January 30, 2003 - Thomaston Express: Guatemala RPCV Naren Sonpal helps farmers market their coffee

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Guatemala RPCV Naren Sonpal helps farmers market their coffee

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Coffee that helps better the world*

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Coffee that helps better the world

By:MIKE CHAIKEN, Editor January 30, 2003

How can coffee change the world?

Well, former Thomaston businessman Naren Sonpal explained, if that coffee has been "Fair Trade Certified" and has been labeled "USDA Organic," you have taken steps toward improving the lives of coffee farmers and helping your own environment.

Naren, and his wife Gun, have become experts in the process of "Fair Trade" and the meaning of "organic." They also are walking encyclopedias about coffee.

But then they should know about the commodity. The Sonpals gave up their business on Electric Avenue, NS Fluid Dynamics, to start their own coffee roasting and tea business. Working out of the basement of their Goshen home, the Sonpals roast all their own coffee, which has been grown organically and purchased under the process of Fair Trade.

"Fair Trade" and "organic" coffee are fairly new developments on the East Coast, said Naren. But Fair Trade and organic coffees have been popular for a considerable time out west, Naren said. "It's slowly coming to this side (of the country)."

Naren learned about "Fair Trade" and "organic" coffee after he sold NS Fluid Dynamics of Thomaston. Unfulfilled by the business, Naren stepped away from the world of commerce to join the Peace Corps. As a member of the Peace Corps, he traveled to Guatemala to work with the coffee farmers in the small villages in the mountains. He taught the farmers how to market their product. And in turn, he learned the importance of "Fair Trade" and "organic" farming.

Naren said the coffee farmers of Guatemala face a "rough time." Although Americans pay a high price for coffee, the farmers who grow the commodity receive just 35 cents a pound for their crop.

Part of the problem is the farmers know very little about the world market for coffee, Naren said. Middle men, known as "coyotes," take advantage of the farmers' naivete, said Naren.

The coyotes buy the coffee "cherries" cheaply from the farmers, Naren said. Then the coyotes sell what they have bought to the mills, known as "beneficios," that roast the coffee and export it.

Since the farmers are paid so little, Naren said they are almost always in danger of losing their land. Many farmers faced with losing their land turn to crops that will bring in money- narcotics. In addition, the farmers have no health insurance and no education.

Fair Trade is an international organization that certifies farms or farming cooperatives, said Naren, and in turn helps the farmers. This organization makes sure good credit is extended to the farmers before the crops come in and they make sure the farmers receive a minimum price for their coffee. (Naren said he pays three times the international market price for Fair Trade coffee.) Naren said the organization also makes sure the farmers spend a set amount of money from their crops on the education of their children and the health of their women.

Fair Trade is not about a load of undocumented promises about how all involved do their business, Naren explained. There is a paper trail that extends from the farmer all the way back to roasters like himself in the United States.

As a member of Fair Trade, Naren must promise to send back 15 cents to Fair Trade for every pound of coffee he sells. Half of this money sent back to the organization than goes toward research. And the rest is used to promote community projects within the area of the cooperative.

"They want to improve the life of the whole community, not just the farmers," said Naren of the organization.

Besides helping the finances and community of the farmers, Naren said Fair Trade also teaches the farmers how to grow their coffee and how to market it.

The effort by Fair Trade not only benefits the farmer but the consumers, said Naren. Since the farmers are paid more for their crop, they take more pride in what they grow, and they produce a better product.

"The consumer gets a lot bettr quality, they are taught about the farming, they are getting better products... they don't want to lose that market by losing that quality," said Naren.

Naren said not all coffee he sells has been Fair Trade-certified. Some farmers can't handle the paperwork involved with participating in the organization. All the same, however, Naren pays Fair Trade prices to all the farmers he deals with.

Businesses that sell Fair Trade coffee are mostly small to medium roasters such as his own, said Naren. A company like Starbucks sells some Fair Trade coffee, but it accounts for only 5 percent of its production.

However, selling Fair Trade coffee is not about making a huge profit, said Naren. "You're helping a good cause."

The word "organic" gets bounced around a bit in the food business. Naren sells "organic" coffee. Naren said some roasters may argue that organic coffee shouldn't make a difference for consumers. After all, the coffee is roasted at 450 degrees or so. Any chemicals used on the crop will have been burnt away once it's ready for use by consumers.

But organic farming is not just about protecting the consumer, Naren explained. He said it is about protecting the farmer.

"The farmers (in Guatemala) who use the chemicals have no idea how to use them," said Naren. The instructions come in Spanish, but the farmers usually speak one of the Mayan languages. Hence, most of the farmers will use the chemicals incorrectly. They will use the chemicals without protective gear. "Lots of farmers really hurt themselves."

Coffee historically has used the highest concentration of chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. Naren said this is a leftover from the big plantations when the chemicals were a labor saving device to help produce a higher yield. The use of chemicals also was associated with the rise of "technified coffee."

The best coffee, the kind with the best flavor, is grown in the shade, Naren explain. But in the 1970s, scientists told the farmers they could grow the coffee faster if they cut down the trees and grow the coffee in the full sunlight. The farmers followed suit.

The coffee grew as advertised, Naren explained. But the loss of trees resulted in the loss of migrant birds, which lived in those trees. Without the birds, the pests grew in number. This forced the farmers to use more pesticides. The coffee plants also began to use more nutrients, and this forced the farmers to use more fertilizers, exhausting the soil.

Soon, Naren said, the scientists admitted they had made a mistake with their advice. They told farmers to plant trees and begin growing their coffee in the shade again.

And everyone is better off for the effort.

"They are getting better quality coffee, the farmers are getting better health, the environment is getting better without the chemicals and migrating birds are getting habitats," said Naren. "It's a win-win situation, so I don't know why people would use organic coffee."

To be certified as organic, however, Naren said the farmers must go through a process of examination by agencies hired by the government. And roasters like Naren must be certified by authorized agencies. (Coffee-Tea-Etc. is certified organic by Oregon Tilth.) Plus, like with the process of "Fair Trade" coffee, there is a paper trail that can be followed from the farmer in Guatemala to the Sonpals' house in Goshen- all to make sure the coffee deserves the designation "USDA Organic."

Ultimately, Naren said, "The whole idea is to educate the consumer. The idea is teach consumers about the coffee, the farmer's life and how (the coffee) is grown."

Coffee-Tea-Etc. is selling its coffees through area stores like Country Grocer on Main Street, Thomaston and Thomaston Feed and Grain on East Main Street. Health food stores in Torrington, Woodbury, and New Milford also have begun to sell its products. More information about the coffees and teas is available on the company's website www.coffee-tea-etc.com

©The Thomaston Express 2003
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