Windows or Doors: Mud, Vomit, Coffee and a Gunfight
I needed a good gunfight to shake me up. After two weeks of non-stop travel, hikes, meetings, and celebrations, I was tired. A bout with a bad cold, rain, mud, and long days working all push your boundaries. What once was mind-blowing and exotic can become mundane—and feeling mundane is a personal tragedy in the quest for non-stop motivation in the life of a social entrepreneur. So, I needed something to push me from my comfort zone, to see things in a new light.
The final drive of our 1000-mile journey to the airport in Managua shook me from a moment of reflecting on roya, country differentials, development projects, and inspirational farmers. I was quickly whisked into a new reality, as we suddenly found ourselves stopped in the middle of a big armed battle between two groups claiming the rights to the same swath of land. All of it spilling out onto the Pan American Highway. We found ourselves the first of a few cars stuck between two sides lobbing makeshift bombs and rocks at each other.
We got out of the car to assess the situation. Smoke billowed from homemade grenades; women peeked out of the doors of their home, worried about their husbands and sons defending the half dozen homes and residents from masked intruders. It quickly escalated, and the side defending the land, obviously out-armed, started to run in our direction in retreat. One frightened resident ran up to our car, pointed to the house to the side of us and warned, “Be careful—they have guns and are coming up quickly.” The driver of the car behind us clutched his young daughter as she began to cry. Just then, a group appeared on the other side of the street carrying an injured comrade. His friends huddled around him while others watched the flanks to prevent the gunmen from advancing. It became evident that they were beginning to surround us. Just in time, a police vehicle could be heard in the distance and everyone ran to the street, signaling to the police that there was someone with a gunshot wound. As the crowd lifted the injured into the back of the police pickup truck, we sprinted to our car. We saw an opening to get out of this increasingly out of control situation. Tailing the police truck, we quickly passed masked armed men just 50 yards from the scene.
For a moment, and due to just pure timing, we witnessed a close contact battle in the town of Las Tumas. That day, five were injured. The police ended up taking control of the land, and both sides agreed to take it up in court.
We had but a ten-minute window into their lives: moments filled with fear, anxiety and imminent danger. But in a moment it changed for us, and we were off, while they had to pick up the pieces of the violence. Their lives continued in the rear view mirror. Thinking of our loved ones back home, a warm shower, a nice meal and a beer, ours continued on toward our comfortable lives back in the United States. A life where severe poverty, lack of access to clean drinking water, health care or education almost entirely does not exist. Regardless of what you say about our social infrastructures, they are a million times better than in many parts of the world.
Things happen for a reason, usually as a lesson if we can pay close enough attention. And that scary incident helped me frame what we as coffee companies dedicated to authentic 100% fair trade need to continue to strive toward. We aim to not simply look in through a window. We are walking through doors. Too often, due to the reality of our existence in the relative comforts of the United States, we take for granted the fact that the vast majority of our food, clothing, and shelter are made halfway around the world by people earning substandard wages, living in conditions that I would call economic slavery. Conditions in which they have no choice but to continue, in a job making our clothes, building our cars, or picking our coffee.
For many, life is about looking through windows, seeing something and taking a story, acting without attachment or involvement. I am tired of windows. I am tired of those in the coffee industry who make decisions purely on market prices, or quality. Stating that all they can do is buy the coffee, not support the community it is grown in. A community, most times, that does not have access to adequate health care, education, or access to water. A community that has been a victim of U.S. foreign policy, of war or disease.
I am tired of those who talk about “fair trade” without getting involved in the communities where they buy. I am tired of a watered-down, transnational-influenced “Fair Trade USA.” I am tired of a “Direct Trade” that hangs a hat on northern-imposed quality standards while not taking into account the communities where they work.
But, I am energized to keep on walking in through the doors of the homes of our producer partners. To share a collective burden in an industry that is built on the backs of economic slaves. To invest resources in community infrastructure. We all need to continue to not only work toward directly increasing the pay farmers receive for their coffee but also investing in the communities of our growing partners. Then, and only then, will we even begin to be able to call something that we do “fair.”