March 12, 2007

Cornell Cinema

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Raise your hand if you drink at least one cup of coffee every day. That’s OK — your cup is just one of the estimated 2 billion cups of coffee that are consumed across the world every day. It’s no wonder that Marc Francis and Nick Francis decided on coffee — the mostly actively traded commodity in the world after oil — as the subject of their exposé, Black Gold. Actually, Black Gold — a documentary focusing on an Ethiopian cooperative union’s quest for fair trade in coffee — lacks the revelatory power of, say, Silent Spring, but it does do an excellent job of emphasizing just how unfair and inefficient is the international trade in coffee.

The film follows Tadesse Meskela, the representative from the Oromia Farmer’s Cooperative Union in southern Ethiopia, as he travels from Ethiopia to London, New York and Seattle in an attempt to find buyers for the coffee produced by local farmers. Ethiopia, the film informs us, is the largest producer of coffee in Africa, and the product makes up 67% of its export revenues.

Coffee-pickers earn less than $0.50 a day doing backbreaking, monotonous work, only to see their coffee sold in European and American markets for, on average, $2.90 a cup, and of course they enjoy none of the excess profit. Meskela — a tireless, magnanimous representative — intends to sell the coffee directly to fair-trade roasters, eliminating the middleman process which eats up most of the profit.

The welfare and livelihoods of these poor Ethiopian villagers literally depend on the price of coffee, which has been on a steady decline in recent years, thanks to super-efficient multinational corporations such as Starbucks and Nestlé. “Forget 20 birr [Ethiopian currency) or 10 birr,” one farmer points out, “5 birr ($0.57) [for coffee] would change our lives beyond recognition.” Unable to compete in the international market, Ethiopian farmers often switch to chad, a narcotic, which fetches higher prices on the local market and which can better support their livelihoods.

It is the same sad story all across the world in developing countries — local industries (often more efficient) are unable to compete with richer foreign ones, producing abject poverty and starvation, which in turn engenders drug use and violence. It is a very simple picture, yet progress has been excruciatingly sluggish.

Rich foreign producers like the U.S. and the E.U. continue to heavily subsidize many of their more inefficient industries, like agriculture, at the expense of more efficient poor producers, located in countries which can’t afford to subsidize their industries. Most economic analysts agree that these subsidies are highly inefficient and benefit only a small, rich, well-organized group who lobbies their governments for such programs.

If compassion doesn’t get to you, Black Gold also appeals to pure, self-interested rationality. Africa’s share of world trade is 1% — even if that were to increase to just 2%, the economic benefits reaped ($80 billion) would be five times greater than all the world aid currently given to Africa. There is no question that the promotion of self-sufficiency is many times more efficient than outright aid, which is generated from taxpayer’s pockets and has been miniscule enough in itself. Fair trade in a product such as coffee, the film shows, allows such self-sufficiency to take root by handing over the industry and profits to those who are most well-equipped to handle the production in coffee in the first place, eliminating the overblown profits enjoyed by less-efficient, but richer, mega-corporations.

Makes sense, right? Black Gold slowly and effectively builds up its case, arriving at the only logical solution, which seems obvious to us in the end. But for those corporations riding high on the profits generated from this inefficient and unfair trade, it’s about as clear as coffee.