|| Bean by Bean -- Supporting Indigenous
By MELISSA JONES
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 theyre lying. If theyre right, Ill fail.
Appel certainly hasnt 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 couldnt 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 companys modest income, The Human Bean Co. has grown significantly. The start-up year Appel sold $17,000 worth of coffee; this years sales will be about $205,000.
Appel doesnt count success in spreadsheet terms. We dont really make a profit, he said. I pay myself a livable wage, and I pay any additional help much more than McDonalds. 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 didnt come into this from a coffee exporters 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 companys 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 isnt going up and down dependent on the stock market. I know what Im 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 Denvers Chiapas Coalition to raise awareness of the Mexican governments low intensity war against the indigenous peoples 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 Departments 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. Id 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 wont ever rise to the top.
Melissa Jones is a free-lance writer living in Littleton, Colo.
National Catholic Reporter, December 27, 2002