops to the fungus, deeply impacting coffee farming families that are already vulnerable to poverty and the fluctuating market of the coffee economy.
With that devastation as the driving force, Bill started a fundraising campaign, “The La Roya Recovery Project.” It is a safe, organic, sustainable strategy driven by coffee farming communities themselves to halt the debilitating effects of the la roya fungus.
The strategy is simple:
• Produce and apply affordable effective microorganism (EMs) to coffee plants to kill la roya on the leaves of the plants and starve la roya in the soil
• Nurture crop soils by applying nutritious organic compost and ash to retain minerals, and replenishing lost nitrogen through cover cropping techniques
• Prune 20% of the weakest plants each year, on each farm for 5 years. This ‘cleanses’ the plants of unneeded branches that use up plant energy unnecessarily
• Grow live barriers with canopies, such as fruit trees and hard barriers with stones to protect plants against winds, erosion and the encroachment of chemicals from other farms
• Improve the overall strength of coffee plants through grafting and strategic pruning techniques
• AND MOST IMPORTANTLY. . . The program follows the principles of “Campesino a Campesino”, shared learning that takes place from farmer-to-farmer, and not from an outside agronomist or nonprofit entity. A complex system is designed and applied that results in local farmers actually training other local farmers. The results of this effort empower farmers. They recognize that if their neighbor, who they know well, can overcome the difficulties, they can as well. This self-empowerment extends far beyond farming and impacts every aspect of their lives. It also spreads throughout the countryside as farmers continue to share their knowledge well beyond the project boundaries.
Calling All Coffee Houses – We Need Your Help
The Coffee Trust is reaching out to local coffee houses and cafes in Santa Fe and throughout the country to support the La Roya Recovery Project. This roaster-to-roaster fundraising effort unites specialty coffee roasters, retailers, and customers throughout the US in an effort to stop the spread of coffee rust, recover coffee production, and help coffee farmers feed their families. Local coffee retailers are given educational materials, at no cost to their stores, alerting their customers about the blight faced by coffee farmers in Central America. Videos are provided for customers to watch and learn about La Roya and the complexities of life where coffee is grown. Online donation keys are given to participating cafes to encourage their customers to support the effort online. Colorful “Tip your Barista –Tip your Farmer” posters are offered along with brochures outlining how we can all help this impoverished area survive this devastating fungus. With a few local coffee houses already offering tip jars for customers and a night of conversation with Bill Fishbein, the momentum is increasing. Help us build a coffee community that’s Stronger than Rust!
The Coffee Trust is headquartered in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Balcones de las Charcas, Guatemala.