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These stories were published Thursday, April 22, 2004, in Vol. 4, No. 79
Jo Stuart
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Fair trade coffee: Is it just a marketing tool?
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

There's a disagreement brewing among advocates of so-called "Fair Trade" coffee. This is coffee grown by farmers who have agreed to use environmentally and socially responsible agricultural methods. In exchange, they're paid a price for their commodity that's considerably higher than the market rate. 

The Fair Trade Movement has seen a lot of growth in the last five years. However, some independent roasters in the United States believe that growth has taken the movement in the wrong direction.

It's was a rainy weekday afternoon in Brooklyn, New York. At the Gorilla Coffee House in one of the city's up-and-coming artistic neighborhoods, shop owner and manager Darlene Scherer grinds a bag of Brazilian Fair Trade coffee for a customer.

"Brazil is probably our most popular coffee," she said. "It's versatile. It's kind of chocolatey. It's what we pull for espresso."

All of the coffee and tea sold at the Gorilla Coffee House is Fair Trade. Darlene Scherer said she wanted to make a complete commitment to the Fair Trade philosophy when she opened her shop last July. So then how does she know that the coffee she sells has been organically grown by a company that respects workers' rights and that the coffee growers have been paid a just price for their product?

"I just leave it up to TransFair USA, which is the American labeling organization that certifies that it was bought in this way," she said.

TransFair USA is the American arm of a 17-member international organization that brokers deals between coffee roasters and plantation owners. There's a TransFair Canada, a TransFair Italy, a TransFair Japan. All of these groups work exclusively with farmers who have had their plantations evaluated and certified by the Fair Trade Labeling Organization (FLO) based in Bonn, Germany. Haven Bourque is the marketing director at TransFair USA.

"They make sure that strict international labor standards are met," she said. "In other words, there is no child labor whatsoever in the model. Men and women are paid equally for equal work. They also ensure environmentally protective farming techniques. So they make sure that the 'dirty dozen', those twelve, worst pesticides are never used on FairTrade farms."

FLO certifies the plantations and then TransFair makes sure the farmers get a good rate. Right now, the wholesale price for Fair Trade coffee is about $1.26 a pound. That's 75 cents more than what a farmer can get for it on the open 

market. Haven Borque says about 5.5 million kilograms of Fair Trade coffee were sold in the United States last year. She said that the amount has gone up considerably, as large, multi-national corporations like Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts have taken an interest in the Fair Trade movement.

Unlike the Gorilla Coffee House, the big corporate coffee chains haven't made a total commitment to the Fair Trade movement. Only about 2  percent of the coffee sold at Starbucks is Fair Trade. Nevertheless, TransFair USA lets the corporation display the Fair Trade logo in all of its stores.

Larry Larson is the owner of Larry's Beans, an independent distributor in Raleigh, North Carolina. Fair Trade coffee is the only kind of coffee he sells. Recently, Larson and three other independent coffee roasters announced that they would be severing their ties with TransFair USA. Larson said that TransFair's logo has become nothing more than a marketing tool, and that when companies like Starbucks are allowed to display it in their windows, the logo confuses the consumer.

"I don't want the multi-nationals to ride on my coattails," he said. "I've heard on dozens of occasions, where people have thought 'Isn't Starbucks all Fair Trade? I've seen that sign in their store.' And it's like, 'What? No, they have one item.' So again, where the system can be manipulated, and the consumer can be confused. So the consumer goes, 'OK, well I feel OK now about going to Starbucks all the time, because they're Fair Trade.'" 

Larry Larson said that he still has a great deal of respect for TransFair USA, but he thinks the movement won't work if consumers are unsure where to spend their dollars, so in that sense, TransFair's current relationship with multi-national coffee corporations is self-defeating. 

Larson said that he'd like to see other independent coffee roasters join him in his exodus, but if the Gorilla Coffee House's Darlene Scherer is typical of most roasters, that won't be happening any time soon.

"It would be logistically hard, because, you know, I don't want to get that involved on that level," she sad. "Because it would be going to all these different farms and making sure that they were farming properly. I don't even have the expertise to show them what to do."

