**I am standing in front of complete devastation. I arrived in the spot 5 minutes ago talking to Julita and joking about her shirt– one that sports the “Just Coffee” logo. As we chat I look over her shoulder and notice the dead shrubs, rows and rows of them. They are spindly, leafless, and discolored, with pale blotches and what looks to be moss growing at their bases. And then it hits me– this was Julita’s coffee. And what I am seeing is the worst case of “la roya” sickness we have seen. This was Julita’s cash for year. And it is, more or less, gone.**

After a day of riding “El Jodon” through the lowlands of El Salvador and Honduras we finally reached the border with Nicaragua. Jodon was very low on gas, but we found a station at the perfect time, and resumed our trip toward Esteli and the offices of Fundacion Entre Mujeres. In the last 15 miles we ran into some rain and found out that another thing that El Jodon lacked was a working driver-side windshield wiper. Luckily the rain did not last and we descended a bit into the coffee town of Esteli. What we did not know at that time is that the rain would foreshadow a slow-moving disaster that we had not foreseen.

Arriving at the office of FEM we had a quick reunion with some of the women in the office and with our friend Felipe from Cooperative Coffees who was waiting for us. After chatting a little with the awesome Juana Villareyna– who some of you Madisonians have met once or twice– we were joined by our good friend and ally Julia Baumgartner. Julia has worked with Just Coffee for around three years and is currently employed by FEM as the manager of the reconstruction of El Colorado– a community largely wiped out by a mudslide in late 2010. Thanks to generous donations from people in the Madison area JC was able to help contribute to purchasing land to build new houses. The Basque government gave FEM  a grant for the houses themselves and Julia let us know that we would be heading out the next day to see the mostly finished houses and check out the coffee fields there.

The next morning we met up with Dana and Kerstin from the excellent “Fair World Project” and started with a quick meet up and FEM’s office with women from the 6 different cooperatives that work under the FEM umbrella. over their history and basic platform. FEM is an all-women’s NGO in northern Nicaragua that promotes ideological, economic, and political empowerment of rural women. Their projects include working against against violence by creating community networks of rural defenders, education with a focus on gender equality and alternative careers, the promotion of sexual and reproductive rights, access to health services, and prioritizing food sovereignty, diversified and organic production. Through these programs, women from the rural communities are able to participate and be real actors in making decisions in the development politics carried out by la FEM. After discussing their successes and challenges we turned to talking about fair trade and what it means to them.

The gist of the conversation was like the others that we had in Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador. The term “fair trade” does not mean a lot to the farmers we work with outside of our relationship with them. As a matter of fact, it was almost a source of amusement to some. Diana said FEM said that she feels fair trade certification has been broken with its emphasis on large businesses and large producers. She also made the point that fair trade certified minimum pricing does not adequately cover the cost of production for the smallest farmers let alone “pull them out of poverty”. She went on to say that our movement should be one that connects with other movements for social justice and that it is worth trying to rescue this space that small farmers have worked so hard for. In the end we all agreed that commercial markets are only a window for the change and that we need to work together with farmers and people from the global south leading the way. It only makes sense that if we seek to build spaces of true equality that it should be led by the farmers themselves.

I was charged up after the meeting and we all poured out of the office to head out to the community of El Colorado. After a nice lunch of beans, eggs, and tortillas we headed out to tour the rebuilding project. The houses looked great– most built by FEM, but some built by another co-op called PRODECOOP and others by the local government. They were in various states of completion– some lacking latrines and others without their windows and doors installed. However, the overall state of the community is very impressive. We walked down to a storage house to take in the distribution of fruit trees for the yards of the homes. And we stood around and chatted with the various women and their families who are getting them for planting. It was while we were talking that I witnessed what had once been Julita’s coffee parcela. It totally startled me and I asked her about it. She estimates her own loss at around 70%. That is 70% less income she will be receiving this year on an income that was not sufficient to begin with. This is not good.

Leaving Colorado it was becoming clear that the challenges to FEM’s coffee production were more than we understood. We reached the community center in the little town of Los Llanos and unpacked into the dorms. There were kids an women everywhere and we were informed that we would be having a cultural exchange. The men-folk were milling around outside the room– they seemed to be too timid to come in and check it out. They would occasionally stand in the doorway and smile. After a quick dinner we geared up for what looked to be a rocking time.

And it was. A DJ set up and played some hot latin dance music and a few people got out on the floor. But then something unexpected happened. We went around the room and did introductions. Our crew talked a little about what we were up to and what we hoped to accomplish with our trip. When we came around to one of the last women she told us what was on the minds of all of the women from Los Llanos. It basically went like this:

60%-70% of their coffee is gone. The roya has devastated their crops and the plants will most likely have to be cut down and replanted with different varieties of coffee that are more resistant to the fungus. But this takes time and it takes money. A new plant takes 3-4 years to become productive and it will costs thousands of dollars to buy the seedlings. They already were barely making it and now many of the women– a lot of them single parents– are considering migrating in order to make the cash the need for their families to survive. And she said that she expected us to not come back because their coffee would be gone and they knew that we have businesses to run.

As she spoke many of the women broke down. And we did as well. What was going to be a party became a serious turning point for the women and for us and for a moment we sat in silence. And then we began to talk. I told them that coffee really was a vehicle for our relationship, but it did not define our relationship. Chris talked about how this type of trade meant that we did not simply walk away when times got hard. The women began to realize that we really were there as partners and not simply as “buyers”. And an incredible conversation started. What had broken down into a very real sadness was then elevated into a palpable energy. In the energy there was hope.

The women then did a play about their situation that was sad and hysterically funny. Then there was traditional dancing. When it came to our turn Chelsea and I played and sang and people laughed and hooted. And the night ended with smiles and handshakes and embraces.

So this is where the the nice words become real or they are exposed as total BS. What does a coffee roaster do when their supplier has very little coffee? What does a company do when their supply becomes unstable? What does a farmer do when their crops fail? The free market doctrine has sober and cutthroat answers for this situation. And these answers and the logic behind them are what keep our world separated and commodified. We are not going to walk away from FEM. We are going to help them get the resources that they need to get to where they want to be. It is heartbreaking for all of us to see them take a step backwards when they have done so much hard work to get to where they were. But we cannot be crippled by that feeling. We can do this and we are going to need your help. This is what “fair trade” should mean. This is our chance to build something real that goes light years beyond a label or a slick catch phrase. Stay tuned for opportunities to get involved and please plug in.

We can do this.