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Fair trade coffee builds bonds

In 2004 world coffee prices slumped, and a coffee farmer in Mbale in eastern Uganda went door-to-door talking to his neighbors about forming a cooperative to boost their earnings.

The farmer, J.J. Keki, was a member of the Abayudaya, an indigenous Ugandan Jewish community which had survived persecution under Idi Amin, and the neighbors he organized included Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The co-op would help them economically and spread peace in the world, Keki said.

Today the Mirembe Kawomera Coffee Cooperative — the name means “delicious peace” — includes 700 farmers and remains firmly cross-confessional, with a Jewish president (Keki), a Muslim vice president and a Christian treasurer.

It’s the first certified fair trade coffee producer in Uganda, which means it uses ecologically sustainable agricultural practices and guarantee a living wage — cooperative members get about four times the price paid to farmers under the dominant trading system, according to the cooperative’s website. It’s an important model in a country where 90 percent of export revenues come from coffee production.

Members of the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston met and worshipped with an Abayudaya synagogue during a service trip to Uganda in 2005, and when they learned about the coffee cooperative after their return, they started selling its coffee, which is now among fair trade products featured in a new gift shop. Now the congregation is joining with Chicago Fair Trade to host members of the cooperative on a visit to Chicago.

Keki and three of his cooperators — a Muslim, a Catholic and an Anglican — have been touring the U.S., starting at Tufts University in Boston, where they received the Jean Mayer Global Citizenship Award. They’ll give a presentation on their project and its goals of peace and sustainable community Thursday, March 13 at 7 p.m. (a reception with coffee precedes the program) at Conway Center of Columbia College, 1104 S. Wabash.

The program will include Keki’s music. He’s a contributor to the Grammy-nominated Folkways CD Abayudaya, which features the rhythms and harmonies of African music — with elements including rich choral singing, Afro-pop and traditional drumming — devoted to Jewish celebrations and Hebrew prayers.

The Ugandans will also speak and perform at JRC’s Shabbat Service, Friday, March 14 at 7 p.m. (303 Dodge Ave., Evanston), and meet with classes and small groups at Evanston High School, the Islamic Foundation School in Villa Park, Congregation Hafaka Winnetka and St. Sabina Church.

Chicago Fair Trade is a coalition of over 55 organizations, including congregations, businesses, and nonprofits, working to educate consumers and enlist businesses in fair trade practices. A typical event is an introduction to coffee and fair trade at Gallery Cafe, 1760 W. North, March 19 at 7:30 p.m.

They also mobilize against “free trade” pacts (they’re currently targeting the Colombia Free Trade Agreement) which they say hurt small farmers and indigenous communities and undermine labor and environmental progress.

CFT is working to encourage Chicago declare itself a “fair trade city” (a City Council resolution is being circulated) with the Department of the Environment working with congregations and communities to establish fair trade outlets in every neighborhood.

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Category: fair trade, faith

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