For their part, company officials at Starbucks insist all of their coffee is bought "fairly," even if 98 percent of it isn't certified as Fair Trade. According to the company's Web site, Starbucks pays an average of 69 cents more than the going market rate for a pound of coffee. 

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Caja chief resigns job
after rental revelation

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The executive president of the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social resigned Wednesday, the same day that the La Nación newspaper reported that he had rented a home from a manager of a major supplier to his public organization.

The Caja is the government medical service to which most Costa Ricans belong. The manager of the supplier was Oman Valverde Rojas of Corporación Fischel, the pharmacy firm.

The former Caja head, Eliseo Vargas Garcia, had rented a five-bedroom home in Santa Ana from Valverde for $2,500 a month. Valverde paid $735,000 for the home, the newspaper said.

Fischel did about $2.7 million in business with the Caja in 2003, said La Nación.

The Partido Acción Ciudadana, in a statement from the Asamblea Nacional, asked the Contraloría General de la República to look into the Caja. The political party claimed many irregularities exist.

Among other functions, the Caja runs the public hospitals and clinics.

President Abel Pacheco called a hurry-up press conference Wednesday evening to announce that the medical director of the Caja, Horacio Solano, would fill the job held by Vargas.

Pacheco also announced that Luis Javier Guier Alfaro, a lawyer, would take over the job of executive president of the Instituto Nacional de Seguros. The head of that organization, the national insurance monopoly, Germán Serano Pinto, announced Tuesday that he was leaving.

Guier is a long-time employee of the government insurance firm and held the top job from 1990 to 1994. He will take over May 1.

Puerto Rico to open
commercial office here

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Puerto Rico is opening a commercial office for Central America at the Ofiplaza del Este. The inauguration is today at 4 p.m. with Gov. Sila María Calderón presiding.

The governor and a trade delegation arrived Wednesday. The commercial sector of Puerto Rico is interested in new possibilities that may develop if the free-trade treaty with the United States is approved.

The governor has a full day of activities today, starting at 8:30 a.m. in the Museo Nacional for a formal welcome from President Abel Pacheco. Then it is on to the nearby Monumento Nacional to place a floral offering.

After a private meeting with Pacheco, the governor will receive the keys to the Municipalidad de San José  from Mayor Johnny Araya and meet with legislators at 3 p.m.

Puerto Rico is the country’s 10th largest trading partner, according to a statement by the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores y Culto.

Snake venom maker
receives a donation

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

You may not know the name, but if you are among the estimated 600 persons bitten each year here by poisonous snakes, you will want to know they are there.

The Instituto Clodomio Picado of the Universidad de Costa Rica is where anti-venom is produced and kept available for such emergencies in Costa Rica and in all of Central America.

The institute just received a donation from Japan in equipment worth an estimated $83,000 for the advanced laboratory for the study of proteins.

Toxic proteins are part of what makes up snake venom, the institute said. The lab work will be done at the institute location at Dulce Nombre de Coronado.

Gang robs apartment
in Guachipelín

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Six men broke into an apartment in Guachipelín, tied up and gagged the occupants and made off with jewels, money and appliances worth 40 million colons (about $93,000), said officials.

Fuerza Pública officers caught a suspect as he was heading to a home near the cemetery in Piedades de Santa Ana. The man, identified by the last names of Garro Cambronero was driving a sport utility vehicle that had been connected to robberies in other areas, said police.

This is the second gang that appears to be working in the western part of the greater San José area. Men who committed similar acts of home invasion in Escazú and La Sabana were arrested two weeks ago.

Volunteers to take oath

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Today 18 new Peace Corps volunteers will be sworn in at a ceremony at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Escazú. That will bring to 67 the number of volunteers working in Costa Rica.

The new volunteers will be working with the Dirección Nacional de Desarrollo de la Comunidad, said an embassy release.

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Latin economy growing,
World Bank report says

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

After the region's sluggish performance in 2003, the World Bank is predicting that the economy of Latin America and the Caribbean will grow 3.8 percent in 2004, based on stronger exports and a broadening recovery in Brazil and Mexico.

