Life is good. And coffee makes it taste better. It's no wonder that it's the second most valuable commodity traded in the world today and the second largest U.S. import after oil.
Remember that scene in the movie "Airplane" when the flight attendant tells everyone on the plane that they're about to crash? The response was calm until one passenger says: "Is there something you're not telling us?"
The flight attendant replied: "Yes. We're also out of coffee." And everyone on the plane loses it.
As exaggeratingly funny as that scene was, a dark truth lurks behind it. Too often people care more about commodities (and the workings of the market) than about other human beings - an ethos that flourished under colonialism and continues to thrive today.
Plantations and cash crops were weapons of colonial powers, used to force colonized countries into economic dependence on foreign investors.
Take Africa, for example. Although coffee is indigenous to Africa, it wasn't grown there in large quantities until the 19th century. Prior to then, most coffee was cultivated by the Dutch in Southeast Asia. An outbreak there of coffee blight disease in the 1870s led to a severe drop in coffee production, paving the way for Brazil to become the major world supplier of coffee.
The crop was grown on large slave plantations in Brazil to keep production costs low. After slavery was abolished there, coffee barons employed European immigrants as "cheap labor in squalid conditions," according to the British historian Clive Ponting.
By the late 19th century, Brazil produced about 75 percent of the world's coffee. At the same time, the British wanted to secure their own supply at the expense of the Brazilian economy and began setting up coffee plantations in its East African colonies - Malawi, Kenya and Uganda, using forced African labor.
To this day, agricultural workers labor in the coffee industry under conditions that some observers call "sweatshops in the fields." Many small coffee farmers receive prices for their coffee that are less than the costs of production, forcing them into debt and keeping them in poverty.
But good news is brought to us by Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based international human rights organization that has worked since 1988 to build support in the United States for Fair Trade, as opposed to "free-trade," double-speak for deregulated international commerce.
Fair Trade is a growing consumer movement in which 2,500 retail outlets across the country are now offering their customers the chance to purchase Fair Trade Certified coffee, which guarantees that farmers in the developing world are paid a living wage for their harvest.
How it works is participating Fair Trade farmers are given credit and assured a minimum of $1.26 per pound. The world price is usually about $1 per pound, even though most farmers earn less than half that since they are forced to sell to exploitative middlemen, Global Exchange reports.
With the money generated from getting a living wage, coffee growers in developing nations can invest in their families' health care and education. Currently, Fair Trade Certified coffee benefits 500,000 farming families in 20 countries.
Last week, the movement exploded when Starbucks Coffee, the world's largest specialty coffee roaster, began offering Fair Trade Certified coffee in its 2,300 stores nationwide.
"The millions of U.S. consumers who have been searching for an alternative to sweatshop products finally have a convenient way to purchase Fair Trade goods daily," says Deborah James, director of Global Exchange's Fair Trade initiative. "Still, people should know that there is no guarantee that coffee without the Fair Trade seal is not sweatshop coffee."
Fair Trade coffee has been widely sold in Canada for the past three years and in Europe for the past decade or so. It came to the United States last summer when the California-based certification agency TransFairUSA began certifying small and medium-sized roasters around the nation who wanted to offer Fair Trade coffee.
Starbucks agreed to begin carrying Fair Trade beans in April, three days before planned protests in 30 cities were set to launch against the giant coffee retailer.
"Someday we hope every American will find it intolerable to purchase anything made at the expense of human dignity or the environment, and that businesses will offer consumers a full range of Fair Trade products," adds Medea Benjamin, Global Exchange's founding director.
With Starbucks now offering whole bean Fair Trade Certified coffee, let's all encourage the company (with our dollars and collective voice) to go beyond this first step and start offering brewed Fair Trade coffee.
Don't just follow the bucks. Follow the Star-bucks.
Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff writer and syndicated columinist.
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