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Balancing gratitude with reality and the work that lies ahead

This time of the year we celebrate #DLGthanks, our annual November campaign to give thanks and share perspectives from all of those who make up the extended DLG family (farmers, roasters, coffee drinkers, travelers, staff, and more). And truly, we have much to be thankful for, as it’s not easy to bring together so many people from different backgrounds for constructive collaboration that spans countries, cultures, and languages.

Let’s take a step back and think about all the work that goes into making DLG’s model successful. Before a bag of coffee arrives at your door, some combination of the following has already taken place: DLG trainers working alongside producers to build their capacity to produce quality coffee; lenders stepping up to finance the purchase of coffee; farmers working hard days on end to harvest, pulp, ferment, wash, dry, and pack coffee to exacting standards; DLG staff coordinating the shipping, storage, roasting, and fulfillment of coffee so the perfect bag of beans is ready for you to drink.

And a key part of that work is you! We believe that every person can be an active participant in creating a better coffee industry, whether as a consumer (purchasing responsibly-sourced coffee), donor (contributing to projects that benefit producers), traveler (participating in community tourism), or by raising awareness in your community. In our service learning trips we teach that every person has the capability of becoming more aware of global issues and being an agent of social change, and you should be proud of the part you play.

But at the same time that we give thanks and share our many stories, it’s also important to turn a critical eye to the state of the coffee industry. Put simply, the coffee industry still harbors and reinforces gross inequality of income, opportunity, and quality of life for millions of small producers and farm workers and their families. We can be sure that they are not giving thanks for what coffee means for them.

The large structural problems within the industry are no secret to those who work in the coffee world. In recent years there has been greater open discussion of these problems, often under the well-meaning but rather nebulous header of “sustainability.” The concern comes both from compassionate motives (solidarity and aid for those living in poor conditions), and self-interested ones (ensuring that specialty coffee doesn’t disappear), generally, as is only human, from a mixture of both.

Out of these discussions have come a wide range of initiatives, coalitions, partnerships, and consortiums, formed from the government, public-private, private, non-profit, producer, and certification sectors. These initiatives have focused on many of the specific issues that have affected coffee and coffee communities in recent years, such as roya (leaf rust), youth involvement, coffee quality, seasonal hunger, diversification of livelihoods, and access to health care.

A lot of good work has been done, improving conditions for producers and creating circumstances that give hope for a brighter future. Inevitably, however, this is a fragmented approach, with many actors (of which DLG is one) working on their own projects with their own focuses. At best, it means that each organization can adapt strategies to their specific circumstances to make them more effective and appropriate. At worst, organizations are trying to solve problems which have already been thought through and failing to use best practices and ideas already out there.

The fact that much has been achieved by likeminded companies and organizations should give us hope. The fact that more hasn’t been achieved should give us pause and cause us to ask why. We shouldn’t accept that earning a fair income and living in dignity are a luxury reserved for only a few. Creativity, collaboration, and real commitment are necessary if the coffee industry is to maintain quality and do more than pay lip service to the cause of improving economic conditions for producers.

Stay tuned the rest of the month to hear more about what we are thankful for. If you’re a coffee professional or passionate consumer, think more about the role you can play. Gratitude and questioning go hand in hand, and so we’ll be celebrating all we are thankful for while not forgetting about the work that remains.

Andrew Feldman is the executive director of De la Gente.