August 26th, 2014

pearly whites.

Review: Javatrekker by Dean Cycon

Javatrekker: Dispatches From the World of Fair Trade Coffee
by Dean Cycon

Founder of Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee, Dean Cycon makes it a priority to visit the farmers who grow his beans. In a collection of essays that are part-memoir, part anthropological study, and part-exploration of the impact of globalization on some of the most impoverished peoples in the world, Dean Cycon introduces the world to the men, women and children who produce their coffee. With equal parts humor (often at his own expense) and compassion, Dean highlights the backbreaking labor and often poor returns suffered by the farmers who tend to the coffee plants of Africa, the Americas, and the islands of the Pacific.

Dean chronicles his own attempts to improve the lives of the villages where his workers live. As he explains it, his company is committed to small, meaningful projects that benefit the local population by providing them with things they need. He works directly with the villagers, not a foreign aid agency or the local government, to ensure that the funds are used productively. In Ethiopia, this means building wells designed by the local people so that they can carry out repairs on their own. In Peru, the funds are dedicated to restoring the local forests, as these sacred lands have been severely degraded by illegal logging.

The book is also a travelogue. Many of the men and women Dean works with are indigenous people, and their customs are quite foreign to the American writer. He describes some of the ceremonies he witnesses so vividly it’s like you’re standing right next to him; at other times, he describes his attempts to communicate in the local languages and joins the natives in laughing at how badly he fails.

Finally, the book exposes many of the ways that coffee has hurt the people who grow it. In the early 2000s, prices plummeted globally, and many farmers went into debt as they sold their beans for less than it cost to produce them. Many of these farmers don’t understand why the price dropped so dramatically, because their understanding of the global market is nonexistent – they sell their beans on to a middleman and never even see what the final product looks like. In other countries, the policies of the U.N. and local governments make it impossible for anyone but the rich to get wealthier as corruption and poor recordkeeping destroys Dean’s attempts to track beans from the fields to his warehouses.

I have to confess that I never gave much thought to where my coffee was coming from. I mean, I knew that they had to come from somewhere tropical, but that’s as far as my consideration went. I found Dean’s stories to be very eye-opening and, at times, heartbreaking. Ever since that expose that showed holes in Greg Mortenson’s claims of do-gooding in Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, I’ve been wary of books that proudly toot the horn of their author’s good deeds. Dean seem sincere, and my attempts to Google any criticisms of his work did not turn up anything dramatic.

The one failing the book had was it didn’t always explain terminology very well. In the opening and closing paragraphs, Dean brags about being a “Javatrekker” – but he never explains what exactly he means by this term. Is a Javatrekker someone who physically travels to see where his beans come from? Is it just someone who knows the men and women who picked and roasted his beans? Can you be an armchair Javatrekker? I have no idea. Likewise, I’m not quite sure what “Fair Trade” means. I understand that it’s a desirable label, and one that has been abused by other [corporate] coffee companies, but what the precise requirement is to be Fair Trade in Dean’s book eludes me.

Still, it’s a fascinating read, encompassing many of my favorite things: coffee, travel, ethnographic reports, and white guys trying (and failing) to go native. I’d really recommend Javatrekker to anyone who is still enjoying a nice hot cup of coffee every morning. If I have to wash away that feeling of guilt as I indulge myself, I want to at least know that other people are troubled, too.

4 out of 5 stars

To read more about Javatrekker, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the in:
2013: Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss
2012: Discussion Question: Bookish Websites – Where do you go?
2011: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
2010: News: Press “Pause” on the Piranha
2009: Random Ranting: Magazine Subscriptions
2008: Discussion Question: Do you read every book in a series?