Apr 282005
Authors: Meg Burd

Grabbing that first cup of coffee in the morning, I know I am usually too sleepy and preoccupied with beginning the day to pause and consider how the contents of my coffee mug might be linking me to the broader global world.

Indeed, in many of the rushes to grab that morning latte, the fact that something as seemingly innocuous as coffee could be contributing to inequality and poverty in other parts of the world is easily overlooked.

"The coffee in your cup is an immediate, tangible connection with the rural poor in some of the most destitute parts of the planet," Gregory Dicum and Nina Luttinger note in The Coffee Book. "It is a physical link across space and cultures from one end of the human experience to the other."

Unfortunately for many, being on the farming end of this link, one might often see falling coffee prices, decreased wages and families broken apart by failing farms.

"In the conventional trading system, small-scale producers of coffee and other commodities receive only a tiny percentage of the final market value of their products," states Oxfam America, a nonprofit organization that works on projects such as humanitarian relief.

With an emphasis on "free trade" in global markets today, we are coming to see via commodities such as coffee that "free" does not necessarily mean just or equitable for everyone involved. Indeed, as many concerned observers today are noting, so-called "free trade" serves to benefit only the industrialized, well-established countries (such as the United States) and their markets, while leaving the less-affluent countries and the majority of their populations in the dust of the ever-increasing gap between rich and poor.

Rooted in colonial inequality and exploitation, the coffee trade "cannot be understood outside of its colonial history," Oxfam America notes. In the mercantile system of colonialism, indigenous populations were often forced into exploitative labor, with colonial powers exporting the raw materials (such as coffee) from places such as South and Central America. "Today, the commodity trade still primarily benefits the importing industrialized countries," Oxfam and TransFair USA, a fair-trade organization, state in an examination of the issue.

Consuming one-fifth of the world's coffee, the United States is most definitely a force in the international coffee market. Drinking our daily joe, however, "few Americans realize that agriculture workers in the coffee industry often toil in what can be described as 'sweatshops in the fields,'" according to the organization Global Exchange.

With coffee prices dropping to a low of 45 cents a pound in 2002, many male farmers were forced to move to urban centers to seek employment, often leaving women farmers to tend the crops and care for the children alone, forcing many of the children to be pulled from school in order to assist their mothers in caring for the crops and families.

Even when prices were supposedly "high," annual incomes of many farmers hovered at around $500 dollars or less annually, according to Oxfam, something that (even in impoverished countries) would be considered poverty. In an industry that generates an approximate $5 billion dollars a year, it is unconscionable that small farmers and coffee plantation workers are kept in such poverty.

As "free trade" systems for a variety of commodities serve to destroy small farms and create more impoverished and sometimes migrant populations, rethinking trade policies and implementing a system of fair trade instead seems to be the best option available. With Fair Trade certification, farmers or cooperatives are guaranteed a floor price or income that is paid directly to the producer, something that allows many of the farmers to avoid exploitative middlemen or large corporations that suck up most of the profit. Besides this, the criteria for fair trade certification emphasizes that farms should guarantee fair labor practices for all their workers, and also restrict the use of chemicals and thus work toward promoting more ecological sustainability, TransFair USA reports.

Farmers working in the fair trade system or joining fair trade cooperatives also have an added benefit of learning more about the markets and becoming active negotiators in their own economic fate to some degree.

While critics point out that fair trade systems are not perfect, they are indeed a good alternative to the current exploitative systems of "free trade" that are currently in place. When going to purchase your next cup of coffee, therefore, take a moment to consider how that drink links you to the broader socio-economic world and ask for fair trade coffee instead.

Meg Burd is an anthropology graduate student. Her column runs every Friday in the Collegian.

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