The other face of coffee: a few things we did not know about our favorite drink

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Coffee certainly is the favorite drink of millions of people worldwide. According to experts and historians, this drink was first traded around the years 900-1000 AD, via sea routes.These routes also brought other products like spices and silks. Previously coffee appeared in Europe in 1615, thanks to Venetian and Turkish merchants. It was brought via sea routes, along the same route that brought many previously unknown treasures from Asia to Europe.  The drink quickly spread in the peninsula through small ‘bistros’, the first of its kind .

It became a runaway success very quickly, and production increased year after year. On the other side of the ocean, the number of plantations increased. Shortly thereafter, the Dutch began to grow coffee in Indonesia in 1720.  The French then followed starting to cultivate coffee in their colony in Martinique and shortly after, the Portuguese, the English and the Spaniards started farming this valuable plant in Brazil, Mexico, Central America and Africa.

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Subsequently, the sale volume increased, and to keep up with the demand coffee plantations became larger and more numerous. As a result the  local communities found themselves deprived of land and resources. It was not long before they were enslaved, subject to  deportations. Times had changed, and the colonial era was over. But poverty, exploitation, and misery still existed. The fate of small farmers, laborers and producers was determined not only by the harvest of this new ‘ black gold ‘ , but also was dramatically linked to market prices.

The price of raw material fluctuated constantly and unscrupulous big corporations that already established monopoly in this sector employed very cheap labor. Farmers and laborers did not have any other choice but to sell themselves short.

In 1962, buyers and growers countries  signed an international agreement (ICA) in order to try to stabilize the prices. This treaty imposed restriction on exports of coffee. Two years later, Association of Coffee Producing Countries (ACPC) was formed.

Lately a new type of commerce is slowly emerging. The so-called ‘fair-trade’, seeking to promote a model of ethical consumption: a system of certifications created for this purpose allows one to control the production chain and commercial net-works, in favor of the growers. This organization also works with humanitarian organizations. It is important to remember that a cup of coffee is not just a drink.

There is a lot of work, fatigue and sweat that goes into it’s production. The wage is extremely low considering the long and complex processes, not to mention the cost to our planet’s water and land, and the pollution caused by intensive farming.

In intensive farming, toxic fertilizers are regularly used. The use of chemicals (fertilizers and RFI) puts the farmers at risk (generally they are not equipped with protective clothing to protect them from contact with these substances) and it also harms the environment. Some methods of picking the coffee beans disperses the polluting element of the fertilizer into groundwater. This contaminates the ground water irreparably.

To avoid this pollution, many independent farmers prefer to apply traditional methods based on natural cycles of the earth. Just imagine some Indian communities in southern Mexico who has been producing healthy coffee over 100 of years. Their production is ‘ respectful of nature’. Although centuries have passed since the colonial era, the practice of intensive cultivation of coffee is still closely linked to fundamentally colonialist policies. Only one third of global production comes from small businesses, which is managed mostly by independent farmers and their families. Everything else comes from the large plantations of Brazil, Colombia and other Central American countries.

The production is controlled by a few ‘coffee barons‘ who are monopolizing the market. They penalize small producers and employ casual labor.

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For the small independent farmer the crucial problem lies indeed in the possibility of entering the market: many are forced to go through a third person to sell their coffee at a price equal to half or quarter of the market price. Ethiopian farmers now earn $ 60 per year for the sale of their coffee, while they used to receive $ 320 in 1998. Why such a difference? In 1989 the United States exited the international agreement, which regulated the price of coffee, exposing the market price for coffee to sudden fluctuation. To clean up this huge mess and help farmers, many cooperatives, equitable trade and various solidarity organizations have emerged. These small organizations help the farmers get out of the hold of the middleman.

The situation of landless laborers is even more difficult, since they have no choice but to work on plantations. They are underpaid and are deprived of any right. Their living conditions are deteriorating every day, thanks to the financial and business strategies of unscrupulous multinationals. On May 13th 2013, police in Sao Paulo, Brazil, discovered the body of one hundred African slaves that had been abandoned for over 50 years in a coffee field. Making this field a true ‘slave cemetery’, witness of a past whose shadows still hovers over us.



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