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Bean by Bean -- Supporting Indigenous Rights


Told by U.S. and Mexican government officials, “The free market system is natural law,” Kerry Appel, founder of The Human Bean coffee company here decided to “test the validity of capitalist claims.”

He started a company that promoted the rights of everyday workers and human values. Six years later, he recalled, “I told myself, if I, as an individual, can succeed in a company that puts human values ahead of profit values, then they’re lying. If they’re right, I’ll fail.”

Appel certainly hasn’t failed. In 1996, he sought to establish direct markets in the United States for coffee grown by the autonomous indigenous communities of Chiapas, Mexico. The organically shade-grown coffee sold at The Human Bean comes from the Mut Vitz (Hill of the Birds) Coffee Cooperative. The cooperative was harassed and stonewalled by the Mexican government, so it took three years to get the commercial registration required to sell its product. Foreign human rights workers finally confronted Mexican bureaucrats and helped push through the paperwork.

Appel started with $6,500 and an old red Volkswagen bus. The amounts of coffee Appel could afford were so small that shipping companies couldn’t be bothered, so in 1996 he loaded up his bus and hauled out the first 800 lbs. of Zapatista Coffee. He hauled coffee himself until the company grew to where he could ship 10 and 20 ton loads by container. He estimates the company will ship almost 30 tons this year.

Although a corporate CEO might scoff at the company’s modest income, The Human Bean Co. has grown significantly. The start-up year Appel sold $17,000 worth of coffee; this year’s sales will be about $205,000.

Appel doesn’t count success in spreadsheet terms. “We don’t really make a profit,” he said. “I pay myself a livable wage, and I pay any additional help much more than McDonald’s.” The company pays its bills and still has extra to buy new machines or help with community projects. He said, “The additional money that corporations would put in their pockets goes back into the communities in many ways.

“I didn’t come into this from a coffee exporter’s perspective,” Appel said. “I came at it from a human rights perspective.” The standard fair trade rate for coffee is currently $1.26 per pound (compared to the world market rate that has dipped as low as 24 cents per pound). He initially paid the cooperative an extra 10 cents per pound to help develop the villages’ infrastructures, but sales went well and he increased that extra pay to 20 cents per pound. The cooperative also gained official organic certification, adding 15 cents to the price per pound. Appel now pays the cooperative $1.61 per pound, and is pleased to be able to do so.

The Human Bean Co. also offers credit to the cooperative, paying them about 50 percent in October so they have living expenses and money to bring in the December and January harvests. “This allows them to avoid taking exploitative high-interest loans from ‘coyotes’ with the condition that they sell their coffee to them at a low price,” said Appel.

Money from The Human Bean will not buy an Enron-style chalet in Aspen for this small-businessman. However, Appel is pleased with the company’s growth and grateful to feel connected to his work. He roasts, bags and ships coffee in the mornings, then opens the shop for walk-in customers from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. “I feel really lucky, everything I do in here everyday has meaning to me.”

His company is more secure than most corporations, said Appel. “I have far more stability than most of these capitalist companies because the price of my product isn’t going up and down dependent on the stock market. I know what I’m going to pay.”

Appel asserts that fairness is not only a matter of economics, but also involves consumer education. “The person who buys anything should know everything about how that product is produced,” he said. And if the consumer disagrees with the conditions of production, she or he should take an active role in trying to change the situation, he said.

Appel and Franciscan Sr. Antonia Anthony founded Denver’s Chiapas Coalition to raise awareness of the Mexican government’s “low intensity war” against the indigenous people’s struggle for self-determination. They also educate the public on how U.S. policies hurt the people of Chiapas.

Because of this work, the Denver Police Department’s so-called Red Squad flagged Appel and Anthony. In 2002, Denver Mayor Wellington E. Webb admitted that police kept files on about 3,200 individuals and about 208 organizations over the last three years.

According to these files, the nun and the coffee-shop owner are “criminal extremists” who are “seeking the overthrow of the Mexican government.” Appalled that their efforts toward peace, prosperity and social justice have earned them “criminal” status, both are suing the city and county of Denver. They want policy changes to prevent a repeat occurrence, accountability for those who violated citizens’ rights, and a resolution of present and potential problems for those who have been labeled potential criminals.

Appel resists well-meaning advice from friends and customers who encourage faster company growth and insists on sticking to his original model. “I’d rather see a thousand small coffee companies like The Human Bean than see one large company where everything gets lost,” he said. “In a large company the values won’t ever rise to the top.”

Melissa Jones is a free-lance writer living in Littleton, Colo.

Related Web sites

The Internet is an excellent source of information about Fair Trade and offers access to many products. Here are a few helpful sites:

Ten Thousand Villages
The roots of the Fair Trade movement date back to the 1940s when Mennonite churches provided direct markets for handicrafts made by European refugees after World War II. Now known as Ten Thousand Villages, the group sells handicrafts from underprivileged artisans around the world.

In terms of size and influence, Britain’s Oxfam is the granddaddy of Fair Trade organizations. Started in the 1960s, its network of shops has grown rapidly.

Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International
Formed in 1997 as an umbrella organization to set internationally recognizable standards and labeling, this group offers links to worldwide fair trade certification groups and provides good background on the concept of fair trade.

TransFair U.S.A.
This Oakland, Calif.-based organization monitors compliance with Fair Trade standards. Its Web site offers a click-on list of Fair Trade coffee suppliers by state.

Global Exchange
Global Exchange in San Francisco seeks to build a greater awareness of global trade issues and encourages Fair Trade activism.

Other Fair Trade Web sites:

The Human Bean

SERRV International

Fair Trade Federation

Equal Exchange

National Catholic Reporter, December 27, 2002