In the United States, when the words “crisis” and “coffee” are used in the same breath, it is almost invariably in reference to the collapse of wholesale markets beginning in 1999. That set of historical circumstances has become such a point of reference in the United States, and is so closely associated with the ideas of economic and social dislocation at origin, that it has become known as simply The Coffee Crisis. With capital letters. The truth is that there are crises everyday in the coffeelands.
Not macroeconomic crises, but household dramas with high stakes — the education, nutrition and health of family members often hang in the balance as these crises play themselves out in relative obscurity, beyond the view of most of the actors on the coffee chain. A colleague here at CRS recently shared with me a story of crisis that I think is emblematic of the struggles that smallholder farmers and their families face around the world — even the ones who sell into “sustainable coffee” markets in the United States.
My friend’s story involves a farmer — let’s call her Carmen — who happens to live in Central America, but her story could come from anywhere in the coffeelands. Carmen is pregnant, and expecting a child in the New Year, her third. It turns out that Carmen has had some complications with her pregnancy. She went to the regional hospital recently to seek treatment, and spent on travel and medical care all that remained of the modest family savings. After the hopsital visit, the family settled into a period of acute anxiety living on the razor’s edge of ruin. Payment from the coffee harvest was still a way off, and the family was already in debt. That meant that Carmen and her family have been hoping and praying for good health and no more unforeseen expenses. Further complications with the pregnancy — or any other dimension of family life — could create some very uncomfortable choices for the family.
Chances are that few people who drink coffee who would think of stories like this when The Coffee Crisis is mentioned. But this is one of the countless ways that the statistics from that particular Coffee Crisis may has been translated into the lived experiences of specific human beings. Even now, as prices have recovered from those historic lows, there are still coffee crises like this one playing themselves out every day in anonymity in remote reaches in the coffeelands.