Johnny Depp, Fair Trade and Me - A Cautionary Tale

After thirty-five years of grassroots activism and development work, you'd think I would know how to get a point across now and then. But this news from Amazonian northern Peru reminds me how difficult it is to drop in from another planet into a remote indigenous community and be understood. Now, I have been in and out of Lamas for almost five years. We created the world's first written long-term fair trade contract with Oro Verde Cooperative, we have purchased the entire output of the village of Akan Shambuyaco, shared profits in cash and done some great development work in that community. The farmers know that I was in Pirates of the Caribbean III and enjoyed the photos and the tattoos I showed them that commemorated my screen breakthrough.

So imagine my surprise when I got an email this morning from a friend in Peru who had met with some of the farmers in Akan Shambuyaco and inquired how their harvest was going. The farmers were excited to relate that their entire crop had been bought yet again by Johnny Depp, who had heard of the high quality of the coffee and wanted to buy all of it to give to his friends "because that's how rich he is"! (I guess right after I left, the farmers, who had never seen the movie anyway, thought that I was Johnny Depp!).

So much for fair trade! Actually, this is a very useful reminder/object lesson about the difficulty of introducing new concepts into different communities. It is easy to forget that just because I have been doing something forever, and have the language skills (and acting ability!) to transmit the information about it, that doesn't mean it is received and understood. Hey, it is hard enough to get University of Chicago or Harvard Business School types to understand the concept and practices of trade justice, let alone very poor farmers whose usual relationship with world markets is to hand over the beans and get the payment that is offered. Frankly, I have met plenty of roasters and retailers who serve fair trade coffee and don't have a particularly deep understanding of the system either. Guess we have a lot of work left to do! Maybe I should ask Johnny to go to Peru with me and help clear up the confusion (we don't even look alike-I am much better looking!).

Oh well, as my co-actor in that movie once said, when holding up a cup of Ahab's Revenge:
"Drink up, me hearties, yo-HO!"

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