Wake up and smell the coffee

April 10, 2008

I have been wanting to watch the movie Black Gold for a while so was very happy to see it on sale at the cultural festival recently.  I finally watched it last week, and was glad I did.  It is the story of Ethiopian coffee, and in particular the journey of Tadesse Meskela, a man on a mission to get better prices for his coffee farmers cooperative.  The movie deliberately and effectively contrasts the poverty of the coffee producers with the luxury of coffee consumers, which makes for very throught provoking viewing.

This is an excellent movie with an important message. But I do have a couple of little complaints.  Firstly I think the film would have benefited from a little more explanation of how the coffee markets and price setting worked (although it probably was made with a larger target population in mind then Development Studies post-grads, who may not be quite so interested in the exact mechanisms of imperialistic trade!). It did however convey well the injustice of a system that allows muti million dollar corporations and farmers with starving families to coexist.

The other little niggle is related to the niggle I have about fair trade in general. As can be esily guessed from this blog, I am already a convert to fair trade, however I don’t think it is the panacea for world trade problems and poverty that it is often promoted as. The problems are large and structural, and deeply unjust.  They are also political.  Trade favours the rich, the consumers, and those with power.  And (as the movie does show in parts), those who benefit are not in any rush to change.

At the risk of displaying my socialist tendancies, here’s a good quote from A Very Public Sociologist:

As long as production is subordinate to the market, as long as workers are not paid the full value of their labour power, superexploitation and one-sided development/underdevelopment will remain the lot of Africa. And no amount of consumption with a conscience will change that.

Unfortunately I don’t have any answers. I do strongly believe that fair trade while it won’t save the world it is better than doing nothing.  At the very least it indicates some thought has gone into the purchase (mindless consumption is perhaps a topic for another day!), and one producing cooperative/ farmer/ community may be a little better off.

Despite all that I really liked the movie, and highly recommend it (and I’ll be inflicting it on my family and friends too!).  And what impacted me the most?  I had never realised how much of a hands-on process coffee production is.  Berries are hand-picked, and hand sorted so that every bean has been touched by the hands of African (or Latin American or Melanesian…) workers.  Literally black gold.  Since watching the movie I have been even more careful when grinding and making my coffee in the morning, handling the beans is a tangible link back up the supply chain to some very real people.

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