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Guatemala RPCV Naren Sonpal Offers Fair Trade Coffee
Guatemala RPCV Naren Sonpal Offers Fair Trade Coffee
Couple Offers Fair Trade Coffee
By: Jean Dunn October 22, 2003
GOSHEN - Naren Sonpal's two-year term of service as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala ended in 2001, but he's still working to make the world a better place, one cup of coffee at a time.
A chemical engineer and a former Uniroyal employee, Naren owned and operated a hydraulic hose business for 20 years.
He was 55 when he sold that business and entered the Peace Corps, assigned to work with cooperatives of coffee and tea farmers in the Guatemalan highlands near Coban.
On his return, Naren and his wife, Gun, built a business on his experience in Guatemala and a subsequent trip to India, becoming roasters and blenders of 100 percent organic, shade-grown, Fair Trade coffees and purveyors of organic Fair Trade teas.
The Sonpals opened Coffee-Tea-Etc. in December of 2002 in the lower level of their Goshen home. Sacks of coffee beans from every corner of the globe are lined up near the couple's state-of-the-art drum roaster.
"Our coffee comes from Mexico, Peru, Sumatra, Colombia, Nicaragua, Guatemala, New Guinea, Costa Rica and Ethiopia," Naren told Voices, "and we know the farms they are coming from."
Naren and Gun roast their beans in small batches. Each batch takes approximately 20 minutes to complete, with different beans requiring a different degree of roast.
The roaster can handle up to 30 pounds at a time.
"We're very careful," Naren said. "If you're two or three minutes off, it can ruin it."
After roasting, the coffee is blended, then ground (or not), packaged and sealed in airtight bags stamped "USDA Organic" and "Fair Trade Certified."
Some is sold by country of origin: Ethiopian Yirgacheffe is "a rich coffee with a sweet, floral aroma." Nicaraguan Dark Roast has "complex flavors of chocolate and spice."
Others are blends of the Sonpals' own design, such as Inspiration, Breakfast Blend, French Roast and Decaf Blend.
The Sonpals also purchase tea in bulk, then package and sell it. They offer a number of varieties of organic and Fair Trade green and black teas, including Oolong, Earl Grey, Oothu Pekoe, Irish Breakfast, Darjeeling, English Breakfast and more.
Selling coffee and tea is the Sonpals' business, but their passion is educating people and helping the farmers who produce the coffee beans and tea leaves that they sell.
More than 50 percent of the world's coffee is produced by small farmers on less than five acres of land. In most cases, their children receive no education; there is very little health care.
As a Peace Corps volunteer, Naren witnessed first-hand the plight of coffee farmers in Guatemala. His work there centered on encouraging farmers to reject "technified" production methods and return to the traditional ways of growing coffee.
"In the olden days," he explained, "coffee was always grown under the canopy of the rainforest trees. In the early 1970s, to increase production, we told them to cut down the trees and grow coffee in full sun."
Growers in Guatemala and other coffee-producing countries heeded the advice of the World Bank and U.S. government advisers who told them that in the sun, their coffee plants would grow faster and the "cherries" containing the bean would ripen sooner.
"They had good intentions," Naren said, "and when they took out the trees, there was more production.
"But they found out that when there were no trees, there were no birds and without the birds, no one was eating the bugs. So they had to start using chemical pesticides to get rid of the bugs."
When the shade trees were removed, the coffee plants did indeed grow faster, but with rapid growth came rapid depletion of nutrients from the soil. So along with pesticides, the farmers began to use chemical fertilizers.
There are some who think that all those chemicals "go away" during the roasting process. Naren doesn't believe that. But it's not only the health of the coffee drinker at stake.
"The farmers have no idea how to use the chemicals," he said. "They don't speak English, so they can't read the instructions. They don't wear a mask. It's not only for our health, but for the health of the farmers."
Then there's the matter of taste. When the cherries ripen more slowly, there are more juices in the bean and the coffee tastes better.
"By growing organic," he said, "you have better taste, it's good for farmers' health, it's good for our health, and good for the environment."
