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412. Farmworkers on the record

When I was an undergraduate, I watched more C-Span than I cared to admit.  The parliamentary protocols of the U.S. House of Representatives became almost as familiar to me as the rites of the Catholic Mass, and the language members used as they rose to deliver comments on the floor etched itself in my memory: “I ask unanimous consent to revise and extend my remarks.”  That is, to change the words they speak on the House floor before they are printed in the Congressional Record, where they are preserved for eternity.

I was reminded of the importance of the official record again in graduate school, when I wrote a paper on the decision of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda to convict radio announcers who incited Hutus to genocide in 1994.  In its decision, the ICTR invoked language lifted from the official record of committee meetings held in 1948 to prepare the text of the Genocide Convention–language that participants decided NOT to include in the text of the final document.  It wasn’t so much that the language was wrong.  It was simply ahead of its time.  More than 50 years later, the ICTR revived it to help convict leaders of Rwanda’s “hate media” of genocide.

Getting on the record, it turns out, can be important.  Even if it may not seem to be at the time.

My sense is that farmworkers are getting on the record in specialty coffee these days in ways they haven’t in recent years.  In ways that could be important.

Here are just a few recent examples of farmworkers finding their way into the official record of the sustainability conversation in coffee.

Hope we don’t have to wait 50 years to see people in positions of power invoke some of these references in taking action to improve wages and working conditions for farmworkers in the coffeelands.


  • Cate Batson Baril says:

    agreed – hopefully action will not take 50 years!

    These changes are being echoed in US agriculture – Equitable Farmworkers Initiative (EFI) is bringing the same issues to the forefront of US farms and farmworkers.

    Visibility in numbers!

  • Michael,

    Thought provoking post as usual! Getting on the record is indeed an important yet tricky objective (and sometimes I wonder if “the record,” in our digital age, might be overly subject to Orwellian “rectification” at the hands of Winstons with speakwrites, or if the Cloud makes “the record” indisputable common knowledge at such a speed that not even the Ministry of Truth would have a chance to rewrite it.)

    Whatever the nature of the record, Farmworkers are indeed making their way onto it. People are starting to talk about Farmworkers as part of larger discussions around Fair Trade and sustainability, which is exciting, but we still have a ways to go before we really start hearing from Farmworkers themselves.

    I was present at the (thorough and thought provoking) Farmworker panel you moderated at SCAA, but there was only one actual farmworker on that panel, and during my year spent living on farms and working with families in Latin America, I met a very slim number of farmworkers who were willing to submit their stories to “the record,” even in the modest form of an iPhone voice memo or my handwritten notes.

    That seems to be the greatest testament to the fact that Farmworkers are the most vulnerable among members of the supply chain: the fact that they are the most skeptical of the repercussions of vocalizing the (often unjust) nuances of their situations.

    You mention (in this post and the next) the messy overlap between farmworkers and smallholders, and there is indeed a wide and blurry space in which many people exist as simultaneous land owners and hired help. Farmworkers, as a category, can be divided many ways: there are farmworkers who also own land, farmworkers who help on local farms near their permanent homes in addition to doing other manual labor jobs (like construction), and migrant farmworkers chasing harvests (that sometimes never appear, as in the case of the recent roya).

    This last segment of farmworkers, those who are farmworkers and farmworkers alone, are perhaps the most vulnerable of the most vulnerable, doing “bottom of the barrel” farm work because they don’t qualify for much else. From what I saw in Latin America, the reason that many of these farmworkers are not capable of attaining any higher paying form of employment often has to do with their mental and physical health.

    I compiled a book called “When Coffee Speaks,” but what I wasn’t prepared to discover in my research was how often people involved in coffee literally don’t speak; there isn’t much that can prepare someone coming from the land of nonstop communication with coming face to face with thousands upon thousands of farmworkers living in the literal shadows of worker housing and communicating with each other in forms of sign language.

    Because I am also a teacher, I automatically think in the direction of education and its transformative potential. What if there were a way to address “the Farmworker problem” before farmworkers were forced to become farmworkers? Fair Trade is doing what it can to address the larger slew of issues including food security and fair wages for tropical agricultural producers/workers at the mercy of commodity markets, but trying to reengineer Fair Trade feels a little like trying to restructure the GED exam (which just happened in New York state): too much energy invested too far down the line.

    Maybe what coffee needs is a strong Head Start program; investments made overwhelmingly in support of education in communities dedicated to agriculture. This is beginning to happen in Antioquia under Gov. Sergio Fajardo’s “Antioquia La Mas Educada” program, where teens have the chance to develop skills that endow them with options connected to agriculture but extending far beyond itinerant farm work. Your Yellow Marajogype post shows that collaborative education initiatives in southern Colombia are involving even younger schoolchildren. Nora Berkey mentions camps in Nicaragua run by The Chain Collaborative and Planting Hope. Education at origin is happening, but not with the same voracity that seems to perpetually propel fair trade movements.

    Most farmworkers know very little about the coffee industry and their roles in it. Perhaps children in agricultural communities who grow up with a more comprehensive education and fuller understanding of the dynamic (and messy) shape of the industry will be better equipped to devise their own solutions for transforming their globalized agricultural realities and won’t need any kind of Fair Trade model to dictate the direction of their well being from an overseer’s height.

    The more that Farmworkers feel safe and comfortable enough to start speaking among themselves and with others along the chain, the better industry stakeholders can understand the problems and take steps to address them.

    Rachel Northrop

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