Javatrekker: A literary trip for coffee-lovers with a conscience

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If you love adventure travel, becoming a fair trade coffee buyer seems like THE way to combine business and pleasure. After all, coffee's grown in the far reaches of many different continents -- and getting to some of these places can require jumping through some serious hoops -- rafting a truck down a river, bumping down an unpaved road, and even going on a long hike chewing coca leaves.

But if you're not so courageous, take a literary journey instead. Dean Cycon, founder and owner of Dean's Beans, reveals how fun, crazy, and treacherously difficult these treks to coffee lands can be in his nomadic memoir of sorts, Javatrekker: Dispatches From the World of Fair Trade Coffee.

This book will take you on intensely entertaining journeys all over the world of coffee, introducing you to the connections between the coffee trade, globalization, immigration, war, and, um, water buffalo breeding. Dean travels through four different continents, picking up bits and pieces of languages (and accidentally announcing in a speech that he'll discuss his penis), learning about unexpected local customs (like eating an armadillo for dinner), and even serving as an international election observer in Guatemala. Who knew buying coffee could be so exciting?

Coffee addicts abound in the US, but most of us have never actually been to a coffee farm. Actually, many working directly for a US coffee company have never visited a coffee farm either. But in his quest to work directly with the coffee farmers his company purchases beans from, Dean treks all over the place to find out what exactly the conditions are in these places, and what can be done to forge a true fair trade relationship that benefits all in the supply chain.

Of course, the stories aren't all fun and games. For one, Dean finds people are drinking Coca Cola and Nescafe even the poorest of places -- a fact that I personally find rather depressing. And Dean exposes some of the businesses and landowners who try to outsource the cost of providing basic needs for their workers to well-meaning nonprofits.

Javatrekker even takes us to Tapachula, where would-be immigrants to the US instead became amputees by falling under the "Death Train." Here, Dean connects "free trade" policies to immigration issues; many farmers -- including coffee farmers -- aren't able to make a living due to NAFTA, creating a toxic situation that encourages risky efforts at immigration.

We get heartwarming stories too, however. Dean helps start a project to repatriate Death Train amputees, for example. And in Nicaragua, Dean’s Beans helped create a successful cafe and roasterie in Leon called Puerto Cafe-Benjamin Linder where landmine victims who've become amputees can make a proud living.

Javatrekker can get a bit self-congratulatory at times, with unexpected pronouncements like "I was very skilled with this kind of communication with farmers." In the epilogue, Dean talks about Ethiopia’s efforts to trademark its coffee names. Here, Dean touts his own role in drafting and signing a trademark agreement and notes that "with a little coaxing from us, Starbucks and others are following suit" -- without ever mentioning Oxfam, the nonprofit that actually spearheaded this effort. In fact, Dean initially went on NPR to speak out against the agreement, later changing his mind in support of it and now, apparently taking credit for it....

That said, Dean's done wonderful work in the fair trade movement. Dean's Beans is a die-hard fair trade coffee company in Orange, Mass., which a few years ago, dropped fair trade certification for its products, protesting that the standards weren't tough enough. More recently though, Dean's told me he's rejoined the ranks of fair trade certification. Now that I've finally read his book, I'll call him up to find out more --

In the meantime, if you've ever been curious about how your morning brew's produced, or if you've wondered what these exotic-sounding places on the coffee labels really are like, pick up Javatrekker. You can read an interview Kelly Amabile did with Dean about Javatrekker at Gadling. Or pick up some Dean's Beans coffee; sarachka got some for her office, noting that she likes the "commitment to the social aspects of the trade."

Can't learn enough about fair trade and sustainable coffee? Read the Coffee and Conservation blog, written by a coffee-loving woman who's also a University of Michigan ornithologist.

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BlogHer Contributing Editor Siel also blogs for the Los Angeles Times at Emerald City, and at greenLAgirl.com.

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