In a statement this week, the World Bank said that growth in Latin America and the Caribbean "has been slow, partly due to uneven performance across countries" in the region. But the bank said recovery is now broadening, "especially after gaining traction in Brazil and Mexico during late 2003."

The region's gross domestic product increased by 1.1 percent in 2003, following a 0.6 percent drop in 2002. The World Bank said the "fundamental underpinnings" for recovery include improved macroeconomic management "that has reined in inflation across the region, a decades-long pursuit of outward-oriented strategies that has increased trade flows and reduced the volatility of export earnings, and more competitive and flexible exchange rates."

Guillermo Perry, the World Bank's chief economist for Latin America and the Caribbean, said: "Now that the region is growing again, after suffering successive adverse external shocks since 1999, Latin America and the Caribbean must use the opportunity to reduce macro-financial vulnerabilities so as to improve resilience . . . . "

The predictions about the region's economy were made in a new World Bank report called "Global Development Finance 2004." 

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A surprise downpour rolled into the San José downtown just before 4 p.m. Wednesday, but this woman was prepared. She had an umbrella. The rain lasted until about 6 p.m. and continued elsewhere in the Central Valley throughout the evening. 

House committee hears about drug and terror links
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D,C, — U.S. officials in charge of worldwide counter-narcotics efforts have testified about the links between drug money and terrorist organizations. A House of Representatives committee heard Wednesday from a key Department of Defense official, and individuals responsible for counter-narcotics efforts in Asia and South America. 

Congressional committees are trying to gauge how successful U.S. efforts have been, amid concern money being spent to battle narco-terrorists in Colombia, and opium production in Afghanistan, is not having enough impact.

Tom O'Connell is assistant secretary of Defense for special operations and low intensity conflict. Whether in Afghanistan or Colombia, he says it's clear terrorist organizations are deriving significant amounts of their income from narcotics.

"We are increasingly aware of linkages between terrorist organizations, narcotics trafficking, weapons smuggling, kidnapping rings, and other trans-national networks," he said. Terrorist groups such as the FARC in Colombia, al-Qaida in Afghanistan, and groups around the world can finance key operations with drug money."

O'Connell says U.S. assistance aims to systematically dismantle trafficking networks to halt drug flows to the United States and strengthen the war on terrorism. 

However, some lawmakers are upset with what they view as inefficiencies in the counter-drug effort, particularly in Afghanistan. Rep. Mark Souder, a Republican who is chairman of the House subcommittee dealing with drug policy, is frustrated by what he sees as too much secrecy surrounding information about successes or failures there.

Souder responded to testimony by officials that much information on destroyed drug laboratories in Afghanistan and Colombia remains "classified."

"I have no desire to put anybody at risk and I understand it is politically difficult, but [Afghanistan] is a different type of battle than Colombia, at the same time, it is very hard for us to do oversight and to make arguments," he said. "We can see information but some of this information would seem to be public. Yes, it is politically sensitive when you attack these different labs or destroy different areas but so is it in Colombia, politically sensitive." 

There was no one at Wednesday's hearing from the U.S. Central Command to speak about efforts in Afghanistan.

Brig. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, with the U.S. Southern Command, says Congress' support and funding for "expanded authorities" linking anti-terrorism and counter-narcotics programs in a place like Colombia, has been crucial.

"This legislation has allowed us to use funds that were once only available for strictly-defined counter-drug activities, to provide assistance to the government of Colombia for a coordinated campaign against the narco-terrorists and illegal armed groups that fuel the drug trade," he said. "Granting of expanded authority was an important recognition that no meaningful distinction can be made between the terrorists and drug traffickers in our region."

In other testimony, officials said the United States is moving to strengthen cooperation with key countries in Southeast Asia.

The hearing was part of congressional "oversight" of counter-narcotics programs run by the Pentagon, State Department and other government agencies. 

Italians grab $7 million in weapons headed to U.S.
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

ROME, Italy — Authorities reported that they have seized more than 7,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles and other weapons on a ship that was headed for the United States. The ship had pulled into the southern Italian port of Gioia Tauro. 

