I'm nearly as fascinated by the politics and ecnomonics surrounding coffee as I am by the nuanced flavors and the many ways it can be prepared. The history of coffee is an endless fascination, but we sometimes forget that the coffee we enjoy at our kitchen tables has a much heavier role in many of the countries where it is grown. In case you didn't know -- but you guys are smart so I'm sure you do:
- Coffee is the second most-traded commodity in the world. It ranks right behind oil.
- Most coffee-producing countries are developing nations who rely on coffee as their major export. It's not unusual for coffee exports to account for nearly all of that country's GDP.
- While the actual producers of coffee make very little money, nearly everyone else involved in the marketing of coffee reaps healthy profits
- In many coffee-producing nations, the government controls the market and sets the prices.
All of which contribute to the reasons that I have a Google alert set for the word coffee. Every morning, my Inbox fills up with all sorts of odd, weird and quirky stories that happen to have the word "coffee" in them. There are almost always news stories from the financial world, often from overseas news sources, that track the coffee yield and prices on the primary coffee market. There's always at least three or four stories about coffee shop openings or closings, specials being offered by coffee shops and politicians all over the world holding "coffee and a chat" events. At least once a week, there's a story about a burglar or robber who was foiled by a coffee-pot-wielding clerk or other note of humor.
Lately, there's been a rising trend of stories from a few different coffee-producing nations about coffee thefts and hijackings. Coffee beans are such a valuable commodity in some small countries that the stories sound a lot like the stories surrounding bootleggers and drug runners. It definitely makes one take a step back and think about the beverage we sip so casually. A story in my basket this morning hit me harder than most.
It was reported in The Standard, Kenya's national newspaper. The headline reads, "10 killed in coffee factory raid". There have been a lot of news stories lately about government raids on illegal coffee roasting facilities in the news lately, and governments announcing a new tough line with illegal coffee buyers. That's not what happened here though. According to the story, a gang of "thugs" broke into a storage warehouse and attempted to make off with dried coffee beans, and killed three guards in making their escape. The commotion alerted the villagers, who cornered the thieves, killing two of them on the spot and hunting down a third -- a police officer -- and lynching him.
It didn't end there, though. When police responded to the incident, the villagers surrounded the bodies and wouldn't allow them to be taken. In the ensuing confrontation between police and villagers, the guards protecting the district police commissioner fired on the people, killing four.
This hasn't come out of nowhere, especially in Kenya where illegal coffee sales have become a major news stories this fall. Just two weeks ago, thieves killed a night watchman in a similar coffee theft. One of the largest farmers' coffee coops has been calling on the government for some time to crack down on the illegal dealings, which they say is destabilizing the entire coffee economy in the region.
Stories like these are among the biggest reasons that I make it a point to do business with coffee importers and roasters who wear their ethics on their sleeves. It goes beyond looking or the Fair Trade logo on the coffees that I buy -- I like to look a little deeper and know about the philosophy of the company, how they do business and who they do busines with. With the recent announcement that Fair Trade USA are watering down their standards for granting a Fair Trade label, I've been reevaluating the coffees that I buy -- and stories like these, stories that point out the desperately grim side of the coffee economy, only make me more determined to know where my coffee comes from and who was involved in getting it from the tree to my cup. I don't want the coffee in my cup mixed with blood, thank you.
Footnote: This post by Dean Cycon of Dean's Beans (yes, the guy who brings us Ring of Fire and Marrakesh Express here on ROASTe) is an eye-opening look at the various certifications and seals you'll find on your coffee. If you care about the ethics of your coffee, it's a must-read.