Day: June 27th, 2007

Black Gold

Wednesday, June 27th, 2007 | All Things, Film

After another trip to the bánh mì shop on Walker Street, I made my way to The Tank Space for Performing and Visual Arts for tonight’s screening of Black Gold.

The 2006 UK documentary examines the unjust conditions under which coffee is sold, tracking the fair trade movement as exemplified in the efforts of Tadesse Meskela, general manager of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union (OCFCU) in southern Ethiopia. The film follows as Meskela works tirelessly to secure equitable prices for 74,000 coffee farmers in his region.

Between 2001 and 2003, the price for coffee hit a 30 year low — a direct result of an acute glut in the world market linked to aggressive new producers, particularly in Vietnam, which in one decade went from a nonentity to becoming the second largest supplier of coffee beans, after Brazil. African farmers could no longer support themselves and famine spread throughout the coffee region. Schools closed for lack of funds, and many farmers were forced to uproot their coffee trees to replant more profitable chat, a narcotic widely used in East Africa.

In the conventional marketplace, producers in poor countries receive only a minuscule fraction of the total revenue; for every $3.00 cup of coffee sold at Starbucks, a farmer receives only about three cents. Most of the remainder is distributed among middlemen, especially the four multinational food conglomerates (Nestle, Kraft Foods, Procter & Gamble, and Sara Lee) who dominate the $80 billion retail industry. The fair trade system guards against price fluctuations created by commodity brokers, processors, creditors and exporters, and guarantees a living wage for producers of the commodity: for coffee farmers, at least $1.26 per pound of beans, as compared to the international market price of about $.50 per pound.

The Tank

For more, view the 13-minute video on Nicaraguan coffee farmers, produced by Equal Exchange, the largest for-profit Fair Trade company in the United States.

The decision to seek out Fair Trade Certified products makes an important and tangible difference in people’s lives. At the Q&A afterwards, with representatives from the New York Fair Trade Coalition and The Fair Trade Resource Network, much of the discussion revolved around Seattle-based juggernaut Starbucks.

SBUX corporate policy dictates that the company will brew a fresh cup of Fair Trade coffee for you upon request – a challenge taken up by several bloggers. In practice, though, the request is usually greeted with perplexed looks – and no Fair Trade coffee. (We tried this ourselves over the next couple of weeks in the financial district outlets with similar results.) According to a 2006 press release (.pdf), the company is committed to fair trade and to paying producers equitable prices for all of their coffee, which are often substantially above the prevailing commodity-grade as set by New York – regardless of labels and certifications.

In 2003, at the nadir of the coffee price slump, Dunkin’ Donuts became the first national brand to use exclusively Fair Trade Certified coffee in all their espresso-based beverages. Humanitarian agency Oxfam applauded the efforts, but note that the policy applies to espresso beverages only, which account for about 2% of the company’s coffee bean purchases. Baby steps.

The post-film reception of coffee, cookies and brownies:

Black Gold Bear

For an alternate view, read the recent Economist article arguing against Fair Trade on an economic basis, as it interferes with the invisible hand of the market.

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