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Protest Starbucks

Can Coffee Brew a Better World?

EDWARDS — All great missionary endeavors begin with a road trip.

And so it came to pass that Kyle Cureau and Jess Arnsteen climbed into a truck and drove through Mexico to Guatemala to visit coffee farmers. Now they’re helping launch an organization that will import organic coffee directly from some of those farmers.

The farmers will earn more for their crops while American coffee drinkers sip for about the same cost, or less. Everyone wins, especially the farmers who labor in some of the Third World’s most desperate conditions, Cureau said.

“No other company is doing it,” Cureau said, speaking to an assembly of students at Vail Christian High School, from which he graduated in 2004.

Americans import more coffee than any other product except oil — $22 billion annually. It seems only fair that the farmers who grow it should get a bigger cut of that action, Cureau said.

The average coffee farmer earns around $640 a year. If their group, BuyWell International, pays that same farmer $1.71 per pound for their coffee crop, that’s up to six times more than they usually get.

“They still won’t get rich, but they can live comfortably — not extravagantly, but comfortably,” Cureau said.

It’s a movement The whole thing is part of a fair-trade movement that’s taking hold across the country, especially on college campuses where the next generation of coffee drinkers is being wooed, Cureau said.

BuyWell began with a heated discussion Cureau and Arnsteen had about the pros and cons of globalization. The discussion lasted until 7 a.m. with this conclusion: Globalization is here to stay and there is no reason workers should not share the wealth. By January 2006, their organization was launched.

Basically, it works like this. As globalization develops, world prices for commodities such as coffee goods are at record lows. But U.S. retail coffee prices have remained relatively stable. As a result, Third World farmers have seen their earnings erode rapidly, while conventional coffee sellers are experiencing increasing sales.

Cureau’s plan is nothing if not ambitious.

He and Arnsteen want to revolutionize the commodities industry by restructuring the commodities supply chain to benefit the farmers who grow the products. To do that, they decided they needed to see first-hand what they were dealing with, so into the truck they went.

Their trip took them to Guatemala and Mexico to meet coffee farmers and co-op fair trade organizations. They slept on dirt floors, talked with malnourished farming children, and made it their goal to help those families achieve a sustainable way of life and an increased income.

“By December, the program will help lift 13,000 people out of poverty,” Cureau said. They found places like Guatemala Fuego where the tip of the active volcano can be seen smoking from miles around. In the high regions of Antigua and Lake Atitlan, farmers work small plots of land.

Cureau said Rwanda Fresh Hope coffee is named in honor of the Rwandan people who survived the tragedies of Rwanda’s recent history.

“As Rwandan coffee continues to progress in the world market, so does the health and overall well-being of coffee communities,” said Arnsteen.

BuyWell pours its revenues back into those Third World farming communities, while supplying fair-trade coffee at a lower price than any other distributor in the U.S. market, the organization’s Web site says. They take no middleman mark-up.

BuyWell, buy big By the end of this year they will have bought 2.5 million pounds of coffee and have more ambitious goals for the near future.

Photo by Bret Hartman/Vail Daily Vail Christian High School alumni Kyle Cureau speaks to students about his nonprofit coffee company, BuyWell International. Bret Hartman/Vail Daily

Browse Vail Daily Photos They’ve been traveling to every trade show they can, recruiting clients and stirring up a fine cup of coffee, along with interest.

They’re at $1.2 million in investment capital with a goal of $3.4 million by the end of this month. Stock costs $200 a share.

Fair trade’s roots can be traced to the 1940s when churches in North America and Europe provided relief to refugees and poverty-stricken communities by selling their handicrafts to northern markets.

In 1988, the Max Havelaar convention in Holland established international standards as to what constitutes a livable wage, and what constitutes safe and healthy working conditions. This created the FairTrade Labeling Corporation, an international nonprofit organization that certifies farms and growers as “Fair Trade.”

Fair-trade workers receive no less than a fixed livable wage and work in a regulated healthy environment. Consequently, almost all fair-trade certified farms are organic and sustainable.

BuyWell intends to utilize the benefits of a free-trade economy while at the same time paying only fair-trade certified prices to workers, Cureau said.

BuyWell, buy often Cureau said BuyWell International is mostly about philanthropy, but if the organization generates enough money to branch into other areas of need, that’s OK too.

“We’re turning it from a philanthropy to a business,” said Cureau. “There’s tremendous growth potential and that means great things for the farmers who grow it.”

Coffee is a staple product of farmers in need, but their need isn’t because the market for their product isn’t growing. It is. Specialty coffees are one of the largest segments in the organic markets. And the organic and fair-trade markets have grown 1,100 percent in the last five years, Cureau said. That’s 2.2 percent of the U.S. coffee market.

If it keeps growing at its current rate, Cureau said, free trade coffee could account for a quarter of the U.S. market in five years.

“In an environment already relatively devoid of labor and environmental standards, transnational corporations have the ability to seek out the absolute lowest labor costs, however inhumane,” said Cureau.

“Should the growers or factory workers choose to unionize for livable wages and conditions, the corporation can merely move to the next low-cost labor force, leaving one population unemployed and another underpaid.”

Randy Wyrick can be reached at 748- 2977 or rwyrick@vaildaily.com.