Italian customs officials said thousands of arms were seized after being found in three containers on a Turkish-flagged ship. The ship had left from the Romanian port of Constanta. 

Officials said the arms were found during routine checks carried out in the port. Such checks have been intensified recently due to fears of possible terror attacks. Officials said the cargo of weapons was worth over $7 million.

Italian authorities said documents accompanying the cargo indicated that the weapons were to be transferred to another ship, bearing a British flag, to continue their journey to New York. 

From there, the arms were to have been taken via land to a large U.S. company.

Officials said the cargo was confiscated because of discrepancies in the customs forms. They said the weapons were described as conventional firearms, instead of Kalashnikov assault rifles and machine guns. 

The officials revealed that some conventional weapons had been placed on top to hide the Kalashnikovs. The weapons cargo was discovered 10 days ago, but the announcement was only made Tuesday to ensure investigations could be carried out without publicity. 

Italian investigators suspect the weapons were destined for an international organization of arms traffickers. It was the second seizure of Kalashnikov assault rifles in the port of Gioia Tauro. A batch of 6,000 was confiscated there two years ago. 

Investigations continue to shed light on those responsible for the shipment of assault rifles to the United States. A ban on importing assault weapons into the United States has been in place since 1994, and expires in September. Efforts to renew it are stalled in Congress. 

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As Hondurans prepare to leave
U.S. officials praise Central American troops in Iraq
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Nearly 1,000 Central American soldiers have made important contributions to reconstruction and security efforts in Iraq, while representing their respective nations with distinction and making favorable impressions on their coalition counterparts, according to U.S. officials.

Some 361 Salvadoran soldiers, 367 Honduran soldiers, and 115 Nicaraguan soldiers joined 302 troops from the Dominican Republic and 1,300 from Spain to participate in the Spanish-led Plus Ultra Brigade stationed in south-central Iraq. The brigade is part of a Polish-led multinational division.

Although the first contingents of Central American troops returned to their respective nations earlier in 2004 following six-month deployments, the soldiers from the Salvadoran Cuscatlan battalion, the Honduran Xatruch battalion, and the Nicaraguan humanitarian contingent acquitted themselves well during their deployment, U.S. officials say.

Honduran officials said Tuesday that they would be bringing their troops home ahead of schedule, in part because the Spanish troops are being pulled out.

The Plus Ultra Brigade includes security, engineering, and medical personnel and carries out an array of activities. These activities include security efforts and outreach to local Iraqi communities.

The first contingent of Central American personnel conducted security patrols and played an important role in the removal and destruction of landmines in Iraq.

Central American engineers, most notably sappers with the Nicaraguan contingent, destroyed over 22,000 tons of explosives, including ammunition and weapons. They also were able to provide considerable expertise to coalition troops on Soviet-era weaponry and munitions.

The Central American troops also carried out humanitarian efforts such as food donations, the construction of walkways and footbridges, the construction of well and irrigation infrastructure for local agriculture, and the distribution of school and sports equipment, including the construction of school playground equipment.

Furthermore, Central American medical personnel treated over 10,000 Iraqi civilians, including Shiite locals and Kurdish refugees. They also provided medical and humanitarian care to a local orphanage and a Center for the Disabled in the city of Ad Diwaniyah in south-central Iraq. The humanitarian efforts of the first contingent of Central American troops were recognized by local authorities and Iraqi civilians with various awards, including one from the Iraqi Society for Charity.

The contributions of the Central American troops also have been hailed widely by U.S. officials.

In a visit to El Salvador, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Roger Noriega said that the contribution of Salvadoran troops to coalition efforts in Iraq "are important and key."

"The mission in Iraq is very delicate, very complex," he said. "Despite this, El Salvador is contributing to the security of the world."

In a letter to the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador, an official with the Coalition Provisional Authority 

who has extensive dealings with the Cuscatlan Battalion commented: "The Salvadoran Battalion is a superb fighting unit which has carried out a difficult assignment. . .  ."

"We have repeatedly turned to them for assistance on all sorts of issues and found them to be consummate professionals," the official added. "They are among our best coalition partners."

