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Amplifying the Voices of Central American Farmers

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Connected by Coffee film will examine Fair Trade movement's impact on coffee farmers

Do you drink coffee? Do you think about where that coffee comes from, and who harvests those beans? Do you consider how much you pay for your morning fix, and how that impacts the salary those farmers make?

If these leading questions have caught your attention, then you'll be happy to learn that a documentary is in the works that will examine the impact of the Fair Trade movement on Central American coffee growers. The film project is called Connected by Coffee, and it's being produced by husband and wife team Aaron and Chelsea Bay Dennis of Stone Hut Studios in Traverse City, Michigan. (Aaron and I teamed up last year to make a film about Palestinian olive farmers called The People and the Olive.)

According to Aaron, Connected by Coffee will tell a story that's both sad and hopeful, simple and complex. The world consumes 1.4 billion cups of coffee each day. Each one of the coffee beans it takes to make those cups is hand-picked. Hand-picked by farmers who work incredibly hard, yet usually live in desperate poverty. Farmers who typically make less per day than we spend on one cappuccino.

The film seeks to show the roots of a system that allows great suffering to exist at one end of a supply chain. The story of coffee production is a microcosm of the European colonial resource grab. Some of the first land owners used slaves to plant and harvest their coffee. Later, indentured servants were used (who's plight was little better than slaves), and even today many coffee farmers are stuck in a cycle of debt and poverty that makes them essentially economic slaves.

The burgeoning world-wide popularity of coffee created huge fortunes for some. A very small population who controlled coffee and other commodities became massively rich while the majority of the people lived in poverty and misery. The wealth and power of the ruling classes and the disparity between them and the peasant class continued to grow. People began to stand up to demand change. The revolutions that resulted, and often-times counter-revolutions, civil wars and horrible atrocities are another sad, but inescapable chapter in this story.

These struggles that the people of Latin America faced are beyond the reality of most of us. And yet they didn't lose their hope or humanity. And here's where it gets inspiring. In many places, the farmers realized that in order to pull themselves up, they needed to work together. They formed cooperatives to join small farms together in order to share resources and profits and to build their communities. Worldwide, people started to understand the injustices of the past, and visionaries among them realized that they could help these people, not by giving them aid, but by helping them create a market to sell their products in an equitable way.

These are the conditions that created the movement we now call Fair Trade. Fair Trade connects us with those who grow the coffee we drink (and the handicrafts we buy, and chocolate and sugar, tea, bananas, honey, cotton, wine, fruit, olive oil, flowers and more) and gives a simple tool to take action.

But Fair Trade isn't perfect. In fact, those involved in Fair Trade are currently divided over the future of the movement. This film will touch on that debate. But it will focus on the voices of the farmers.

Aaron and Chelsea's journey through Central America early this year will serve as the narrative vehicle to tell this complex history and to show the inspiring work that is being done across the world to use coffee as a tool for change. The filmmakers focus on four coffee cooperatives that they visited and where they made friends. And these are only four examples of a world-wide movement of farmers connecting themselves with the global community.

Connected by Coffee is a story about the past and the future, greed and altruism, suffering and joy, hopelessness and hope. Aaron and Chelsea hope to tell the story simply and in a way that resonates with their audience. They want the audience to know what goes into creating their cup of coffee, and to inspire people to realize that their buying power can make a difference for the farmers.

The film project Connected by Coffee seeks support from donors, philanthropists and socially conscious coffee drinkers. If you feel moved to help, please visit their Kickstarter campaign here.