Fair trade coffee serves up benefits for Guatemalan farmers

While I don’t have much time to blog lately, given then theme of this blog I couldn’t not put a link to this article. This is a research project I would love to have done in Honduras….

Odyssey | Fresh-Brewed Research.


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.

“For every cup of Ethiopian coffee Starbucks sells, Ethiopian farmers earn 3¢.” – Oxfam, October, 2006

The trademark dispute between Ethiopia and Starbucks has ended with a bizarre and mysterious accord. Ethiopia, one of the ancient civilizations in the world, collided with a symbol of globalization and, to some extent, challenged the status-quo without success. The outcome should serve third-world countries as a reminder of the harsh reality that they have far go to get control of their intellectual property rights.

Although Ethiopian coffees command a premium price in foreign markets, particularly the US, farmers who grow the beans often live in extreme poverty. The Ethiopian coffee sector’s strategy to trademark the famous coffee brands, Harar, Sidamo, and Yirgacheffe, in all major international markets was an eye-opener for many of the coffee growing nations in Africa. But that effort hit a dead end in the US, home for Starbucks Corporation. After several months of fight, Starbucks and Ethiopia declared on June 20, 2007 that they have both emerged as winners.

Whether and how the terms of the truce will benefit Ethiopian coffee farmers remains to be seen. What is unquestionable is that, because of Starbucks and the National Coffee Association, Ethiopia has lost the trademark for Sidamo in the US and has surrendered the moral high ground that had won her support from all over the globe and has very little to show for it. Besides, all the economic opportunities that might have changed the lives of the poor farmers, who, for centuries, have been taken advantage of, have vanished into thin air.

From Coffee Politics- more here.

Which all makes me wonder why the first Starbucks in West Africa is aboard the Africa Mercy. Surely Mercy Ships can afford to be a little more choosy about thier sponsorship.

Your Coffee Dollar

July 24, 2007


It has been a while since I have written a post about coffee, and given that it is the theme I chose for this blog I have been thinking lately that it is about time I did. Luckily someone forwarded me a link to Your Coffee Dollar. In internet terms it is very old (2003) but it shows quite clearly where your the money you spend on your daily latte actually ends up.

Green LA girl has also recently posted her 6-Step Program for the Caffeine Addicted, a great place to start if you are interested in the issue but not sure exactly what that means for your coffee habit. I have linked to her Coffee Crisis Series before and still highly recommend it.

Step 5 of the 6-Step Program is to check out your local indie coffee shop. According to CoffeeGeek it looks like New Zealand and Australia are on track with this one. I knew we liked our espresso here but was fascinated to read that less than 6% of small cafes in Australia and New Zealand are franchised, as compared to over 40% in North America.

What is unique is that, outside Italy, the Australian and New Zealand café markets are the only other 100% espresso-based markets in the world! The US and other countries are dominated by filter style, or brewed, coffee. You cannot give filter coffee away in Australia or New Zealand. Furthermore, the Australian and New Zealand markets are unique in that the espresso based coffees are nearly always served with milk – approximately 98%, compared to 5% milk based coffees in Italy.

Yup, thats me. Latte queen. This also explains why I had enormous difficulty finding good coffee in the USA.

The ratio of espresso machines to population in Australia and New Zealand is approximately 850 people to 1 machine, only bested by Italy. In comparison, in the US, there are roughly 20,000 people per espresso machine.

I have a very tiny, very battered little espresso machine that I was given as a birthday gift by my family over 10 years ago. I’m not sure I could live without it. But I’m not alone in that, it’s really not unusual here to have a home espresso machine. And no cafe owner would dare open the doors without a decent espresso machine and trained barista.

While getting a good cup of coffee in New Zealand has been no problem for years, until recently it has been hard to get fair trade espresso. When I first arrived back in NZ six years ago all I could find were somewhat stale bags of beans from Trade Aid. But now I can get my daily fix of peoples coffee from a cafe around the corner from work, and can buy some pretty good beans at our local supermarket. Trade Aid still sells coffee (I haven’t tried it in years though so couldn’t tell you if it is any better now), but it also has a nationwide list of cafes, restaurants, supermarkets and organic stores who support fair trade. So there is no excuse!

Until we move to Latin America. I’m not sure what I’ll do then. Maybe I’ll have to grow my own.

Fair Trade fortnight has just begun in Wellington.  Unfortunately I won’t be able to make it to many, if any of the events- my sister is getting married on Saturday and I seem to be caught up in the whole busy whirlwind that is wedding preparation.

In the middle of the storm I did however find time to read an article in a recent Listener magazine about the dilemma faced by the conscientious consumer- organic, fair trade or local?  According to the article this makes me a “solution seeker”, a group that wants to do the right thing with our purchasing power, and which apparently makes up 32% of New Zealand consumers.  This figure is encouraging, until you read further and find out that only 2% of coffee sold is fair trade (compare this to 30-35% in the UK).  I’m not quite sure what coffee the other 30% are buying.  Organic maybe?  Certainly not local!

