14 January 2013

Coffee Inequity

Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast, 1999, Excerpts

The coffee industry has dominated and molded the economy, politics, and social structure of entire countries. On the one hand, its monocultural avatar has led to the oppression and land dispossession on indigenous peoples, the abandoning of subsistence agriculture in favor of exports, over reliance on foreign markets, destruction of the rain forest, and environmental degradation. On the other hand, coffee has provided an essential cash crop for struggling family farmers, the basis for national industrialization and modernization, a model of organic production and fair trade, and a valuable habitat for migratory birds.

Coffee is inextricably bound up in a history of inequity in which the haves took from the have nots. The drink, primarily a stimulant that helps keep the industrialized world alert, is grown in regions that know how to enjoy a siesta. There is no question that coffee laborers have been oppressed in the past; even now they are being murdered by paramilitary groups in Chiapas.

The coffee economy itself is not directly responsible for social unrest and repression; we should not confuse a correlation with a cause. Inequities and frustrations built into the economic system nonetheless exacerbate conflicts. Compared with many other products developed countries demand in cheap quantity, however, coffee is relatively benign. Laboring of banana, sugar, or cotton plantations or sweating in gold and diamond mines and oil refineries is far worse.

The inescapable irony of the coffee industry is that the vast majority of those who perform these repetitive tasks work in the most beautiful places on earth, with tropical volcanic peaks as backdrop in a climate controlled heaven. Most live in abject poverty without plumbing, electricity, medical care, or nutritious foods. The coffee they prepare travels halfway around the world and lands on breakfast tables, offices, and upscale coffee bars of the United States, Europe, Japan, and other developed countries, where cosmopolitan consumers routinely pay half a day’s Third World wages for a good cup of coffee.

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