The investigation that led reporters and producers from The Weather Channel and Telemundo to the “Children in the Fields” originated with an earlier, award-winning documentary about the mass deaths of undocumented migrants on the Texas-Mexico border. That story, “The Real Death Valley,” which won an Emmy in 2015, described the tragic failure of the U.S. Border Patrol in some cases to rescue dying migrants even after they had contacted authorities while wandering lost in the desert.
We asked ourselves what prompts people from other countries to take such risks in crossing the border in the first place. Unexpectedly, our journey of discovery led us to the harsh realities at the bottom of the coffee supply chain in Chiapas, the poorest and southernmost state of Mexico. There, we found children picking coffee and carrying heavy sacks all day long while living in dormitories more fit for animals, subsisting on two meager meals a day of beans and tortillas and families earning as little as $4.50 for a grueling day of picking coffee cherries under the hot Chiapas sun.
This prompted us to examine the contrast between the continuing harsh realities at the bottom of the coffee supply chain with the economic and social flowering of coffee at the retail level. While families at the bottom endured stark living conditions, low wages and reliance on their children to keep hunger at bay along the Mexican-Guatemalan border, stock prices of large coffee companies have soared to record levels because they are able to charge more for an espresso drink or a pound of coffee — even amid a 40 percent decline in the global price of coffee at the farm gate in the past two years. The surge in popularity is, at least in part, related to the labeling of such coffee as ethically sourced — including that producers rely only on adults for labor, and provide decent housing for workers.
Reporters and producers at The Weather Channel and Telemundo wondered how children as young as 5 could still be such an integral part of the coffee harvest, despite decades of supposed advances in international labor agreements, laws to protect children, general economic improvements, and a flourishing high-end coffee market. After all, the minimum working age in Mexico is 15. The country is a signatory to international labor agreements that require decent housing for migrant workers.
The result was an uncharted eight-month investigation revealing fundamental failures of an elaborate global system of third-party monitoring established by the coffee industry to assure consumers that the beans have been ethically sourced. In documentaries in English and Spanish, a bilingual team of reporters take viewers on a gritty, real-world tour to the bottom of the murky coffee supply chain, where feel-good marketing clashes with harsh realities socially conscious consumers may find surprising if not shocking. Cameras captured children working on farms, supposedly precluded by Mexican law, international labor agreements — and principles of coffee companies themselves.
This effort marks the second time the Weather Channel and Telemundo have forged a unique multimedia collaboration – encompassing documentaries in two languages, long-form magazine-style journalism, photographs and interactive graphics. Both news organizations are committed to covering stories in which climate, social justice, and the global economy intersect — especially critical at a time when many traditional news organizations are severely cutting back on their ability to dig beneath the surface of events and headlines.
Senior Executive Producers: Neil Katz, Sylvia Rosabal
Executive Producers: Shawn Efran, Greg Gilderman, Solly Granatstein, Marisa Venegas
Producers: Solly Granatstein, Marisa Venegas, Juliana Ucros, Katie Wiggin
Lead Reporter: Marcus Stern
Correspondents/Reporters: John Carlos Frey, Monica Villamizar
Video Editor: Brandon Kieffer
Director of Photography: Lucian Read
Additional Camera: Jorge O. Patino, Daniel Guzmán, Victor M. Rivera Gálvez
Translation: Gabriela Mendoza
Research: Robert Thurston
Web Design: Eric Devlin, Lara Schenck
Creative Director/Interactive Design: Chris Roy
Copy Editor: Richard H.P. Sia
Project Editor: Keith Epstein