Coffee is the most important export of the tropical nations of the world, and the primary export of a number of developing countries.

When Bill Harris walked through the door of a coffee farmers’ co-operative in the highlands Chiapas region of Mexico, he met Monika Firl who was working there. Later, following many conversations about fair trade and the best way to support small-scale coffee farmers, the importer Co-operative Coffees was established, followed by a sister organisation, CoopSol.

Today, Co-operative Coffees is owned by its 24 roaster members throughout the US and Canada. “We expect to purchase 3.5 million pounds of green coffee in 2012, or an estimated USD11 million in contracts paid directly to small-farmer co-operatives,” says Monika Firl, now Co-operative Coffees’ producer relations manager. “In the coffee industry this makes us a small player – which motivates us all the more to make every gesture count. “We strive for maximum, positive impact on the lives of smallscale farmers – whom we consider to be the backbone of this industry – as well as creating positive impact at every subsequent step along the way.”

Co-operative Coffees is passionate about the changes which have taken place in the fair trade movement. The new Fair Trade For All campaign, set up by Fair Trade USA under its former name TransFair USA, broke away from the Fair Trade Labelling Organization, enabling plantation coffee producers to receive their accreditation. Yet, as Firl explains, ethical labour conditions on coffee plantations do not themselves ensure fairness. The best way to improve the living conditions of poor farmers, she believes, is to support them by trading directly with them rather than with the big plantations.

“At Co-operative Coffees, we don’’t believe in trickle-down economics,” says Firl. “If channelling resources through the most consolidated centres of power was functional, we would not be in this worldwide economic mess to begin with. We believe that change happens when you empower the disadvantaged and marginalized.”

This story is an IYC Yearbook feature.