Caffeinated Crusade

Just Coffee raises the bar for free trade

In the late-1990s, Cochise County emerged as the nation's illegal-immigration hotspot. Border Patrol agents were catching crossers by the busload, and humanitarian groups struggled to help a flood of travelers lost in the desert.

To Douglas resident Tommy Bassett, it was sometimes overwhelming. "We were busy putting Band-Aids on the situation," says the former industrial plant manager turned activist. But Bassett was also pondering the deeper problem—namely, that Mexico seemed incapable of creating jobs to keep its folks at home.

The Rev. Mark Adams, a gentle-mannered South Carolina native and ordained Presbyterian minister, was thinking the same thing. That wasn't exactly a coincidence, since Adams and Bassett both worked under the binational ministry Frontera de Cristo, where they encountered hundreds of migrants, typically young men, coming from Southern Mexico, where plummeting coffee and corn prices had devastated their remote farming villages.

"At the time, the Border Patrol was deporting a thousand people a day," Bassett says. "... A lot of people were coming through, and a lot of them were coffee guys. That's when the coffee prices were down to 30 or 40 cents a pound."

In his ministry, Adams was talking to a lot of people from Chiapas, "and they were asking him, 'How come we get 40 cents a pound for our coffee, and you can buy one cup of coffee for $4 at Starbucks?'" Bassett says.

One migrant they encountered, a man named Eduardo Verdugo, came from the southern Mexico state of Chiapas. He'd been beaten while trying to cross the desert, allegedly by a Border Patrol agent, and was then deported. He met Adams in an Agua Prieta Presbyterian church.

"Eduardo said to Mark, 'If only we could only sell our coffee for a fair price,'" Bassett says, "'because to leave our land is to suffer.' He didn't say it was really horrible almost dying of thirst in the desert. He didn't say it was really crappy to get beat up. He said, 'To leave our land is to suffer.'"

That got the wheels rolling. "We started looking at addressing the root cause of migration," says Bassett, "and not just the symptoms."

Soon after, Just Coffee—or Café Justo—was born. The simple idea was to help farmers in at least one Chiapas village make enough money so that they could stay on their land. Today, that idea is a success story; the community of Salvador Urbina is thriving rather than just surviving, and Just Coffee's concept promises to revolutionize the free-trade movement.

Since this project was first detailed in the Tucson Weekly ("Roasting Revolution," Feb. 8, 2007), it has continued to grow. And now, the remarkable story is retold in the recently released book Just Coffee: Caffeine With a Conscience. Authored by Bassett and Adams, it's a moving, colorful and refreshingly optimistic primer on how to solve the poverty that drives illegal immigration, one village at a time. Proceeds from book sales are earmarked for expanding the Just Coffee model to other countries.

Through their village cooperative—and the cooperative effort with Just Coffee—some 50 Salvador Urbina families have complete control over their product, from planting the crop to roasting the beans just across the line from Douglas in Agua Prieta, Sonora.

That's critical, since much of the profit in coffee is taken by middlemen, hidden between receiving the green, raw beans and roasting them for market.

By commandeering the coffee-to-market process, Just Coffee is able to provide $1.33 per pound for the growers, rather than a measly 40 cents.

Meanwhile, Bassett and Adams had discovered the perfect vehicle for positive change. "Coffee is a very weird substance," Bassett says. "It's the second-most legally traded commodity in the world behind oil, so it's a big player on the world scene.

"The other really strange thing is that the average grower of coffee only has three or four acres of land. With other commodities like rice and beans and corn, the average grower has 20 acres. Coffee is also very labor-intensive, so coffee-growers tend to be pretty small stakeholders. And they tend to live in very rural areas—good coffee grows 2,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level, and within 20 degrees of the equator. That means (coffee-growing land) is on the sides of mountains, mostly volcanoes. The land is so crappy ... that's the reason they're able to own it."

For all of those reasons, Salvador Urbina's growers had been stuck at subsistence levels. And all of those hurdles vanished when they were able to garner a fair price. "And so," says Bassett, "it turns out that to address poverty, you really can't pick a better product than coffee."

Having a good idea was just the first challenge. The second was convincing the residents of Salvador Urbina, high in the Chiapas hills, that the two white guys showing up from the United States were legitimate. It didn't help that a nearby village had been ripped off by other Americans offering to "help."

But Bassett and Adams boasted a connection to Salvador Urbina in native son Daniel Cifuentes, who'd traveled to Agua Prieta for work after coffee prices dropped. Cifuentes helped convince the coffee growers to join forces, and in March 2002, Just Coffee applied for a $20,000 loan from the Frontera de Cristo Micro-Credit Ministry. That money bought the roaster now in Agua Prieta. And by the following June, the first Salvador Urbina coffee arrived by bus, ready for roasting.

Then Bassett, Adams and their team began distributing Just Coffee through area churches and some retail outlets. Annual sales now top $360,000, and provide Salvador Urbina residents with pensions and health care. The book is filled of photographs of a village finally enjoying a taste of relative prosperity.

The program is also expanding to other Mexican villages, and to impoverished coffee growers in Haiti.

At the same time, Just Coffee has taken a small but profound step toward easing immigration tensions in the United States. "It always seemed reasonable to use the coffee-cooperative idea to address migration," Bassett says. "And, in fact, over 70 people from Salvador Urbina who were working in the U.S. in a nonofficial status have returned home. The community has grown—the schools are actually too small now, because the kids don't have to work in the coffee fields anymore. They can go to class instead. They have clean water to drink, and they get to stay in their village."

In other words, they no longer suffer by leaving their land.

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