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Although coffee is the most consumed drink in the world, very few question about the origins of coffee. Why did coffee become so popular or what effect does this tiny bean have in our lives? As I came to learn in my research, coffee has much more consequence in our daily lives and the lives …   Read More

Although coffee is the most consumed drink in the world, very few question about the origins of coffee. Why did coffee become so popular or what effect does this tiny bean have in our lives? As I came to learn in my research, coffee has much more consequence in our daily lives and the lives of millions than we realize. I decided to write about coffee because it is my favourite drink and I wanted to learn what is it about coffee that everyone else finds so special. On a previous post, I focused on coffee’s health considerations, on this post I want to focus on the history of coffee, the politics behind it, the difference in quality and the societal consequences for this second most traded commodity in the world; second only to oil.

This is Juan Valdez, a fictional character originally created to get consumers to understand the typical coffee grower.

In the 1960s, Juan Valdez, a fictional character, was created as a response of a meeting by the International Coffee Organization, created to increase awareness of this community and so to increase coffee consumption as the prices of coffee beans soared and consumption decreased. Contrary to the many people who approached me about Juan Valdez, Juan is a fictional character who represented the coffee grower at the time. The awareness campaign did work well and coffee consumption did increase all the way until now, however the problems coffee growers faced back then are still alive and present. On the wikipedia entries for coffee under the title: “Economics of Coffee” it says that coffee is an important commodity.Coffee, as I have come to learn is much more than just an important commodity. In fact, coffee is the second most important commodity second only to oil. The history of coffee is entangled with so much drama and historical impact. Coffee was domesticated in Ethiopia, although, many probably think coffee is from Brazil. There is an old Ethiopian myth which starts with an Ethiopian got header who used to guide his goats through his flute, however one day he noticed his goats did not respond to his flute, so he went back to see what happened. As he found his goats, he noticed that his goats where jumping uncontrollably and noticed them eating from a cherry tree. As he noticed his goats, he thought that those cherry trees must have some magical qualities, so he took some of the cherries and brought them back to his village. As the villagers adopted the new cherry, they started to notice its properties giving people an unusual feeling of alertness. The villagers panicked and decided to labelled coffee’s properties as a work from the devil and decided to burn the collected cherry fruits. As they did, they liked the smell the burn seeds started to produce and they changed their view about. Ethiopians to this day have a ritual that honours their discovery of coffee that grows natively in their lands. Out from the lands of Africa, coffee expanded over the lands of Arabic speaking countries firstly in Yemen and consequently over to the Ottoman empire. In the 13th century, the Ottoman Empire was largely responsible for the introduction of coffee into Europe as Turkish traders would mingle in places like Vienna. From Vienna, coffee got introduced to much of Italy with the first cafes opening up in Rome and attracting famous composers like Verdi and characters like Casanova. Out from Europe, during the European conquests by the Dutch and the French mainly coffee got exported to South America as part of the first commodities to use slave labour in countries like Dominican Republic and Haiti. Later as coffee growing spread over other French territories like the French Guyana that a Brazilian national brought some coffee beans to Brazil and it is this country that became the world’s number 1 coffee producer in the world. Coffee is not the only reason, but certainly one of the most important reasons why today’s Brazilian economy has gone through a boom. The main reason why Brazil’s economy is prosperous is because of their rainforest, which only accounts for 10% of what was once a pristine vast terroritory. Other of Brazil’s main exports include: steel, paper, soybeans, coffee. Combined with automative parts, these are most derivates from the use of their rainforest land which goes thinner every year, right now Brazil’s exports account for export of $256 billion as of 2011. via chartsbin.com The land cost of this economic boom has taken a lot out of Brazil, perhaps this pales in comparison to the human cost from the millions of people who today live below the poverty line. Most of these people include children who immigrate with their parents to work on the coffee field. In Costa Rica, the government declares a school holiday during produce period and the picking of coffee cherries. At which point many chidden cannot even attend school and opt for working with their parents all year long. During the time of the French colonies, there was a lot of slavery as Africans were brought to the coffee fields to work at the tune of the whip. Today, we are not yet seeing a dramatic change when we still have millions of coffee growers who are making $6 a-day for an entire day of coffee picking. What is the problem? The concept of “follow the money” is often what helps find the truth and it is the case that for the decades the effect of trading practices put in place for international organizations like the Word Trade Agreement that institutes pennies for the production of coffee beans and how much money do the growers get for their hard work. The ratio is as such that if you go to Starbucks and buy a tall Americano (small speciality coffee, for those who don’t know) that costs around $2.30 CAD, only $0.10 cents that go to the pockets of the grower. Many times, the coffee growers, such as those in large coffee plantation in La Minita, Costa Rica do not even get the chance to taste their own coffee. In Colombia, the situation is even harder when you get the involvement of the drug lords and their cartels. Of course the drug lords want to control coffee productions and if the coffee growers do not abide to their terms, often they are killed and threatened. There are a few initiatives that have arisen to give a fair treatment to coffee growers, such as Fair Trade certification which most large coffee houses such as Starbucks and Second Cup now implement. This gives a much fair pricing for their coffee production, however event at that level the organizational distribution can have its downturns. What needs to happen is rather a fundamental change in the way the markets define the fair value to coffee growers in the way that sustainable care for the natural resources are given. In the case of Brazil their economical progress has taken an irreversible toll on the rainforest causing death and displacement of many species including our own. All of these with little regard to the long term consequences and not even replanting trees, rather doing a lot rainorest clearing involving cutting and burning.

The two types of coffee beans, not all coffee is the same.

In terms of coffee quality I have learned that the best tasting coffee will be that of arabica beans, which grown in its best quality in central American countries specifically in Costa Rica and Guatemala. The land seems to be perfect for these beans. This is in contrasts with the other type of beans that are the robusta beans which are another species of coffee cherry which are mostly exported from countries like Vietnam. Robusta beans differ from arabica in the way they roast and the way they withstand temperatures, the arabica beans don’t crack easily and keep their favour. Robusta beans crack during the roasting period and therefore give a bitter flavour which is not ideal. The true coffee taste is the one that comes from within the coffee bean, if that is protected, then you get the real true essence of the coffee bean. Besides the taste, for those who appreciate coffee taste you are looking to drink specially coffee such as those you buy from big coffee houses like Starbucks and Second Cup. Although, we tend to have negative image in front of giants like Starbucks, they actually do play their part in making sure the coffee grower gets a fairer share. Starbucks and Second Cup both purchased certifified coffee beans, which makes sure the coffee grower gets better share. There are those coffee giants like Folger’s coffee, Maxwell House and even Tim Horton’s who choose to buy cheap non-certfified coffee which directly contributes to the burden that coffee growers carry when outside of protective mechanism such as Fair Trade Certification. When you go have a cup of coffee and you don’t care where that coffee comes from or whether the coffee is Fair Trade certified you are directly contributing to the poverty of those coffee growers who get little to nothing for their hard work. These coffee growers depend on coffee exporters who pay them very little. I hope this post has served as good overview of the situation of coffee and why coffee is today’s number one drink. The situation of coffee is, of course, not unique there are many other commodities and labour that happens in the world where large corporations pay very little for labour and often fill their pockets getting away from taxes and at times engaging in practices that mimic slavery. Do your part and drink coffee only from places that buy coffee beans from certified Fair Trade, as it is one of the initiatives set to help the impoverish coffee growers who depend on you to make the right choice.

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