The University of Arizona

Quality revolutions, solidarity networks, and sustainability innovations: following Fair Trade coffee from Nicaragua to California

Christopher M. Bacon

Abstract


Nicaraguan smallholder cooperative leaders working in partnership with a California-based small-scale roasting company pioneered an alternative approach to confronting the post-1999 coffee crisis. They built coffee tasting laboratories and integrated grassroots organizing efforts to create a national smallholder cooperative association that dramatically improved the quality, consistency, and prices from of the coffee they exported. Cooperative leaders used this development project to gain a more significant share of political economic power in a domestic coffee industry historically dominated by colonial powers, and corporate and domestic elites. This alli.ance between the artisanal small-scale roasting companies and cooperative leaders also proved that smallholders selling into fair trade markets could consistently produce and export high quality coffee. This case study unfolds into Nicaragua's northern mountains, northern California's coastal cities and the commodity trade and solidarity networks that connect them. Beyond following the coffee bean from mountainside farmers, through artisan specialty coffee roasters, and into the hands of Bay Area coffee drinkers, the article recovers the history of political and technological revolutions and the transnational solidarity networks that contributed to sustainability innovations within the coffee value chain. Although the tangible benefits of fair trade coffee to farmers and landscapes have not lived up to the lofty proclamations of its advocates, farmers generally receive higher prices for their coffee and are frequently more secure in their land titles. This political ecology of coffee and solidarity suggests theoretical questions about the role of classic revolutions, and Polanyian double movements in the efforts to practice the alternative values and principles that motivate many of today's sustainability innovations.

Key words: Nicaragua, participatory action research, coffee cooperatives, sustainability, innovations.


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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.2458/v20i1.21760