Following a ceremony welcoming home the first contingent of Salvadoran troops from Iraq, U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Douglas Barclay indicated he was equally impressed by the troops.

"I could not have been more impressed by the Salvadoran soldiers — their pride in and dedication to their mission, their esprit de corps, and their eagerness to put their training to use," he said. "We are truly partners as well as friends."

U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua Barbara Moore was similarly appreciative of Nicaragua's contribution to coalition efforts in Iraq.

"The humanitarian activities of the Nicaraguan troops in Iraq will have a lasting impact, most especially on the Iraqi civilians who directly benefited from their attention," she said. "For Nicaragua, long a recipient of generous disaster and development assistance, it was an important opportunity to reciprocate to the international community by offering their substantial expertise in de-mining and unexploded ordnance."

Moore observed: "The Nicaraguan deployment demonstrated to the Iraqis and to the Nicaraguans themselves that a well-trained, professional military can make a tremendous humanitarian contribution."

U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Larry Palmer was equally effusive in his praise for the contribution of Honduran troops during a ceremony welcoming home the first Xatruch Battalion.

"I am happy to see the return of the Honduran troops from Iraq, and that is why I am congratulating each one of them for their great work, their courage and their support, he said. "I thank all of them for their efforts and sacrifices."

At a January 31 farewell ceremony in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, honoring the second Xatruch Battalion as they departed for Iraq, one Honduran soldier outlined the challenge facing the second contingent of troops.

"Our mission is peace in Iraq, and our counterparts have represented Honduras well," Emerson Tejeda told La Tribuna newspaper. "We have to surpass what they have done."

The 380 Salvadoran soldiers of the second Cuscatlan battalion face a similar challenge during their current six-month stint. Increased insurgent activity in south-central Iraq may complicate the current Central American contingents' efforts to surpass the accomplishments of their predecessors.

Salvadoran soldier Natividad Mendez Ramos became the first Latin American casualty in Iraq, as a result of an April 4 attack against a coalition base in Najaf that also left 12 other Salvadoran soldiers injured.

Just over a week later, on April 12, insurgents fired three mortar rounds on the Honduran military base in Najaf. No casualties or material damage were reported, authorities said.

Due to a lack of funds, Nicaragua was unable to send a second contingent to Iraq.

Plan to get data on air passengers going to EU court
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

A plan for European airlines to provide the U.S. government information on passengers flying to the United States has hit a legal obstacle. The European Union's highest court has been asked to rule on whether the measure violates EU privacy laws. 

In a close vote, the European Parliament called for the European Court of Justice to rule on the plan. Some lawmakers describe the agreement as bad for privacy and legally flawed. 

"What we are seeking is the advice of the Court of Justice on whether this is compatible with our own law and treaty," said Liberal Democrat leader Graham Watson.

The European Parliament has no legal power over the agreement. But if the European Court of Justice rules against it, changes would be required in the pact. The court can take up to two years to issue its finding.

The passenger data agreement was reached between the European Commission, the EU executive body and U.S. officials. Washington has wanted airlines flying to the United States to release detailed passenger information, including credit card numbers and meal preferences, to help security agencies spot potential terrorists.

European Commissioner Chris Patten defended the 

agreement, saying U.S. concerns are understandable.

"If we had been through what New York went through on Sept. 11, 2001, I think we would have wanted our governments to do everything possible to secure our freedom," he said. 

Patten also warned that without the agreement, air travel would be severely disrupted.

"Let us be clear what happens if we have to delay this for months, or do not have it at all — complete disarray for the next few months, airlines facing financial chaos, people waiting in queues [lines]," he said. 

If EU airlines do not comply with the U.S. data request, they face fines of up to $6,000 per passenger, and could even have their landing rights taken away. Some airlines have already started providing the information.

EU lawmakers say they support the fight against terrorism, but are concerned that U.S. security plans do not provide enough protection for personal privacy. They are concerned that confidential information could make its way to people, businesses or agencies that should not have it.

U.S. officials say they would share such information with foreign law enforcement agencies only on a selective, case-by-case, basis. 

Jo Stuart
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