Dean Cycon is an activist and entrepreneur who has been working with indigenous communities in the coffeelands for over twenty years. His all-organic, all-Fair Trade, all-kosher coffee roaster company, Dean’s Beans, follows sustainable business principals and is a recognized industry leader in its’ commitment to Fair Trade.
According to Cycon, 99 percent of people involved in the coffee economy have never visited a coffee village. In his new book, Javatrekker: Dispatches from the World of Fair Trade Coffee, Dean invites coffee drinkers to follow him on a journey to remote farming communities in Africa, Asia and the Americas. His compelling stories are a collection of varied experiences — of cultural anthropology, business philosophy and adventure travel — that reveal a unique perspective on the people who make our morning cups possible.
With Fair Trade Month upon us, it seemed the perfect time to chat with this intrepid explorer. Dean was kind enough to answer questions for Gadling about his travels through the coffeelands, his thoughts on tourism in these regions, and his personal travel aspirations. Our Talking Travel interview touches on everything from rare coins to a cameo movie appearance. Read on to learn more about this fascinating coffee pioneer:
Where did the concept of “Javatrekking” originate?
I actually created the term. I was looking for a word to describe the recent phenomenon of people going to the coffeelands for more than just buying beans, but rather to engage in the lives and issues of the people who grow coffee around the world.
Before you began Javatrekking, you worked as a lawyer with indigenous groups both in the US and abroad. Could you have imagined that this is where life after law school would lead you?
No, but I have never believed in the plotted course. My philosophy is to be true to a set of values and behaviors, and the way that manifests in world and experience will unfold. So although I never would have predicted where my life has led me, looking back it makes perfect sense!
Your first encounter with coffee farmers was in a Guatemalan village. What implications did that meeting have for your business and the community development projects you support?
During that first visit, I saw that child sponsorship and the current model of development weren’t really about change, they were more about “maintenance”. Well-intentioned individuals and companies would give money for small projects, but they wouldn’t change their buying practices or other behaviors, so the underlying dynamics of poverty in those villages would never change. At the same time, the organizations that did the projects would move on in a year or so, and the project would slowly unravel, leaving the people less trusting of us and back where they started.
The countless coffee communities you have visited each have a unique culture, language and people. But because they all deal in the same commodity, a common thread links their stories. What universal characteristics have you discovered in your travels to these diverse regions?
The most wonderful thing about Javatrekking is that at the end of the day, behind all the cultural and linguistic differences, we all want the same things. In my conversations with farmers and their families in every country, what always comes up? The desire to feed their families and educate their kids. It is also quite basic — farmers need clean water, or in some places, any water; they need safety from conflict and the tools to resolve conflicts peacefully. We all desire at heart the same things: food, housing, safe communities, respect, education and opportunity. When we can understand that we all share the same basic human needs, the differences fall away.
In your book, you mention Pana, Guatemala as one place that reflects the “commodification of indigenous culture.” Can you share some thoughts about how tourism influences areas where coffee communities are located?
Tourism is an influx of culture and values. In that way you can see it as parallel to an invasion. When people flood an area with money, demands for treatment and services that don’t exist or are at odds with local behaviors, there can be quite a disturbance. This is nothing new and has been going on since Adam and Eve moved to suburbia. It can also be a very positive force if managed well. Fortunately, coffee communities tend to be rather isolated, so the early waves of tourism — the more destructive types — never really made it up the mountains. As a result, many coffee communities are only now looking to eco-tourism to supplement their coffee incomes. There are good management structures in place at the cooperatives I deal with, so they are better prepared to manage tourism so as to minimize the more destructive aspects of the trade.
How with many languages do you speak or have been exposed to during your travels? And how do you manage communication barriers when doing business?
I speak Spanish fairly well, Japanese, Portuguese less so. I am studying Indonesian and have been exposed to about fifty different languages. Interestingly, the majority of coffee farmers around the world do not speak the national language of their countries, rather, they speak their own indigenous language. I always try and learn basic words in the most remote languages as a sign of my respect for the people and the culture I am visiting. For an American to speak even two words of Oromifa in Ethiopia or Gayo in Indonesia changes their perception of us and makes for a very friendly visit each time. A little respect goes a long way.
Members of indigenous communities around the world know you as Mr. Bean. But is it true that your adventures have also earned you the title of “The Puking Pirate of Tortuga”?
I was a special extra in Pirates of the Caribbean III, where my few seconds of fame were throwing up after Johnny Depp and his two floozies walked by me on the docks of Tortuga. It has been enough to make me a big time star in the communities I visit, and funny to be introduced that way to an indigenous community in Amazonian Peru, none of whose members will ever see the film (and finally a community that has never heard of Johnny Depp!)
You’ve revealed that you “have an insatiable desire to visit ancient trade ports and search for treasures” and in the book share tales about visits to markets in search of rare coins. How big is your collection? And do you have a favorite discovery story to share?
I have a growing collection of ancient maps, coins and travel narratives, largely focused on the early European-Asian spice (and coffee) trade. Sometimes at night I just take out an old Dutch East Indies Company chart of the Spice Islands, hold a few ancient trade coins in my hand and sail away into another era. Once I was in Malacca, the first European colony in the Far East (the Portuguese captured it in 1511). I was rummaging around the many junk shops that line Jonker’s Street (the old Dutch name for “Gentlemen”) and I found two small coins. They were Portuguese, dated 1511! They had been recovered from the harbor when the city dredged it to make way for more apartment buildings. There I was, holding in my hand some pocket change from one of the sailors who captured Malacca. Maybe it fell from the pocket of Alfonso d’Albuquerque himself!
When you are not trekking through the coffeelands, what other places do you enjoy traveling to?
Actually, I am a real ocean freak. I love to go sailing (especially if I can hitch a ride on native craft!) My next gig after coffee will be to recreate the early spice trade on fair trade terms, and then to do the equivalent of Javatrekking with indigenous fishing communities around the world. I dream of the South Pacific and the amazing islands off Indonesia, many of which have rarely had western visitors. I can’t wait to get a tattoo there!
What travel tips can you share with coffee-drinkers who spend much of their time on the go? How can they make smart bean-buying decisions when traveling?
It’s very difficult to find a good cup of coffee in the coffeelands. Most restaurants serve the ubiquitous “Nes” as instant coffee is called. Brazil and Ethiopia lead the pack, followed closely by El Salvador in offering good coffee in remote locations. You will find ancient hand-pumped espresso machines throughout the Ethiopian countryside where the baristas are ragged boys who can outpull the best Europeans. There is a real push going on to increase in-country consumption of coffee and improve quality overall, but when you stop and think about it, it is still hard to find a decent cup of coffee in many parts of the USA, including many big cities!
All royalties from your Javatrekking book will go back to the coffee farmers. What specific initiatives will the money support, or will it just be split equally among the communities you partner with?
My intention is to share it equally among the coops mentioned in the book. I make enough money off their coffee, I don’t need to make money off their lives as well. My experience is that each group will use the money in the way that best suits their need. Some will distribute it directly to members, some will add it to their women’s loan funds or health care programs, others will pay a teacher’s salary with it.
You’ve said that “Javatrekking is ultimately about personal and societal exploration.” Can you share some final thoughts on what the Javatrekking journey has meant for you?
Javatrekking has allowed me to manifest my highest values into action, and have a great time doing it. It has also allowed me to prove what I set out to when I founded Dean’s Beans – that a business could be a positive force for social change in the lives of the people it touched, and still be profitable. Business is the largest engine of activity on the planet. Until businesses change their fundamental ways of being in the world, nothing will really change.