Date of Graduation

Spring 5-21-2022

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts in International Studies (MAIS)


College of Arts and Sciences


International Studies

First Advisor

Stephen Zavestoski

Second Advisor

Nora Onar


Here is a useful parable to boil down the idea of this project and set the tone: when one goes to the bar to tell a story about a fight at the bar, they would never venture to place themselves as the hero of the brawl, taking out three drunkards in a single punch, unless they were really in the bar, at that time, fighting a good fight. One would never do this as the bartender, locals, and regulars would all know if this were the case or not. Yet transnational corporations, governments, and even consumers do this all the time — pretend they are “storytellers'' of tales they have no part of or place in. This research project and thesis wrestles with the idea that these third parties reduce opportunity for those whose livelihoods are at stake in such stories. Enter coffee farmers, a commodity-producing section of the world who may be the most bastardized in corporate “storytelling.” Commercial interests claiming to tell the stories of farmers are actually inserting representations of farmers that are aimed at appealing to consumers, and they do so in a myriad of creative ways: dirty hands, nameless faces beneath sombreros, unethical representation in the name of fair trade; historical expansion and decimation are woven into the framings and semiotics of Native and Indigenous peoples who grow coffee.

The research presented in this thesis points to innovative tactics, economic models, and strategies that not only serve coffee farmers but can also create political economic opportunities for commodity producers. Paulo Freire, Edward Said, and Franz Fanon would call this dominant narration and knowledge power — stories from the farmers that subvert corporate “storytelling” would be counter-narration. The coffee farmers who are members of the Chiapas-grown Yomol A’tel cooperative, the vast majority of whom are Tseltal Mayan, sell their beans to an organization that is about as ethical as can be when it comes to narration, finding legitimate and respectful ways to have the stories of their members heard around the world.

Yet not even this cooperative could escape the trappings of COVID-19, international trade, and the perils of climate change. What does the future look like for coffee farmers in an organization that prioritizes counter-narration, finds clever and alternative modes and economies to push their agenda? And what does the future look like for the companies who aren’t even trying? This paper will explore testimony of dozens of coffee farmers in and around the Mexican city of Chilón as a case study in understanding the real impacts of narration while unpacking what it means for traumatic events like COVID-19 and climate change. The paper will make recommendations for corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs and coffee companies specifically. In my findings I make the claim that this is a necessary paradigm shift for commodity professionals, that there are a myriad of positive tactics to celebrate from Yomol A’tel, and that there are further economic models and strategies to employ while creating political economic opportunity for commodity producers.