Finding common grounds: a review of “Black Gold”

How many cups of coffee do you drink during the day? Now, how many cups of coffee would you guess are consumed every day throughout the world? Not being a hard-core coffee drinker myself – one cup will usually satisfy me, if I even need that – I hadn’t given the global coffee trade a whole lot of thought before a DVD of the Oxfam America documentary "Black Gold" crossed my desk (a new title to add to our library’s collection).

According to the statistics cited in "Black Gold," more than two billion cups of coffee pass the lips of folks needing their java jolt each day, making coffee the second most actively traded commodity globally. When you consider the price of a cup of coffee from Starbucks or your local diner, or even the price per pound of coffee beans bought at the supermarket, you begin to realize just how much profit percolates through the coffee trade.

But as with most products of an industrial agricultural system, very little of that money ends up in the farmers’ pockets. And when coffee prices tumbled to new lows in 2001, over 25 million coffee farmers around the world struggled even more to make ends meet.
The bracing Oromia of coffee

"Black Gold" takes the viewer to Ethiopia, the legendary origin of coffee growing and drinking, and introduces Tadesse Meskela, general manager of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Co-operative Union. Following Meskela through his daily work, the film reveals the difficulties of growing and selling coffee as well as the benefits of working through the cooperative. Meskela repeatedly says he is committed to negotiating a higher price for the coffee so that more money goes back to the farmers and improves their living conditions, making it easier for them to afford basic necessities as food, clean water, and clothing as well as to improve their local infrastructures (schools being key).

None of this comes as a surprise to anyone familiar with the idea of "fair trade," of course, but seeing particular examples of how fair trade can help farmers increases awareness in consumers and, with luck, demand for fair-trade commodities (part of Oxfam America’s purpose in making the documentary). Take the vivid contrast of a scene in the original Starbucks location, where cheerful baristas hand out samples of the "new" Ethiopian Sidamo coffee, juxtaposed with one in Sidama where famine is rampant, children are malnourished, and people depend on foreign food aid. In another scene, a coffee farmer roots out all his coffee trees in order to plant chat, a narcotic that will bring in higher prices, because "we want to avoid death."

A mighty brew-ha-ha

Meskela, along with other African representatives at a World Trade Organization conference, points out the basis of the unfairness in the coffee trade: subsidies. For two decades, the WTO and the International Monetary Fund have put pressure on developing-world governments to stop subsidizing production of crops such as coffee (crops that aren’t apparently subsidized in America and Europe since coffee is not grown in those locations), and with the collapse of the International Coffee Agreement in 1989, no safety net was left in place to support farmers (a point confirmed by a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston). Coffee farmers have few crop alternatives that will offer them adequate compensation: if they give up growing coffee for other exportable crops, such as grains or soybeans or cotton, they face stiff competition from developed countries that subsidize the production of those items.  Global agricultural trade rests on a distinctly uneven playing field, and developing countries find themselves struggling to climb up to the export levels of the developed world.

Thanks to this trade imbalance, countries like Ethiopia find it more and more difficult to sustain a profitable agricultural base, and the lack of a steady income causes suffering among more than the farmers’ families. Three items flashed on the screen toward the end of the movie, all speaking to the compelling need to change trade policies and to support fair-trade efforts:

  • 7 million people in Ethiopia are dependent on emergency food aid every year.
  • Over the last 20 years, Africa’s share of world trade has fallen to 1%.
  • If Africa’s share of world trade increased by 1 percentage point it would generate a further $70 billion a year – five times the amount the continent now receives in aid.

Though, like many locavores who are trying to make thoughtful and ethical choices, I’ve been buying fair trade coffee to have at home, I found that the movie offered more information to confirm my choices. Oxfam has an ongoing online campaign to encourage fair trade, including a page devoted to "The Coffee Crisis." The campaign has had a couple of notable successes thus far. A year ago, the Ethicurean linked to a report about Starbucks resisting Ethiopia’s efforts to trademark its coffee (especially the Yirgacheffe and Sidamo beans), but according to the Make Trade Fair campaign, Starbucks has now signed an agreement with Ethiopia, reversing that position. And this fall, a new International Coffee Agreement (PDF) was signed, encouraging "a sustainable coffee sector in economic, social, and environmental terms."

If you have a chance to watch "Black Gold," I recommend it. (Add it to your Netflix queue, check out your local public or academic library, or see if your local PBS station is planning to air it.)  You may not look at your morning cuppa the same way again, but with the increasing availability of high-quality fair-trade coffee, the perks of making a switch are worth it.

One Responseto “Finding common grounds: a review of “Black Gold””

  1. It seems like such a small step to take in order to make a big difference. But just like all of us making small changes in habits to help stop global warming makes a huge difference, so can buying fair trade coffee make a collosal difference when we all step up and do it. It really can be the difference between life and death of a farming community. To find good fair trade coffee, go to