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66. Writing the book on coffee and development

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of spending a long afternoon with Dean Cycon of Dean’s Beans with no particular agenda other than talking about the coffeelands and drinking some good coffee.  Four hours after he welcomed me into his office, I left with an armful of coffee, some great Dean’s Beans swag, a head swirling with Timorese Atsabe and ideas about development in the coffeelands, and one piece of very good news: Dean is going to publish again.

A few years ago, Dean published Javatrekkers, a kind of swashbuckling coffeelands travel guide with a serious development edge.  I was working in our headquarters at the time, coordinating our Fair Trade Program.  Dean was kind enough then to send me one of his galleys — advance copies of the book sent to book reviewers, literary magazines and other important people to try to generate some buzz about the formal launch of a book.  Precisely because I did not fit into any of the categories mentioned above, he told me he had very few and didn’t want to send me one unless I would promise to read it and publish a review on the CRS Fair Trade blog.  I promised him I would.  But I was in the midst of transitioning to a new job in Guatemala — wrapping things up at work, selling a house and car at home, saying goodbyes to family and friends, being present to my own family as we undertook big changes, etc.  Somehow the book review got lost in the mix.  The book made the move with us, however, and sometime in 2008, I took it off the shelf and threw it into my backpack for a bus ride to El Salvador.  When I started reading it, I was really glad we didn’t unload it in our moving sale.

Javatrekkers is amazing.  Partly because Dean is brilliant and perceptive and funny and sensitive to the realities he encounters in the coffeelands.  Mostly, however, because the book evokes the spirit and resilience and integrity of the people behind our coffee in ways that are deeply moving.  On the bus ride back from El Salvador to Guatemala, I found myself sobbing softly into the pages of the book.  It is really a good book.  (I tracked Dean down to tell him so, even though it meant revealing pretty definitively that I didn’t make good on my promise years before to read and review it.)

So you can imagine my delight when Dean told me that among his big plans for (what’s left of) 2010 is to shake loose from the recesses of his mind and wrestle down on paper the approach he has taken to fostering People-Centered Development all these years under the pretext of importing smallholder coffee.  He joked that his approach has consisted of “basically hanging out” in coffee communities.  Of course, there is more to it than that.  (I hope so, for his sake, or sales are likely to be slow.)  But hanging out is a pretty important starting point.  Talking to people about what they want for themselves and their families, asking them what is keeping them from getting there, eliciting ideas about how to address the constraints on their own development, really listening to understand what they say, and accompanying them in the process of doing something about it — all that stuff is only possible if you spend lots of time hanging in coffee communities year after year over a long period of time.

I am confident that the coffee industry and development community will be able to learn a thing or two from the book, and that coffee drinkers who care about what happens at origin will find it a good read.  I only hope that Dean trusts me enough this time around to send me a galley.

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