Arielle Greenwald sells CAN’s direct-trade coffee each Wednesday afternoon at the downtown Santa Cruz Farmers Market. Photo by Hilary Khetian.
Arielle Greenwald sells CAN’s direct-trade coffee each Wednesday afternoon at the downtown Santa Cruz Farmers Market. Photo by Hilary Khteian.

Fourth-year Merrill student Moises Plascenia is preparing to embark on the adventure of a lifetime.

Plascenia will leave for Jose Maria Morales, Mexico, this June and will study and volunteer with other students there through the Community Agroecology Network (CAN). 

“We’re going to be traveling from Mayan community to Mayan community, collecting stories, collecting farming techniques of the area, basic demographics of the area,” he said.

Plascenia is currently an intern for CAN, a nonprofit organization based in Santa Cruz that supports farmers in Central and South America through direct trade practices. Steve Gliessman, an environmental studies professor at UC Santa Cruz, started the organization in 2001 in response to Latin American farmers’ plummeting wages.

UCSC students interning with CAN help farmers improve their crops, develop more sustainable practices and increase biodiversity. Volunteers and interns both abroad and in the United States work to ensure farmers a living wage. Here in Santa Cruz, volunteers sell their coffee every Wednesday at the farmers market to support the cause.

Photo by Hilary Khetian.
Photo by Hilary Khetian.

“What we try to do is set up a trade relationship,” said Tom Maimon, a fourth-year CAN intern who will go on the same trip as Plascenia. “[In the conventional market] there’s these middlemen, exporters, importers, grocers, distributors, roasters, retailers, and all those retailers take a cut from the producers.”

CAN farmers can ship their coffee to the United States directly through the mail system, cutting out the middlemen. This puts more money in the farmers’ pockets. 

CAN outreach coordinator Grace Voorheis put it best: “The coffee we sell goes beyond fair trade. It’s a direct market.”

Plascenia, Maimon and their classmates will work with the Mayan Intercultural University of Quintana Roo, Mexico. Together they will conduct surveys, research and create an ethnography of the region.

Ultimately, though, Plascenia said he and his fellow volunteers aim to find “sustainable positions for the communities.” 

“By sustainable, I mean sustainable agriculturally, sustainable economically and sustainable in the cultural fashion,” Plascenia said.

There are several Latin American countries where CAN interns may serve. The organization offers internship programs in Costa Rica and El Salvador, as well as a new program in Nicaragua and two in Mexico, like the one Plascenia and Maimon will be going on.

Maimon, a community studies major, sees the internship program as a chance not only “to go abroad and study in another country, but [also to] have that study be a service study, so that [students] are not just going to another country and then taking what they learned and leaving, but having the learning process be an equal exchange of something.”

“It’s a transformative experience,” Maimon said. “It’s not just like EAP.”

Alayna Fredrick, who is currently interning in Costa Rica, said in an e-mail that time moves much slower there. 

“I’ve only been here for two weeks,” Fredrick said. “But the heat makes it feel like a month.”

Fredrick also notes that a myriad of benefits come out of CAN. 

“[Through the internship] deep relationships are built and learning is shared,” Fredrick said. “Through the direct market system, producers see all the revenues from the sale of their coffee. [Consumers] learn and understand the hardships, inequities and costs of the T-shirt they’re wearing or cappuccino they drink every morning.”

Members of CAN are hopeful about the future, yet realistic about its possibilities.

Coffee is one of the most traded commodities on the planet,” Voorheis said. “It’s kind of daunting to say that CAN is changing the way conventional markets work, but you know, it’s a start.”

Looking ahead, Plascenia is excited and optimistic, both about his own future and our nation’s relationship with Latin America. 

“With the green movement going on and our economy right now, we’re looking for a better way to go,” he said. 

Plascenia said the conventional trade model is too exploitive.

“I think that CAN offers a different channel, in which we can still get what we want but do it in a way that’s more humane,” Plascenia said. “I really do think that CAN is setting a precedent.”