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Coffee Crash


As my taste buds themselves can attest, Ethiopian coffee is some of the finest and most prized coffee in the world. Until recently, these coffee-growing communities were often thought to be food-secure islands in a sea of persistent malnutrition, malaria and drought. Wrong. Now, coffee-growing areas, which make up more than 40 percent of the country, are in the midst of a “green famine.” A green famine happens when the market for a good, rather than the weather, has dried up the main source of income, leaving farmers with nothing to eat or sell.

And Ethiopia is not the only coffee-growing nation reaping a bitter harvest. In Colombia, low prices have forced many farmers in the homeland of Juan Valdez himself, the fictional icon of Columbian coffee, to turn to coca production, the source of cocaine. Also, the coffee crash is one of the largest causes of cross-border immigration, both legal and illegal, of Latin Americans entering the United States.

Other African coffee producers, namely Kenya and Uganda, are seeing the livelihoods of their coffee farmers decline to the point that they lose more money from the coffee market’s collapse each year than they currently receive in humanitarian assistance from developed countries.

How is it then, that if the price of a can of ground coffee at the supermarket continues to rise each year, some coffee growers in Ethiopia, Vietnam, and elsewhere are at risk of starving?

The answer is found in the centuries of entrenched inequity in the way coffee has historically been grown, sold and marketed. This raw deal, rooted in the colonial history of many coffee-growing countries, often leaves coffee growers with the smallest piece of the international coffee trade’s pie, making them and their families profoundly vulnerable to market fluctuations and crop failure.

Traditionally, coffee producers have sold their beans to middlemen — brokers who make their money by buying cheap and selling high. The middlemen sell the beans to the larger multinational brands such as Folgers and Maxwell House. Through this system, coffee farmers are denied the appropriate role they deserve in the sale of their product, thus failing to receive an adequate share in the profits made from their labor and land.

The bulk coffee trade as it currently stands in many places keeps coffee farmers and their countries poor and reliant on international assistance. There is, however, an initiative working to change this: Fair Trade Labeling. Organizations International. The Fair Trade certification, offers hope for coffee growers from El Salvador to Indonesia to improve their lives in a meaningful and lasting way.

Members of the Oromia Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative Union (OCFU) in Ethiopia, for example, are already seeing the benefits of Fair Trade certification in a region that covers 40 percent of the country. Formed in 1999, the OCFU now exports its coffee directly from the nearly 22,000 local growers to major roasters and retailers, including Starbucks, Dean’s Beans, and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters.

Fair Trade certification, which guarantees a bottom-line price per pound, allows the middlemen and their auctions to become a thing of the past as profits are shared directly with growers — a percentage of which is communally invested in priorities identified by the community itself. The children in these villages in the Oromia region now go to school. The cooperative can purchase roasting and washing equipment to reduce costs and increase profits. And the growers receive a fair price that is certified by TransFair USA, a third-party certification service that ensures they get an equitable minimum price for their beans.

The growing desire among many consumers for Fair Trade coffees and the increasing pressure from activists for coffee retailers to improve their practices has caused big players in the industry to take notice. Recently, Dunkin’ Donuts announced that its new line of espresso beverages coming out in September would be brewed entirely from Fair Trade coffee beans. Also, two major coffee retailers are facing significant shareholder support for selling Fair Trade certified coffee.

Fully addressing the coffee crisis will not happen through Fair Trade certification alone, however, and concerted effort is needed from governments and corporations alike to make true reform of the coffee industry possible.

Coffee growers need technical assistance in making their coffee competitive to withstand swoons in the global market price. Governments in coffee-growing nations should help their farmers grow other crops, too, such as nuts, so farmers do not rely solely on coffee for their income, flooding the marketplace. All that said, real change does start with you, the consumer. And by making sure Fair Trade coffee goes into your cup, you can help make trade fair. S

For more information on the global coffee crisis and the Make Trade Fair campaign, go to www.oxfamamerica.org.

Nathaniel Raymond is a press officer at Oxfam America, an international relief agency, and was in Ethiopia earlier this year documenting the impact of drought and the drop in the global price of coffee on farming families

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