Let’s go back to coffee’s first steps. The coffee plant was discovered maybe as far back as the 8th century in Ethiopia. Originally the plant’s leaves were used to make a tea-like infusion. This was the coffee brew for hundreds of years until the 16th century when some genius decided to extract the bean from the cherry, roast it, grind it, and then mix it with hot water to create what we now know as ‘coffee’.
From then on it was full steam ahead. Doctors used it as medicine, artists used it for creativity, soldiers used it in war, monks used it in ceremonies, revolutionaries used it to plot, and philosophers used it in… philosophising. It took the world by storm and has never looked back! In the 18th century, the Europeans took it to Latin America. This is where my little story about the ‘evil side’ of coffee begins.
It is important to understand the context within which coffee was introduced to Latin America. At the end of the 15th century, European ships hit the ground in the Americas. The events that followed changed the world in a dramatic fashion. What happened over the next 5 centuries laid the foundations for the modern world as we know it. An accumulation and distribution of wealth on the biggest scale the world has ever seen began. Here is a very brief and oversimplified version of events of the last 500 years.
The Spanish and the Portuguese encountered, killed, and enslaved millions of Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas. They began to extract resources such as gold, silver, and other valuable metals on a massive scale.
There were rumors of ‘El Dorado’. El Dorado was the fabled city of gold. Spanish explorers had heard stories about a tribe of natives high in the Andes mountains in what is now Colombia. When a new chieftain rose to power, his rule began with a ceremony at Lake Guatavita. Accounts of the ceremony vary, but they consistently say the new ruler was covered with gold dust, and that gold and precious jewels were thrown into the lake to appease a god that lived underwater.
The story of ‘El Dorado’ fuelled the hunger for gold and left a trail of death, disease, and destruction in its wake. They found the Lake Guatavita, but never found the city of gold, although it never stopped them searching. Here is an example of the amount of metal that was extracted over a period of just 40 years in relatively recent times. Imagine how much was extracted in 500 years. The extraction of raw materials in Latin American countries jumped from 2400 million tonnes in 1970 to about 8300 million tonnes in 2009.
The Spanish and the Portuguese ruled the roost for hundreds of years but weren’t smart in how they did it. They poured their newfound riches into fancy lifestyles, palaces, churches and monuments in their bases in Latin America and back in their home countries serving their Kings who sent orders from afar. There wasn’t much movement in terms of investment in infrastructure outside of the necessary to extract resources.
They also became the courier company for other business savvy countries like Britain, France, and Holland. These countries began to trade. They also loaned money to finance the boats of the Spanish and Portuguese for their expeditions. A large amount of the money made from the expeditions had to be paid back on return. These savvy businessmen also began the slave trade sending product (Africans who were to work in the mines) to Latin America and when the ships returned, they were full of heavy metals worth millions.
Later on, the same form continued, but the currency changed. Sugar, bananas, coffee and other food products became the new gold. Cotton and rubber also had their turn. In 1928 Henry Ford negotiated a deal with the Brazilian government granting him concession of 10,000 km2 of land on the banks of the river Tapajo in the Amazon Rainforest in exchange for a 9% share of the profits generated. The project failed, and the city was abandoned in 1934. This is an indication of how business was, and is, done in Latin America.
The key to the whole cycle was the kidnapping and sale of slaves. They were the literal motor that turned the cogs of the machine. They were extracted from their homes in Africa, put on ships (half of them dying from disease or starvation), and sentenced to a life of slavery in the mines, harvesting of crops, or death for not complying with their master’s demands.
Banks and institutions were built in Europe and later on in the United States. They were built with the sweat, blood, and bones of Indigenous African and Latin Americans. These institutions became the stronghold and base for current-day international trade. Did you know that the invention of the steam engine, which in turn drove the industrial revolution, was funded by money made from the slave trade? James Watt’s family and Watt himself were not only complicit in the slave trade, they participated directly and benefited from the profits that slavery generated. You say Watt? Yes, the guy who, quite ironically, the unit of ‘power’ is named after, who was maybe the catalyst who sparked the industrial revolution, was funded by the kidnapping and sale of slaves!
North America was treated the same in terms of the killing of indigenous and the importation of slaves from Africa. The difference between North America and Central/South America was the type of investment. In N. America it was for the settlement of Europeans, whereas in C./S. America, it was invested in resource extraction.
At some stage N. America, more specifically, the United States of America, became the new base for the extraction of resources from the countries to the south. This tradition still exists today. I am not saying that there are not any beneficiaries in C./S. America because there are, but all you have to do is follow the money and you will see where the huge majority ends up. Henry Ford’s 9% being a good example. The sad thing is that the majority of people on the ground who are extracting the resources should have the titles of the land, and should be receiving most of the benefits for its extraction, but are not.
By 1880 just Central America alone was producing one-sixth of the world’s coffee production. It was the English and the Germans who were buying the majority of the coffee but later because of its location and the strength of its developing industries the U.S. companies took charge.
It is interesting to note that in 1888, Brazil was the last Latin American country to abolish slavery. It depends on your definition of slavery to say whether it continued or not. If you ask me, slavery continues to this day! In 1950, C./S. America supplied 80% of the world’s coffee. That number has changed now, but you can see how over the past 140 years coffee became just another precious resource to be extracted. As was the same with all of the exported resources in C./S. America, the real value in the product occurs when it arrives in another country. Coffee is no exception.
I know it is ridiculous to say ‘what if?’, but I’m going to say it anyway. What if all of the Latin American resources over the last 500 years were sold by native Latin Americans and not foreigners? What would Latin American society be like today? Where would the world’s trade and investment centers be? If you want the real story of what actually happened and not this oversimplified version, you could read Eduardo Galeano’s ‘Open veins of Latin America’.
Ok, I’m not trying to make people feel guilty for a past that they have nothing to do with, but I do believe that it is important to know about the base upon which societies around the world have been constructed. It is some heavy stuff, and after having lived in South America for the last 6 years and having recently traveling to Central America and seeing it with my own eyes, I find it very difficult to ignore the past. Especially if there is undeniable evidence that the unsustainable form of trade continues to this day.
90 percent of the world's coffee production takes place in developing countries. Is there a fair distribution of wealth in relation to the profits made from this production? To be more specific: Are the people picking and processing the coffee cherries receiving an adequate amount of value for the time and effort that they are investing in their part of the coffee chain? I’ll reframe it: How would you feel if the barista that makes your coffee in the morning (an integral player within the coffee chain) was living on rice and beans because she/he couldn’t afford to eat anything else?
So why is coffee the forbidden fruit of good and evil? Luckily, some good people are doing some great things in the industry, but they are few and far between. The overwhelming majority of business executed within the coffee world turns a blind eye to the reality behind the scenes. The large distance between the source of the coffee and its final destination makes it a little difficult to see the entire chain with transparency, but that is also the way that the big players want it. For these guys, it is not convenient for Joe Bloggs to see behind the curtains.
I felt a discomfort in Kenya 9 years ago (Africa has its own complex history, but that is a story for another time). I didn’t know what it was, but since that time I have been unraveling what that feeling actually meant to me. My life has been wrapped up in coffee for over a decade. Slowly but surely this beautiful minute gem has been revealing her hidden secrets. The power that is concealed within this tough but brittle little bean has an unimaginable potential. Potential to literally change the lives of millions of people.
So, what can we do about it?
To be continued…