Americans are heavily addicted to the two most valuable traded commodities in the world: oil and coffee. And as long as we have uninterrupted access to each, we don't give much thought to where either came from or how it was procured. But on some level, most of us recognize that there are wide-reaching ramifications to our gas-guzzling ways.
But our daily caffeine fix? Now, that's a personal matter that doesn't affect others. Or does it?
In the film Black Gold, a documentary about coffee growers in Ethiopia, a store manager at the original Starbucks in Seattle is shown waxing rhapsodic about how the coffee chain is touching people's lives. Cut to Sidama, Ethiopia, a region that supplies coffee beans to Starbucks. A Therapeutic Feeding Center has been set up in the area to feed children who are on the verge of starvation. A limp baby, too weak to cry or protest as strangers place him in a harness and weigh him, is rejected from the center. The magnitude of hunger in the area is so great that only children near death are admitted. The baby is not quite there.
And herein lies the great paradox highlighted in the film: Coffee is an $80 billion worldwide industry and yet coffee farmers in Ethiopia, one of the largest coffee producing countries in Africa, are paid so little for their crops that starvation is a constant threat.
Much of the film focuses on the efforts of a group of farmers in Ethiopia who have banded together and formed the Oromia Coffee Farmers' Cooperative Union. The goal of the farmers is to get more money for their crops, not so they can afford "luxuries" such as electricity and motorbikes, but so that they can provide their families with nutritious food, clean water, and a school for their children.
In the absence of a cooperative, there are six chains between the grower and retailer. The Ethiopian farmers are paid 23 cents per kilo of beans. Tadesse Meskela, the affable general manager of the cooperative, points out that a kilo produces eighty cups of coffee, and at $2.90 a cup the average price paid in the Western world that kilo is ultimately worth $230. One farmer remarks that if they were paid 57 cents per kilo, their lives would change beyond recognition.
But the farmers have no say in what they're paid. The international price of coffee is established in New York and London. And the World Trade Organization sets the rules of global trade. The film captures a gathering of the World Trade Organization in Cancun, Mexico. Most of the negotiations take place behind closed doors and exclude the trade ministers from African nations. The ostracized ministers bitterly speak about their desire to have fair trade agreements so that their countries don't have to be dependent on foreign aid. According to statistics given in the film, Africa's share of world trade has fallen to 1 percent. If that figure were to double, it would generate a further $70 billion a year five times the amount the continent now receives in aid.
It's already too late to save some of the coffee farmers in Ethiopia. In the film, farmers are shown tearing out their coffee crops and planting chat a narcotic plant that brings in a higher price than coffee.
"We're not planting out of choice, but out of desperation," one farmer says. "We want to avoid death."
Meskela, who travels extensively in the hopes of generating new markets for his cooperative's coffee beans, says it's his hope that consumers will start to pay attention to what they're drinking. Consumers can bring about change by only purchasing coffee certified Fair Trade an assurance that the coffee was purchased under fair conditions.
So, the next time you rush out for that caffeine fix, make it a Fair Trade one. You can then enjoy that double chocolate chip latte even more knowing that you are contributing to a community's development, health, and education.
Fair Trade coffee from the Oromia coffee farmers is available at various locations throughout the county. All Ethiopian coffee from local roaster and distributor Joebella comes from Oromia. For a list of retailers, call 461-4822. It's also available through Equal Exchange at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in San Luis Obispo.
Fair Trade coffee from various countries can be purchased at Harvest Natural Foods, Spencer's, New Frontiers, Trader Joe's, Grande Foods, and J.J.'s Market, to name a few. It's served at numerous businesses, including but not limited to Linnaea's Cafe, Palm Theatre, Sunshine Cafe, Carlton Bakery and Cafe, Calago, Caffe Luna, Splash Cafe, and House of Bread.
Note: Major coffee retailers Starbucks, Kraft, Nestle, Proctor & Gamble, and Sara Lee refused to be interviewed for the film.
Black Gold will be screened Friday, April 13, 7 p.m., at the SLO Public Library, on the corner of Osos and Palm. It's also available for rent through HopeDance film rentals at Novel Experience Books, 779 Higuera St., San Luis Obispo. ?
Shawna Galassi is a San Luis Obispo resident and film editor for HopeDance. She can be reached through the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.