The experience of writing the book was an interesting one, and not always pleasant. The process involved finding as much information as I could, trying to pare it down to what I considered important and then doing my best to fact-check what I found.
There were moments when there would be little epiphanies, though these weren’t always good feeling ones. I came into coffee at a time when speciality was on the rise. I came to know coffee through stories of direct trade, relationships with producers, trying to pay premiums and to push quality forward.
What didn’t make sense to me were certifications like Fair Trade. I was dismissive of them because I couldn’t see how they fit into my world of speciality. They didn’t focus on quality at all! How ridiculous! What was worse, so many of my favourite coffees came from single estates – and when I learned that a single estate couldn’t ever be Fair Trade certified it seemed even more laughable to me. (Ah, the arrogance of youth…)
Writing the history of each coffee producing country brought my foolishness and shortsightedness into sharp focus. What I wanted to do was look at the history of each country to understand how it had ended up with the level of traceability it had: why was coffee in Central America so much more traceable than coffee in Papua New Guinea or Ethiopia?
Each and every chapter could likely have contained a sub heading of “That time the Europeans were complete b*stards” because, invariably in every country there was such a time. The English, the Spanish, the Portuguese and the Belgians (especially the Belgians – who were often utterly evil and no one seems to take them to task about this any more) did atrocious, unspeakable things – from a place of greed, ignorance and a callous belief in their superiority. It got to the point during the research that I was just waiting, as I worked chronologically through the local coffee production timeline, for the bad things to happen – I was never disappointed…
That doesn’t mean that all the terrible things were done by colonists. The painful past and guilt of land ownership, of theft and displacement, of abuse and slavery, belongs to a great many people in each and every country. This doesn’t mean everyone who owns a coffee farm is a terrible person, or that every person who owns a coffee farm has some historical skeleton in the closet – it just means it’s all complicated. Certainly more complicated than I can deal with in this post, or within the book.
When you look at the past the actions of those who set up schemes like Fair Trade make more sense – and the idea that it was designed to support cooperatives, rather than those whose families had acquired land at some stage, makes a great deal of sense. This side of coffee’s history is rarely on display, and while the price crashes of the past are well known I don’t think many people in my coffee generation are particularly aware of this stuff.
I’m sure it isn’t just me
Like I said – the history of coffee and land ownership raise incredibly big, difficult issues, and I didn’t really look to tackle them in the book. I hope people who read through the chapters are inspired to read a little more on the subject. For a quick overview, and a starting place on the subject, have a look at the Wikipedia article on land reform by country.
Why I won’t buy anything from Chiquita Banana
Writing about Guatemala was one of the most depressing chapters for me. You can read plenty about it online, but the summary would be that 10 years of progressive land reform between 1944 and 1954 didn’t sit well with US owned United Fruit Company. Their big, very profitable business, owned 42 percent of arable land in Guatemala (how they got it is another story) and it was threatened by this reform. In short, they convinced the USA government to have the CIA stage a coup d’etat, which spiralled into a civil war – the longest and bloodiest in Central American history. 100,000 Guatemalans would be “disappeared” during this war. United Fruit Company is now known as Chiquita Banana. This is the same company that had apparently urged the Colombian military to fire on its striking banana workers in 1928 – estimates of the casualties at the time range from 47 up to 2,000. (In case you were wondering where the term “Banana Republic” came from…)
Bananas or coffee?
On one level this has nothing to do with coffee. However, in so many ways it has everything to do with coffee – with our relationship with those who produce the crops we import, with the attitude we’ve inherited towards trade with developing countries, and how our history has shaped our present. As a species we like to demonstrate a complete failure to learn the lessons of our history. I confess that I had been in coffee a surprisingly long time before I really dug into its history. It was revelatory, saddening and also inspiring. I’d like to do better, for us all to do better – and I am more driven to that end than I have ever been.
- I hope to have a website up showing all resellers as soon as possible, if you’d like to shop with independents ↩︎