A fair cup
It’s 6:38am on a Saturday morning. I’ve given up fighting my body clock on weekends; I need coffee. I cup my hands around the hot mug and gain more comfort there than from the newly lit fire. I look into the reddish-blackness of my coffee, inhale deeply of the earthy aromas and think about how I got to this point. My history as a coffee drinker has been a series of awakenings, and I don’t just mean the jolt it gives me in the morning.
The beginning ~ my discovery, Europe's discovery
When I discovered coffee as a way to stay awake and complete assignments during first year university, sobriety and alertness was my aim. Upon its introduction to Europe, at a time of scientific rationalism, coffee replaced the tradition of a small beer or wine at breakfast and created a sobering effect on the society as a result. It was noted in 1660 by an English observer that “This coffee drink hath caused great sobriety…” and that the men were now comparatively more capable in the workplace compared to when they took “…a morning draught of Ale, Beer or Wine, which, by the dizziness they cause in the Brain, made many unfit for business…” Likewise, coffee made me fit to string enough words together to pass first year. Thank you, coffee.
The 'good' stuff ~ Moving on from Instant
There is always an epiphany; love is sometimes responsible. I fell for a man of Dutch heritage who introduced me to “real coffee” rather than my previous version: the now much-maligned "instant muck". Every morning we would make plunger coffee with breakfast and, before too long, mine actually looked like a cup of coffee rather than the weak-cappuccino-dishwater I used to order when I was out. It took us until relatively recently to understand how our coffee drinking impacts worldwide. In 2005, we took a trip to Peru where we assumed we would easily find great coffee. That was not the case. When we asked local people about it we found out that Peruvians grow the coffee but don’t drink it. It is simply a cash crop.
The 'bad' stuff ~ Exploitation in the Coffee Trade
The coffee industry has a long history of exploitation and thanks to the tropical climate in which that exploitation occurs it is far enough from most of our breakfast tables, cafés and restaurants for us to successfully ignore it. When coffee took Europe by the jugular in the 1600s, reliance on supply by Arab nations became an issue. The Dutch were the first to break into the market by establishing plantations in the East Indies in the 1690s. Of course, this meant the usual colonial bad manners of displacement, land theft and slavery of local people.
Unfortunately, little has changed since then. Big coffee corporations such as Nestlé and Kraft have replaced the Dutch and French colonial governments but the local coffee farmers are still suffering unfair treatment, amoral trading agreements and, poor wages and conditions. That is, unless they are part of a fairtrade agreement.
The 'better' stuff ~ Fair Trade
Fairtrade is more than the ‘fair’ price for the product that the name suggests. The fairtrade set-up includes a premium that is paid to farmers so they can collectively establish social or economic development projects.
In rural East Timor, the Café Timor Cooperative identified access to affordable healthcare as a major issue facing their communities. They decided to apportion a substantial share of their fairtrade premium to establishing the Clinic Café Timor organisation in order to develop healthcare initiatives in the far-flung coffee growing regions of East Timor. Through this project, the Clinic Café Timor organisation has become the largest provider of healthcare in rural East Timor. Utilising ten fixed clinics and twenty-four mobile units, they bring healthcare services to 115,000 coffee farmers and their families; treating 18,000 cases a month. And all of it free to the patients.
Sometimes premiums go towards improving roads so that workers can drop off their coffee and have it picked up by truck rather than walking long distances carrying 20 kilogram bags of coffee beans on their backs. Other projects relate to education. Books, buildings and desks are provided to local schools to help improve the learning conditions for students in places such as rural PNG.
In addition to the premium, growers are paid a set minimum price per weight for their coffee beans. This helps to alleviate concern about fluctuating markets and encourages farmers to re-invest in their businesses. Willington Wamayeye, managing director of Gumutindo Coffee, PNG says that the higher price means that “…they can invest in their farms, they pay school fees for their children, they build better houses and they have a better living.” This is the stability so many of us, in the coffee-drinking Western world, take for granted.
What can we do?
Throughout its history, coffee has caused problems, threatened governments and created debate. The controversial new ideas of Newton’s Principia being sparked in one of London’s coffeehouses in the 1680s is one thing but do we need to have poor wages and miserable working conditions hanging over our morning ‘cuppa’? Even now, when we are thinking of ‘tightening belts’, ‘hip pocket nerves’ and the recent Global Economic Crisis, it doesn’t take much to be mindful of our privileged place in the global village and make a some careful choices.
So, now I look for the Fairtrade logo on my tea and coffee because thanks to the dedicated letter and email writing of Oxfam’s Supermarket Campaign, the major supermarket chains in Australia now stock these fairtrade products. (Next on the campaign list should be fairtrade chocolate, because it's almost impossible to find outside of specialty shops.)
I try to keep my hands cupped around a guilt-free blend. When you’re out, think about asking if the coffee is fairtrade. If you want to be sure, Hudson’s coffee chain has a fairtrade option but you need to request it when you order. BP’s Wild Bean Cafés have recently changed over to using 100 percent fairtrade coffee. If we all keep the pressure on and share the importance of fairtrade with our coffee-drinking friends, we will all be on fairer footing.
Fairtrade Association of Australia and New Zealand, http://www.fairtrade.com.au/Producersandimpacts?PHPSESSID=bf7f7a36e89fb3de409ce2243118c024, accessed on 30/4/09
McNamee, G., Moveable Feasts: the history, science and lore of food, Praeger, Westport, USA, 2007
Oxfam Australia, http://www.oxfam.org.au/campaigns/fair-trade/coffee/, accessed on 30/4/09
Pendergrast, M., Uncommon Grounds: a history of coffee and how it changed our world, Basic Books, New York, 1999
Standage, T., A history of the world in six glasses, Walker & Co, New York, 2005