Saturday, January 4, 2014

Black Gold

I don't drink coffee. I don't like the taste. When a group goes out for coffee, I'm the kid ordering hot chocolate while the adults drink their mochas and cappuccinos and what have you.

Thankfully, you don't have to enjoy coffee to appreciate Black Gold, a 2006 documentary by Marc and Nick Francis. As the title indicates, coffee is big business these days. It's a commodity with a global market, yet, as the film shows, it is one which is produced in some of the world's most impoverished communities. The reason for this is given early on by Tadesse Meskela, who heads up a co-operative in Ethiopia intent on receiving fair prices for the coffee produced by farmers in the region. He explains that a kilo of coffee will generate $230 in the Western world. This same kilo is bought from these farmers for around $0.23. As David Brent would say, that's...profit.

There are larger themes beneath the surface of these figures. One of the opening scenes in the film shows sacks of coffee sitting in an African warehouse. The closing scene in the film shows sacks of wheat with "U.S. Aid" printed in big red and blue letters, flooding into the shores of east Africa. This is a powerful juxtaposition. The aid may be necessary, but as the scene set at the World Trade Organisation talks demonstrates, it need not be necessary. It is made necessary by Western greed, functioning as a sort of tax paid to the countries whose land and resources are ravished by the hand that feeds it. We take and take, a give back a tiny portion of what we don't need. Since everyone loves a good dig in the direction of Starbucks, here is Meskela's take on the matter:

Starbucks may help bring clear water for one community but this does not solve the problem. In 2005, Starbucks' aid to the third world was $1.5m. We don't want this kind of support, we just want a better price. They make huge profits; giving us just one payment of money does not help.

What can we as people who buy coffee do? Do we boycott Starbucks and start buying some fair trade Ethiopian coffee? That stuff's pretty expensive. The $230 that a kilo of coffee sells for and the $0.23 that a kilo of coffee is bought for probably reflects a double injustice: the coffee is not being bought at a fair price, but it is also not being sold at a fair price. Company's must have their enormous profits. It is hard to see what can be changed until that desire for surplus is first changed. Nevertheless, the film ends with a remarkable statistic:

If Africa's share of world trade increased by one percentage point it would generate a further $70 billion a year - five times the amount the continent now receives in aid.

The review of this film in the New York times asks "Who wouldn't want that?" The answer, unfortunately, is more people than we might think.


  1. Call me ignorant, but why are the buyers being blamed for the price the sellers sell at? Cant the sellers just up the price?

  2. I imagine the buyers will just go to some other coffee producer who WILL sell at a cheap price. So its a question of sell at the buyers' preferred price or don't sell at all.

    As with wages, just because a worker will work for $0.10 a day doesn't mean they're not being exploited or that the employer isn't to blame.

  3. Dec I read your blog though not religiously and I find your materials provoking but this is provoking enough to warrant my response! I'm a coffee farmer myself and the ignorance displayed by the gentleman(I'm assuming he is a male) above is a typical western response. The poor nations have no fair playing field with the mighty and powerful. The multinationals(obviously from global north) continue to exploit the peasants (all found in the southern hemisphere) but have managed to cover their tracks so well with the so called Corporate Social Responsibility 'gimmicks'. It might not surprise you Galwayman but I don't believe in fair trade philosophy because I don't believe they are truthful to their core!!!