Twenty years ago, I landed at night in Guatemala. As my plane approached for landing, a volcano sparked in the distance, welcoming me on my first visit. I was shuffled into a jeep for the three-hour drive to Lake Atitlan, which would serve as a home base for visiting coffee growers in the region. Ensconced in my hotel room I couldn’t sleep. I had been told that the deepest lake in Central America was right outside my window, just a short distance down the hill, and it would fill my view in the morning. I stared out into the darkness, trying to imagine what was out there.
I’d been to Lake Tahoe, so I figured I had seen an impressive lake. Nevertheless, the next morning as I lifted my groggy head to peer out the window, I was stunned. As beautiful as Tahoe might be, there are no volcanoes along its shore. And the surface of Lake Atitlan was like glass, broken only by fishermen, each paddling alone in a flat-bottom dugout canoe. The small boats seemed to hardly disturb the water and I sat still for a long time, afraid to break the spell.
After breakfast, we made our way down to the dock and boarded a boat to cross the lake. It was a fast boat and the crossing was smooth. We visited two or three co-operatives, from medium-sized to very small. I remember asking coffee farmers if their coffee was good coffee as we toured their milling operations. Of course, they all answered that their coffee was very good. Then I asked them how they knew this to be true and each time, the farmer would scoop up a handful of green coffee and show it to me. It’s obvious, they were saying. Just look at it. Today, if I were to go back and ask those same farmers the same question, many of them would expand on their answer to include the fact that they had tasted the coffee, and that’s how they knew. It tastes as good as it looks, they might say.
As we set out to cross the lake again in the late afternoon, Lake Atitlan was no longer like glass. It looked angry and it started to rain. The lake got choppier. The rain fell harder. One of the two boatmen climbed onto the bow where he stood holding on tightly to ropes attached to the railing as if riding a bucking bronco. The rain was blowing sideways and visibility diminished to a matter of yards. The boat pounded along the whitecaps, our teeth jarring with each drop and then chattering in between with the cold. It was then that another passenger decided to inform me through my translator that, in truth, they didn’t actually know how deep the lake was, and it wasn’t unheard of for boats to simply disappear and never be seen again.
That was a memorable day. But the most memorable moments were not the coffee farmers who were only just being introduced to cupping, or the bouncy boat ride in the wind and rain. The most memorable moment was not even waking up to the unbelievable view of Lake Atitlan. What I remember most about that visit were the children. I remember the children and I remember the internal conflict that anyone who has traveled to a coffee region experiences.
To encounter children in coffee-growing regions is to almost always encounter poverty, more or less, and question the economics of the supply chain and our role in that supply chain. We may differ from each other in our answers to hard questions, or what questions to even ask, and differ from each other in our subjective experiences, and differ from each other in our politics and philosophy. But hopefully, when it comes to children, we can all agree that child labor should not exist. Of all the things we may disagree on, child labor cannot be among them.
Yes, it’s complex for many reasons, from the cultural to the political and the most micro of microeconomic considerations, and yet there are no excuses. Much progress has been made in recent decades, but if zero tolerance is the goal, as it is for Olam Coffee, solutions must be stacked, one upon the other, and no solution rejected because it fails to solve every challenge at once.
“You can’t make a difference,” says a man to a boy in one version of Loren Eiseley’s parable about starfish stranded on the beach after a storm. As with most parables, this one withstands constant retelling not only because it rings true, but because it has about it the sense of remembering a truth we sometimes forget. The boy smiles at the man, picks up a starfish, throws it into the water and answers, “I made a difference for that one.”
Watch the video below to learn about how Olam is making a difference in Guatemala.