Black Gold: A Look at Fair Trade and the Global Economy of Coffee

This has been a summer of great documentaries. Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, Who Killed the Electric Car?, and now a refreshingly objective look at coffee production and the complex trading relationships that underpin it.


What is that brewing in your cup, dispair?The film, written and directed by British filmmakers Marc and Nick Francis, focuses on the lives of coffee farmers and production in the highlands of Ethiopia, a country where 67% of the GDP depends on coffee. Although the film's story centers on the micro level of a union of farmers and one man's dedication these growers, the issues discussed can certainly be applied on a macro level to most of the coffee producing countries such as Brazil, Columbia, and so many others.

The film revolves around Tadesse Meskela, a resident of the Oromo Highlands of Ethiopia, who is "one man on a mission to bring a fair trade market to the more than 70,000 struggling farmers whom he represents." However, as coffee is a globally traded commodity, the price is determined on the New York and London commodity exchanges, and it is these markets that determine the prices the peasant farmers in Ethiopia will be paid for their crop. Most coffee drinkers would be surprised to hear that coffee prices have now reached a thirty-year low. This is resulting in Oromo Highlands coffee growers experiencing extreme poverty, and the images we see in the film are heartbreaking. We watch as desperately malnourished children are turned away from medical clinics, and a son of three generations of coffee farmers decides to plow under his trees, cultivating chat (a narcotic similar to marijuana) instead for the local market. In one year his crop will earn roughly ten times what his carefully cultivated coffee bushes would earn.

The directors take us back and forth between the growing regions of Ethiopia, and the Western markets for coffee, including the world commodity exchanges, Starbucks locations, and a brief look at the production at Illy Coffee in Milano, Italy. On the Ethiopian side, it shows Tadesse Meskela and his relentless journey to seek a fair price for his farmers. We see him travel to conferences including the 2004 WTO Conference in Cancun, Mexico, talks with buyers around the world, and trade shows promoting his farmers' beans. Tadesse experiences limited successes, all the while realizing that there is no easy solution to the trade issues that currently face this industry on a global scale.

Throughout the film, I kept asking myself one question: Why is the world's second-most traded commodity creating hunger and destitution instead of development? With two billion cups of coffee now being consumed daily world-wide, surely coffee farmers must be reaping some benefit from this caffeine craze. If I even so much as glance at an article on the current prices of oil, I can see discussion on record profits for global oil companies and increased development in oil-rich nations. And yet none of this is occurring within the coffee-bean economies. In fact, as coffee prices have reached this new 30 year price floor, poverty has increased while development in these regions has plummeted. Africa's share of the global economy has now decreased to less than 1% of the total global trade. While at the 2004 WTO Conference in Mexico, the film shows an arch battle that has become the hallmark of WTO talks: Africa's call for an end to subsidies paid to farmers in the developing world becomes squashed by the European Union's demands for concessions regarding international rights for corporations. We watch as the trade talks fail, and Africa goes home with nothing, its agricultural sector doomed to further decline. Meanwhile, coffee sales have grown exponentially across the western world. Obviously not all parties have benefited equally.

I applaud the directors of this film for letting viewers reach their own conclusions on the state of the coffee economy and the social effects that are now being felt by the growers. With minimal discussion to guide our conclusions, the film gives the viewer hard facts without any editorial gloss, and provides the viewer with just enough information to entice us to go home and do more research into these issues and the subject of fairly traded coffee.

As I was leaving the theatre, the manager greeted me and asked how I enjoyed the film. We chatted for a moment, where he then asked, "So, I take it you will be going off coffee for a while?" I found it interesting that he would say this, as this is by no means the solution to the problems portrayed in the film. A handful of people in Vancouver and elsewhere stopping their purchases of beans is not going to provide fair wages for growers in Ethiopia. Instead, coffee drinkers need to become more educated about the economic and social impact of this industry and understand what exactly is fair-trade coffee. I will be writing a follow-up article shortly on the facts behind Fair-Trade coffee.

"Black Gold is a moving and eye-opening look into the 80-billion -dollar global coffee industry, where the spoils of overpriced lattes and cappuccinos are sparsely shared with the farmers who make it all possible."

Credit given where credit due: Adam Montgomery, Sundance Film
Festival, 2006; Don Phillips, Vancouver, B.C.