Ethical espresso or culpable cappuccino? The problem of coffee farming in Latin America.

By Clara Tipper

Oat cappuccino, soya latte, or black americano? For most of us in the UK, coffee is scarcely more than a source of morning energy, a mid-afternoon pick-me-up, or an accompaniment to a slice of cake. Yet the increasingly popular drink is deeply rooted in a brutal history that has forged contemporary ethical and environmental controversies. Latin America dominates the coffee market supply, whilst the rest of production comes from places such as Vietnam, Ethiopia, Indonesia, and India. Currently, Brazil is the world’s largest coffee producer, Colombia comes in at fourth, Peru at sixth, and Honduras, Mexico and Guatemala all make the top ten. Given its history of colonialism, chronic forest depletion and labour exploitation, what does it really take to fill our cups?

Despite being native to Eastern Africa, trade among Venice, North Africa and the Middle East during the seventeenth century allowed the coffea arabica crop to spread across Europe and to the Americas. The global distribution of coffee production, however, is largely a product of eighteenth century colonialism. The Dutch were the first imperial power to grow the crop in their colonies under the purview of the East India Company; this successfully took place in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Dutch Guiana. The latter, in combination with French efforts to cultivate coffee in Martinique, led to the gradual expansion of the coffee crop in the tropical Americas. The growth in supply was matched by an explosion of demand from North America. After the Boston Tea Party in 1773, drinking tea was deemed unpatriotic, and so the switch to coffee came naturally. Coffee proved to be a profitable crop for Latin American countries as demand continued to soar in North American and European coffeehouses. 

The history of coffee farming is a history of exploitation. In addition to the use of slave labour, forests were typically burned in order to make space for coffee cultivation. Crops were then grown without shade, which increased yields in the short run, but resulted in soil erosion over time. This technique was repeated over and over, until some areas were exhausted entirely, and planters had to move to new, unspoiled areas. Although this form of exhaustive farming was extremely profitable, unsurprisingly, it proved unsustainable. In addition to this, French political instability sparked a series of political upheavals across the Caribbean colonies, including the slave-led Haitian revolution, that resulted in the disintegration of the plantation system. Meanwhile, coffee production in Brazil was booming. The country had become the capital of the Portuguese empire, and planters adopted an intense and unforgiving method of production. This meant using the least amount of slave labour and the least amount of investment as possible. Brazil was producing 80% of the world’s coffee by the end of the nineteenth century, and, inevitably, it was facing an ecological disaster. 

In light of coffee’s ruthless past, it is unsurprising that sustainable production methods have taken years to develop. The boom in demand for coffee came to an end in the early years of the twentieth century. The decades between 1910 and 1950 were characterised by chronic overproduction, which drove prices downwards. Whilst Brazil produced on an exceedingly large scale, other Latin American countries had to count on the quality of their coffee to maintain their share in the market. In Colombia, for example, production was relatively small-scale and family-run farms were the main suppliers, due to labour shortages on large estates. These plantations were often far more ecologically diverse; coffee would be planted alongside corn, vegetables and sugarcane. Furthermore, trees were used to grant the crops shade, in order to prevent soil depletion. 

More recently, coffee planting countries have formed associations and collaborated with international institutions to protect the planters and their economies. Since the 1990s, coffee prices have been extremely volatile and more attention has been paid to working conditions, sustainability and rights of indigenous workers. Some famous examples of these include the Fairtrade Foundation, the Rainforest Alliance, and the International Coffee Organisation. Sustainable production is the primary goal of these agencies; they work with communities and farmers to preserve biodiversity and provide practical assistance to coffee planters. However, in the last two decades there has been a surge in smaller charities that aim to support farmers and their livelihoods in a more direct, and, arguably, humanitarian way. Food 4 Farmers is a charity that works to support coffee-farming families and ensure that their future is food-secure. They currently work in Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico and Nicaragua. The Coffee Trust exclusively supports the rights of indigenous workers, with a particular focus on women’s rights and education. Numerous other grassroot charities have put education as their focal point, such as Pueblo A Pueblo and The Costa Foundation. The provision of education, healthcare, food and clean water supports the immediate needs of individual farmers and their families, and recognises the human faces behind such a highly commodified crop.

However, these grassroots organisations face significant institutional barriers when battling for fairer coffee production. Firstly, the small farms that they prioritise are disproportionately hit by the effects of climate change. Rising temperatures have contributed to the spread of pests and diseases that affect the coffee plant, such as Coffee Rust and Berry Borer, which both thrive in humid climates. Research by Yale University even suggests that warmer weather may risk damage to the coffee beans. The optimum temperature for coffee growth is between 18 and 22 degrees celsius, yet, in Colombia’s coffee growing region, average temperatures are rising by 0.5 degrees fahrenheit every decade. In addition to the difficulties posed by climate change, coffee certification licences, such as those provided by FairTrade, charge relatively high fees. Furthermore, trust in larger cooperatives and private companies who may provide funding for smaller farms is often lacking due to allegations of corruption. Finally, smallholder coffee plantations are disadvantaged by the general neglect of rural societies. Poor access to education and low levels of debt forgiveness have proved substantial barriers to fair production for these firms.  

Of course, the commercialisation of coffee is in large part due to multinational corporations who deliver coffee to consumers. Starbucks is currently the largest coffee house in the world with around 33,800 branches worldwide. They claim to be investing towards the protection of farmers’ rights and towards the development of sustainable methods of production. Large firms, such as Starbucks and Costa, tend to pledge alliances with some of the big aforementioned institutions, like Rainforest Alliance. Having said this, it can be difficult to discern the extent to which the ethical marketing of their coffee actually reflects the current state of the coffee industry. With deforestation as a primary source for coffee production, it is likely that multinational corporations will be contributing to annual deforestation levels as the demand for coffee grows. The water footprint of coffee is a lesser-known effect of its production; Starbucks and Kraft have pledged to purchase from more water-sustainable coffee farms and use less water in stores. However, the average cup of coffee still requires approximately 140 litres of water to bring it to market. As the main funders of coffee farms, multinational corporations play a significant role in the problem of child labour and modern slavery. In 2016, Nestlé admitted that some of their Brazilian coffee beans may have been produced using slave labour. While they asserted that they do not purchase beans from ‘black-listed’ plantations, they could not account for all of their coffee plantations, and thus, were oblivious to the human rights abuses that were occurring under their production. Although most corporations, such as Starbucks, claim to be able to name all of their suppliers, there is still a serious problem in terms of coffee farmers’ wages. For example, in Guatemala, half of coffee labourers are still paid below minimum wage
Each cup of coffee carries the weight of a history marked by countless human rights abuses and environmental exploitation. Although numerous charities are working to protect smallholder coffee farms and their workers, there still exists persistent barriers to the production of sustainable coffee in South America. The potential for real change in the industry is at the hands of large multinationals, who, despite copious pledges to provide fairly produced coffee, have failed to break unsustainable and unhumanitarian production cycles. Perhaps most concerningly, it has been estimated that coffee production will be reduced by 50% by 2050 if serious action is not taken by the largest stakeholders in the industry. Thus, coffee faces an uncertain and volatile future. It is my hope that during these times of instability, coffee farmers and their families are protected, and those with the power to enact change, do so.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

Image source obtained from Independent

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