At what price a cup of coffee? A child? A community? An entire nation? Fortunately, Nic and Mark Francis’ documentary Black Gold does not ask us to give up coffee altogether, which is just as well, for there’s no image on earth that would convince me to give up my morning java. In fact, I drank a lovely, steaming cup while watching this movie, and didn’t feel a trace of guilt or remorse. What the filmmakers ask — and it seems eminently reasonable, after all — is that we pay more attention to the origins of our daily intake, and that if we as consumers insist on “fair trade” beans, thereby increasing their overall demand, the poor Ethiopian farmers who produce a hefty share of the world supply would be able to afford the bare necessities of life. After all, Ethiopia is the largest exporter of coffee in Africa, and the revenue accounts for 67% of their overall take. Clearly, then, an already impoverished nation would be even worse off without its coffee, but those on the ground — the hardworking men, women, and children we never see — are not benefiting from this explosion of production.
What else could we expect, after all, when the farmers themselves are not subsidized in the same way as more advanced countries, and the continent accounts for but 1% of overall trade on the world market? As the film rightfully points out, it’s far cheaper for the First World to provide aid than bring them to the economic table. A boost to 2% on the world stage, after all, would mean billions of dollars for African farmers and businessmen. Most importantly, it would mean a level of self-sufficiency that would help erase centuries of degradation and humiliation, where the continent is seen as the world’s dumping ground for misery, rather than a full-fledged participant; an equal partner and advocate for its future. Currently, however, this is impossible, as Ethiopian coffee commands mere pennies per kilo, with so many middlemen that the farmers themselves remain broken and hopeless. The market is so desperate, in fact, that many have turned to farming chat, a narcotic banned in the United States and Europe, but one that commands a price far exceeding that of the coffee bean. Given a choice between drug trafficking and starvation, the choice is clear, yet men in suits would have us believe that Africans live with a myriad of options, as if they could abandon the fields and head off to college.
In the middle of all this is the truly heroic Tadesse Meskela, the head of a cooperative union in Ethiopia, whose role is to secure a fair price for his country’s coffee. He travels to trade conferences, shows, and junkets, but given the level of competition, it’s unlikely that he’ll make much headway. He’s determined, but as a trip to a London grocery demonstrates, Ethiopian coffee is often very difficult to find. What’s more, how are consumers to know the process by which their preferred brand was made? And when you’re up against the World Trade Organization, where African nations continue to be treated with condescension and contempt, it’s an uphill struggle to secure even the most basic rights for workers and small farmers. The WTO protects the rights of large nations and corporations, not poor blacks struggling to live day by day. That said, Meskela pushes on, proving at least somewhat that inside every dreamer is a touch of the madman waiting to break free. How else to fight the good fight, now reduced to a fool’s errand?
As with all things in our global village, it is the height of folly to reduce complexities to half-baked assertions, and unlike some of the more unwashed among us, I would not automatically assume that if it’s big, or corporate, or ubiquitous, it is inherently evil. Starbucks, for example, as much as it deserves to be the butt of jokes for sprouting on literally every street corner, is among the more progressive companies in the United States, offering decent wages, profit sharing, and room for advancement. It’s not the boardroom at a blue chip, but if we’re talking about the service sector, one could do far, far worse. Have such entities destroyed marginal farmers, local coffee houses, and an overall sense of community? Perhaps, but I don’t remember those quaint locales offering their cashiers untold benefits when they alone dominated the landscape. Quite often, what we seek to preserve with the admonishment of “largess” is merely the presumed moral high road that usually coincides with knee-jerk protest. No one seems to know what we’ve lost, after all, but we do seem to agree that it is something. Thankfully, Black Gold, while instructive, is not a call to arms, but simply an explanation; a much-needed education that is, in its own way, the first step to lasting change. Even sips, they argue, have consequences.