Moving Mountains Starts in Hawaii

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By Nora Burkey

One of the most inspiring conversations I had this year was inside of a small room at the Georgia World Conference Center with Michael Sheridan, Kim Elena Ionescu, and Carla D. Martin, where we discussed the issue of coffee farm workers. Malian Lahey, a coffee farm owner in Hawaii, stood up to say that according to several reports, Hawaiian parchment coffee costs around $5 per pound for mechanically harvested industrial production. Other reports state that it costs up to $10.50 to produce coffee using artisan methods, and that’s without accounting for dry milling. “Current green prices for Kona coffee average about $15 for hand-picked washed coffee and around $18 for similar Ka’u coffee,” says Malian. That’s because Hawaiian costs take into account a minimum wage paid to laborers, including healthcare benefits and other worker benefits. Needless to say, she left us all quite a bit speechless.

Naturally, I had to follow her out the door and introduce myself. I remember we sat by the fountain at the conference center, talking about coffee, human rights, Hawaii, and other origins. It was then she told me about a festival she was planning, called Mauli Ola.

“It’s going to be really exciting. We’re having mind and body healers and permaculture workshops. It’s a full-rounded festival,” she said, but the part I was most excited about was the Coffee and Human Rights Circle. It is a separate event, but everyone who buys a ticket to the Circle can also attend the Mauli Ola Festival.

The Coffee and Human Rights Circle brings the Hawaiian principle of Ho’oponopono to the discussion of coffee. “You don’t know the full story,” says Malian, “until you know both sides.” There is a bias that forms, she explained, when people live in the Global North. There is a tendency to not understand how atrocities can happen in other parts of the world, how human rights abuses can take place, such as decrepit living conditions or child labor.

“But morality is the property of rich countries, and I think that’s a fallacy. I think morality helps people to not be disturbed by what they see.” I probed Malian to understand better what she meant. In other words, she said, when we look at a conflict as something immoral, we view it as something other, something beyond what we could ever participate in. The reality, however, is that human rights abuses take place in a system that we too live and participate in daily. “If you participate in that system” says Malian, “You are approving it.” In Hawaii, they pay their pickers minimum wage and there is law enforcement to ensure human rights abuses don’t occur. The low price of coffee from other origins, and what that inevitably means for farm workers, is an uncomfortable reality for buyers. “But it’s not true to say that buyers sell at the price customers want to pay. The customer doesn’t know what they want to pay if they don’t have all the information,” continued Malian.

The price of coffee, Malian was not shy to say, is based off a mathematical game. “How did we get to a place where a mathematical game plays with people’s lives, their children, their bellies and their health?” That’s the starting point for the Coffee and Human Rights Circle. Hawaiians developed a ritual where they sit in a circle with the whole community. Everyone in the circle tells their side of the story so no one can tell it to their own advantage or see that advantage prevail. This ritual style allows people to commit to the imperatives that comes out of out the collective story, and to do so beyond personal benefit.

Neither the Mauli Ola Festival nor the Coffee and Human Rights Circle are not meant to demonize people. Rather, they put everyone at the table. It forces us to point to where the system may have gone too far; it mandates accountability. People will be asked to be called back to their humanity, and they will share a deeper order that the indigenous people of Hawaii always understood: Everything starts from the ground, and we cannot go beyond our environmental limitations.

Aloha, Malian explained, means divine breath. Your breath is an indicator of your body and your body’s state of well-being. Aloha means that you keep your breath sacred so that it is sacred for yourself and for others. The act of aloha, Malian said finally, is encoded in state law. It requires that you treat yourself and others like you are cradling a newborn.

Speakers for the Coffee and Human Rights Circle include Sunalini Menon, Sarah Grant, and Founder and Editor of Barista Magazine, Sarah Allen. Sarah Grant, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at California State University at Fullerton will speak about specialty coffee in Vietnam. “Vietnam as a case study reminds us that questions around gender and human rights in the coffee industry don’t disappear simply because some farmers are able to engage specialty coffee production,” she said. “I’m hoping to speak about some of the frustrations I’ve seen within the industry and how building a sense of coffee community in Vietnam may overcome these frustrations.”

Sunalini Menon will speak about the evolution of women’s empowering in India as a coffee origin. She wrote, “The inspiration to join this event is the thought of bringing together women, from different parts of the coffee globe, to work collectively, so that all our many helping hands can bring about gender equality and empower women, thus transforming their lives, their families and their communities. Believe not only in yourself, but also support other women in their endeavors. Women supporting women could provide the ‘Shakthi’ or ‘Strength’ to overcome fear, which is at the root of so many barriers and would help to move mountains.”

The Coffee And Human Rights Circle will be held Sept. 21- 23. The festival begins on Thursday, Sept. 22 with workshops and a bonfire and continues with music and workshops on Sept. 23 and 24. Click here to sign up for the Mauli Ola Festival and start moving mountains.


Nora Burkey began working in coffee in 2007 as a barista in New York City, and started her career in international development as a volunteer in Cambodia in 2010. While obtaining a master’s degree in sustainable development at School for International Training, she conducted her field research with coffee cooperatives in Nicaragua and Peru, evaluating a women’s empowerment initiative intended to recognize the unpaid work of women in supply chains. In 2014, she founded the nonprofit The Chain Collaborative, which facilitates collaboration between members of the coffee industry in order to contribute to sustainable projects in the coffee lands. She has consulted for various coffee companies and nonprofits, and has written for numerous coffee magazines and blogs. She now sits on the editorial board for Barista Magazine. She lives in Matagalpa, Nicaragua.