It is however, a serious question, and one I have been doing some thinking about.  While some things are clear cut (buy local veges, fair trade coffee, organic bananas) others are not so.  What is prioritised usually comes down to a matter of personal conviction and experience… and the quality of the product.  As the Listener article concludes, “hopefully as business cottons on the the “solution seekers”… we won’t have to choose… we will start to see more products featuring a combination of all three.  Here’s hoping events like the Fair Trade fortnight will inspire more kiwis to think about what they are buying and add their consumer power to the movement.

Quite appropriately, my sister and her fiance are giving Green and Blacks chocolate as wedding favours.

I know I have been a little lazy with my posts this week, linking to others instead of writing myself (witness to the fact I have been tired and more interested in surfing and reading than writing), but I can’t resist a few more links.

Worldmapper is a collection of world maps, where territories are re-sized on each map according to the subject of interest, such as this one showing where the undernourished are in the world:


Contrast that with this one showing wealth distribution:


If you are interested in these maps you will also like the Online Atlas of the Millennium Development Goals. While the World Bank certainly does not usually rank amongst my favourite organisations, I am impressed with this site.

It must be a day for reviewing my impressions of global organisations because I am also impressed by these handwashing stations set up in a poor neighborhood in Jakarta by Mercy Watch. The project was funded through Starbucks subsidiary ETHOS Water, and aims to reduce malnutrition among children under five years old in Jakarta (much of which is caused by diarrhea, the result of poor sanitation). It seems to me to be a very innovative and interesting means of addressing a huge problem. “Building sanitation facilities like the hand-washing station is only a part of the program’s holistic approach to support healthy behavior practices, starting with little things like washing hands with soap.” (Of course the development studies student in me has to note that free public hand washing facilities are needed because people do not have facilities in their home and need to go to a public facility to take a shower or go to the toilet – which costs 1000 rupiah (10 cents) each time.)


Photo: Bunga Sirait/Mercy Corps

Latte art

March 12, 2007

Now this is my kind of art…




Freedom and Fairness

February 26, 2007

Here’s a fun experiment anyone can do. Find someone who espouses neoliberalism (they’ll call it “free-market economics”). Ask them why coffee farmers are poor.

Power is the ability to exercise freedom, and freedom is the ability to exercise power. The worker and grower are not directly (i.e., at gunpoint) forced to accept the transactions on whatever meager terms they are offered, but the other choice is suffering and possible starvation. This is the freedom neoliberalism offers them, which is, of course, no freedom at a

You might expect me to say that corporations hold the power. They do not. If they did, fair trade would be one more fad on the conveyor belt of fashion, and corporations would not have to colonize nearly every flat surface for advertising. Clever as some ads are, they only serve to obscure who really holds the power.

You hold the power.

That’s why they work so hard to get your attention. That’s why they use words and pictures that bypass your judgment and appeal to your emotions. That’s why they work so hard at cultivating their brand image.

They can’t take your power from you, because a seller needs buyers. They can, however, make you forget you have it, and make you feel fortunate to be buying from them. This is backwards, of course, because your freedom is not a matter of fortune, it’s an inalienable right.

When you look at commerce this way, the picture shifts. You can exercise your power deliberately. You can use your freedom to uphold the freedom of others.

This is the highest understanding of fair trade.

Quotes from a brilliant article from Steve Herrick, editor of Just Things, reprinted by Tradeaid NZ.

New look

February 26, 2007

If you are a return visitor to this blog you will probably have noticed that it looks a little different. I really like this new theme from wordpress. I think it makes the site clearer and, well more me. Plus the new graphic from Free Webpage Headers which just makes me crave a ‘cuppa’ every time I see it!
The only problem is the sidebar widgets, which seem to be in two styles. This kind of inconsistency will probably annoy me, but given how much I like the look I think I’ll just live with it for now.

Gourmet Coffee

February 6, 2007

Clearly most Americans do not know what real gourmet coffee is. Recently employees of Consumer Reports’ food testing unit sampled medium plain coffees from two stores each of Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s, and Burger King. McDonald’s coffee was deemed the best tasting, beating Starbucks and it’s gourmet reputation.
What surprises and concerns me about this is not that McDonald’s won, but that Starbucks is considered “gourmet”, even by the blogger/s on a site such as Fair Trade Coffee News. Here in NZ Starbucks is not really considered gourmet. Somewhat ironically it is seen as being to coffee what McDonald’s is to burgers. Somewhat bland (unless you add one of thier zillion artificial flavours) and unsatisfying. For real gourmet coffee you need to go to specialist, usually small cafes (and preferably fair trade like my current favorite, People’s Coffee!). I guess if I ever travel to the US again I’ll need to brew my own, unless someone can point me to a real cafe.