September 20, 2007

Ethiopian coffee co-op founder aims for hearts and mugs of those who like a little justice with their java

No ordinary Joe

Ethiopian coffee co-op founder aims for hearts and mugs of those who like a little justice with their java

Most of the coffee in the 2 billion cups savoured around the world each day comes from wooded mountain peaks thousands of miles away.

Tadesse Meskela witnessed the collapse of world coffee prices that sent millions into poverty. Photo: Joshua Meles

But if fair traders get their wish, coffee, the commodity that ranks second only to oil in global sales, just might become an honorary local food.

Figuring out if a food is local means more than measuring the miles it travels, the amount of energy burned getting it to the selling location and the percentage of labour done at or near the place where it's consumed.

If other tangibles and intangibles count for something, then criteria might also include the quality of the product, the storyline of its production, and the level of cooperation between producers and consumers – all the specifics that might turn a product into a "local" one even if we were buying it from thousands of miles away.

Meet Tadesse Meskela, general manager of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union, based in the birthplace of coffee in southwestern Ethiopia. The beverage makes up half of Ethiopia's foreign exchange and provides a livelihood for the families of his 102,000 members.

But Meskela's main job is to win a place in the hearts and taste buds of java drinkers who like their drink without a bitter aftertaste – which for technical as well as social reasons, needs to come from fair trade sources.

"We have to raise the education of the consumer," Meskela tells a standing-room-only crowd that came to meet him and see the gripping film about his crusade, Black Gold, at the Brunswick on September 14. He wants them to know the difference between coffee with a place name and a paler version answering to the distant name of corporate multinationals.

The best coffees, like the best wines and cheeses, are known for their place of origin, their terroir. In the coffee world, these beans are Arabica, not Robusta, the quick, cheap and ultra-caffeinated beans that flooded the world during the 1990s. Robusta drove 20 million producers of Arabica coffee, most of them tending about 2 hectares of land, into desperate poverty.

After it's been grown, picked, sorted and shipped while still green, the best coffee is roasted by craftspeople a few days before and near where it's served. Otherwise, the volatile complexity and sweetness of the fresh roast are lost, and taste and possibly healthfulness are compromised.

Meskela's economic strategy depends on finding small roasters in the West who can meet his farmers' needs for a fair price. By going direct from farmer co-op to roaster, we eliminate 60 per cent of the stops in the supply chain, he says.

In turn, that shorter chain allows fair trade roasters and retailers – like the Just Us co-op coffee shops and the Planet Bean roasting co-op that organized Meskela's tour – to work their social justice magic. Since 2004, when coffee prices started to rise from historic lows of $.25 to $.38 a pound, the Oromia farmers have used the premium from fair trade prices to build their communites.

Meskela's rise as a coffee growers' organizer coincides with the emergence of fair trade, the collapse of coffee prices and the resulting impoverishment of 100 million people.

First came the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, removing the threat of competition with the West for the loyalties of the Third World. The International Coffee Organization was one of the first victims of this change. Designed to bring price and crop stability to the trade, it lost its punch when Canada and the U.S. walked out, leaving coffee-producing countries to compete among themselves. There was no barrier to price collapse.

Second came the establishment of the World Trade Organization in 1995, which permitted wealthy countries to continue massive subsidies to their farm exporters but prevented poor countries from erecting tariff barriers.

Throughout the 90s, as explained in Coffee: A Dark History, by Antony Wild, the World Bank funded Vietnam's emergence as the world's second-biggest producer, swamping the world with dirt-cheap Robusta.

On the other side of the coffee glut stood four corporations, Kraft, Nestle, Procter and Gamble and Sara Lee, which named their price as easily as they named their different brands.

Meskela witnessed the beginnings of this storm as an ag worker in Ethiopia during the early 90s, shortly after his government shed its totalitarian Communist style. He woke up and smelled the democratic co-op movement on a 1994 tour of Japan, one of the unrecognized leaders in the co-op world, and was inspired to establish grassroots, egalitarian, environment-minded co-ops.

"My mind changed as soon as I saw this," he told me over slurps of cheap hotel coffee. He launched with $90,000 in start-up funds.

A major victory came this spring when Starbucks gave up on its insolent effort to trademark the Ethiopian name of Sidamo beans and agreed to return to Ethiopia the right to license its own name and add brand-building value to the people who developed coffee a millennium ago.

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