Aid by the Cupful
In early October 2005, the United States was focused on the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina a month prior. But as thousands of small-scale farmers in Central America were preparing for the coffee harvest, Hurricane Stan struck. Guatemala, El Salvador and southern Mexico were hit the hardest; Stan directly caused 80 deaths and brought mud slides and flooding that led to as many as 2,000 more.
The hurricane dealt a devastating blow to the economic lifeblood of the affected areas, which rely mostly on agriculture exports, including coffee. Mud slides destroyed coffee farms; wind and rain uprooted trees, knocking away ripe coffee beans; and the network of roads in the region was destroyed.
Seeing his suppliers dramatically impacted by Hurricane Stan and worried that the need caused by Stan would be overshadowed by Katrina, David Griswold, president and founder of Sustainable Harvest Coffee Importers, provider of organic and fair-trade coffee to the North American specialty-coffee market, created the Coffee Relief Fund. Griswold contacted colleagues from his U.S. vendors — Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Newman’s Own Organics and Whole Foods Markets, among others — and asked them to donate funds to help Central American coffee farmers get back on their feet.
Griswold formed a partnership with EcoLogic Alliance, a nonprofit organization with a 12-year track record of providing grants and responding to relief efforts in Latin America. EcoLogic channeled the $182,000 raised to fair-trade farming cooperatives in the devastated region. Well-organized and localized, the co-ops dispersed the funds to the coffee farmers.
While corporations and for-profits often reach out philanthropically in times of disaster, the feeling of responsibility toward the devastated farmers was greater for Sustainable Harvest and its vendors due to a program it runs called “Relationship Coffee,” in which coffee roasters visit the growers and build strong relationships with them.
“Basically because people in the business chains know who they’re selling to or who they’re buying from, it kind of became a better tool for fundraising because there was that personal component that comes from people knowing people,” Griswold says. “This isn’t core to our business,” he adds. “We buy and sell the coffee they bring in. But it is so related to the supply too that you can’t close your eyes, turn your back and think somebody else should figure it out. I think one of the central messages we learned in this was that business can act fast and do the right thing.”
Coffee Relief Funds’ efforts have helped the affected coffee growers dig out from the mud slides and floods, purchase new equipment, and process what harvestable coffee remained. Working with already established co-ops with a grassroots presence helped make the process incredibly efficient.
“These are people already there, already organized, they already have systems in place and so we were able to use the co-op’s infrastructure to detect the needs and to respond rapidly, and I’d say most importantly respond in a cost-effective manner,” says Shaun Paul, executive director of EcoLogic’s development fund and co-founder of the organization. “We were building off these very sophisticated local organizations and really supporting them and addressing the needs among their members in their back yard.”
Paul adds, “These are people that are traditionally the abandoned populations of the country, the disenfranchised, the poorest of the poor. Last in line in terms of social status and, by providing aid … we are strengthening and empowering them to be better positioned to meet their needs not just today but to meet their future needs.”
For more information, visit www.sustainableharvest.com/coffeefund.