But returning to shade-growing techniques won't address all the coffee farmers' problems.
Six or seven years ago, Naren explained, there was no coffee exported from Vietnam. Today, that country's coffee production is second only to Brazil. The sudden glut has caused coffee prices to fall to their lowest level in 30 years.
Big companies purchase that cheap coffee, blend it and sell it at the lowest possible price.
And while consumers might enjoy paying less in the check-out line, the situation is devastating to coffee farmers around the world.
According to a video clip Naren and Gun taped from a BBC newscast, coffee workers in Nicaragua, for example, make less than the equivalent of one U.S. dollar per day - a fraction of what we pay for a single cup.
Their children are malnourished; some are starving. In one coffee-producing village, 18 children have died of hunger-related disease this year.
"Until recently," the newscast reported, "coffee provided a living wage for these people. No more. Most multinational companies won't pay what coffee producers need to survive."
"The farmers suffer a lot," Naren said. "Right now, they're selling to the big corporations at below their cost of production. When farmers can't make money producing their coffee, they sometimes turn to the production of drugs - and who can blame them?
"They're really killing the farmer," he said.
The metaphor Naren chooses reveals the depth of his concern: When you're drinking coffee from the major producers, he says, you're drinking the farmers' blood.
Addressing the Problem
The Fair Trade network and its business partners are attempting to address this world-wide problem.
Fair Trade is an international organization that guarantees a fair price to coffee farmers, based on their cost of production.
"Both the farmer and the buyer are certified," Naren explained. "We pay the farmers their fair share, and in return, they are giving us the best possible quality.
"They have to farm in cooperatives, and they have to work up to certain standards set up by Fair Trade."
Farmers in Fair Trade cooperatives are required to educate their children and see that their families receive medical care. They are able to afford this because Fair Trade pays about three times the going rate for coffee.
Without Fair Trade, they are lucky to be able to eat.
The current Fair Trade rate is $1.26 per pound, but that doesn't give retailers license to charge exorbitant amounts.
The Fair Trade process is economical in that it eliminates several layers of middlemen, including local agents known as "coyotes" who exploit farmers' lack of marketing skills.
As Fair Trade participants, the Sonpals pay 10 cents to the Fair Trade association for every pound of coffee they buy.
"They use half for marketing the Fair Trade concept to consumers," they said. "The other half goes to the producing countries for community projects in that country.
"So the farmers get good prices, and the community gets something back from the Fair Trade association."
Pay the Right Price
So what's a conscientious consumer to do?
For starters, he or she can seek out products stamped both "USDA Organic" and "Fair Trade Certified."
Naren's most popular blends can be found at New Morning Natural Foods in Woodbury, Washington Food Market in Washington Depot and Sunny Ridge Market in Bethlehem, among others.
Several area restaurants, including the White Hart in Salisbury and Tollgate Hill Inn in Litchfield, purchase the Sonpals' coffees in bulk to brew for their guests.
The Connecticut Returned Peace Corps Volunteers organization sells bags of the coffee as a fundraiser. So do several area churches.
Trinity Episcopal Church in Torrington serves Fair Trade coffee during its coffee hour as a socially responsible choice.
They also sell bags to members and friends; profits fund the coffee hour with enough left over for other projects.
When compared to other gourmet coffees, Naren told Voices, his prices are low. Yet cost-conscious groups often balk at paying Fair Trade prices when mass market coffee can be found on sale at prices near $2 a pound.
"Sometimes it's difficult for people to understand," he said. "They say, 'we already send money there.' But isn't it better to purchase their product at a fair price, to give them an income, with dignity?"
In the end, he said, it's not a matter of paying the lowest price, but rather of paying the right price.
Naren and Gun invite readers to visit their website, www.coffee-tea-etc.com, where much information can be found regarding the history and production of coffee and tea, as well as links to information on Fair Trade and organic principles.
To purchase Coffee-Tea-Etc. products, visit one of the retail outlets mentioned in this story, or visit the website, which also offers a variety of brewing accessories.
To reach Naren Sonpal, e-mail to Naren@coffee-tea-etc.com.