Connected by Coffee

Photo: Connected by Coffee

Coffee is something that many of us drink every day — and yet how often do we think about the people who grew it?

Sadly, many of the world’s coffee farmers still live in dire poverty. Struggling to make a living wage, these growers are exploited by middlemen and constantly challenged by the ups and downs of coffee prices on the global commodity markets.

Recently, I’ve been lending my writing skills to “Connected By Coffee,”  a forthcoming documentary project that gives these farmers a voice — hearing firsthand the conditions and challenges they face, and exploring how organizing cooperatively has allowed coffee growers to pool their resources and work together to forge deeper, more equitable trading relationships with coffee companies in the West.

A 1,000-mile journey across Central America

The project began with a 1,000-mile journey across the coffee-growing regions of Central America. Here Aaron Dennis — filmmaker, activist and founder of good-for-the-world film outfit Stone Hut Studios — explains more about the genesis of the project:

“As with all these projects, ‘Connected By Coffee’ started with relationships. We had created a few videos for the Fair Trade coffee roaster, Higher Grounds Trading Company. Our good friend Chris Treter, Higher Grounds’ co-founder, asked if I would team up with him and Matt Earley of Just Coffee Cooperative in Madison, Wis., to create a series of videos about their trip and their coffee growing partners.  We met incredible people along the way — guerrilla soldiers who had become growers, women who were overcoming gender inequality to now own their own farms. We documented those encounters in an online video series called “The Fair Trade Chronicles.”

Short online videos, however, were not enough to do the topic justice. And so the creation of the feature-length documentary began.

Aaron created a similar Web series in 2012 following a group of American ultra-marathon runners on a 129-mile, five-day run visiting the Fair Trade olive growing farmers of the West Bank — a series that Stone Hut Studios then developed into the critically acclaimed documentary “The People and the Olive.” 

Exploring the future of Fair Trade

Aaron proposed that the Web series become a similarly ambitious project to create “Connected By Coffee”— using the dialogue with coffee farmers as the beginnings of a deeper, more comprehensive look at the international movement of coffee growers, coffee roasters and consumers who are aiming to subvert the exploitative model of business-as-usual in favor of something more rewarding.

That exploration comes at a crucial time for Fair Trade, with activists in the movement debating openly about how and if the concept can grow to include large-scale producers and plantations, or whether it needs to stay committed to small-scale landowners and cooperatives.

Leading voices in the movement

After their trip across Central America, Aaron, together with his wife, Chelsea — a socially conscious graphic designer and longtime Fair Trade advocate — began reaching out to leading voices in the movement here in the states including Jonathan Rosenthan (one of the founders of Equal Exchange), Renee Bowers (Fair Trade Federation), Dana Geffner (Fair World Project), Monika Firl (Cooperative Coffees), Paul Rice (Fair Trade USA) — interviewing them about the challenges the movement faces and the potential for its expansion.

Crucially, however, the film is not about picking sides or deciding who is right. While important debates may be had about the most effective form of Fair Trade, or the pros and cons of different certification schemes or business models, Aaron and Chelsea argue that all of these debates are pointing in the same direction — namely a desire on behalf of consumers, producers and growers to forge deeper, more meaningful connections and commitments to one another. 

Chelsea points to a quote from Matt Earley from Just Coffee which, for her, sums it all up:

“Matt told us pretty simply — ‘It's not about the coffee. It's never been about the coffee. It's about relationships.’ That resonated with us. What the world needs more than anything is for people to build closer ties and to recognize our common bonds.”

Supporting independent film

Aaron and Chelsea are hoping that these relationships will also help make the film a success and reach a wide audience around the world. With most of the filming now complete, the project still needs considerable production time and additional resources. Stone Hut Studios is inviting anyone who wants to support the project to reach out and get in touch:

“We’re going to be locking ourselves in an editing room this fall — we have a lot of work ahead. Creating independent documentaries is a challenge and to really do it properly takes some funding. We’ve received a lot of great support and financial help from many individuals and organizations so far, but not enough to cover all costs ahead. People who are interested in becoming involved or supporting the project financially can go to Connected By Coffee to find out more."

Related stories on MNN:

What do you know about the farmer who grew your coffee?
Forthcoming documentary follows movement to link poor growers with roasters and consumers.