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Coffee-beansPhoto souce: Pixabay.

By Alex Liccione, Global Correspondent for Safe World

Cof·fee: noun, often attributive \ˈkȯ-fē, ˈkä-\ a dark brown drink made from ground coffee beans and boiled water.

By dictionary definition, coffee sounds unremarkably simple, but to most of us, coffee means bounds more than this scant set of words. Coffee is the magic elixir that wakes us up come sunrise and in contrast, sings us to sleep after a drawn out day. It keeps us and our frost bitten hands warm during those frigid nights and has even been known to inspire a song or two from musicians by the likes of The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Bob Marley.

Coffee is such a major part of our daily lives, yet many of us have never paused to ponder over how our beloved drink reached our mugs. The answer just might very well astound you.

The Origin of Coffee

Unlike its definition, the history of coffee is complex leaving much room for debate. According to legend, the origin of coffee dates back to 13th century Ethiopia where a goatherd named Kaldi first discovered the plant upon witnessing his goats’ jovial behavior after consuming some of its berries. By the 15th century, coffee was cultivated and traded for the first time starting in Yemen and later spreading across the region and beyond.

Today, trailing solely behind petroleum, coffee is the second most valuable traded commodity in the world. With an industry comprising of approximately 25 million farmers and coffee workers in more than 50 countries worldwide, it's safe to say Kaldi's goats had impeccable taste.

Human Rights and Coffee

The actual process of coffee production is multifaceted involving many steps and individuals. Much of its production involves plantation workers tending to and harvesting coffee plants by hand. Unfortunately, like many other agricultural endeavors, human rights violations plague the coffee production industry with atrocious working and living conditions, incredibly low wages, forced labor, limited to no access to healthcare and education, and child labor being commonplace.

Despite being a highly traded commodity, a 2013 report by the Fairtrade Foundation reported that coffee growers only receive approximately 7-10 percent of the supermarket retail price of coffee while the retailer in turn receives 33 percent - roughly four times as much profit as the individuals who arduously grew the product. To put it in another perspective, Avivara reports that for every $3.25 latte sold in the United States, approximately 1 penny of that transaction ends up in the hands of the individuals who grew and harvested the coffee beans.

As the four dominating multi-national corporations in the coffee industry (Kraft General Foods, Nestlé, Procter & Gamble and Sara Lee) continue to make $1 billion and above in annual sales, the actual individuals involved on the plantation level struggle to survive and continue to live in an unbreakable cycle of inhumane violations and poverty.  

Coffee Production – Guatemala

From Asia to Africa to the Americas, coffee production is not isolated to one part of the world. However, when examined on a country by country basis, the International Coffee Organization reports that the majority of the world’s coffee is produced in Latin America which congruently is also home to many of the top coffee producing countries worldwide. Among these top producing countries is Guatemala.

As one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, approximately 60 percent of the population of Guatemala lives in poverty. The most vulnerable populations include individuals in their youth and those residing in rural areas. Within these rural areas, the highest concentration of poverty occurs within indigenous communities.

A 2012 report by International Fund for Agricultural Development on rural poverty in Guatemala reported that in a country where the indigenous peoples make up 40 percent of the total population, 7 in 10 individuals of indigenous descent live in poverty. With limited or non-existent options, many of these indigenous peoples labor on coffee plantations in order to survive. As most of these individuals exclusively work on plantations during high season when an increase in laborers is necessary, they are treated inferior comparative to others by way of receiving even lower wages, inadequate food and housing, and the list goes on.

The poor treatment of indigenous peoples in the coffee industry of Guatemala is not a recent occurrence. Such actions date back to the introduction of coffee to the country during the 19th century.

As coffee production began to flourish in the 1870's, an exponentially high increase in demand led to the expropriation of lands of the indigenous Maya under the regime of Liberal Dictator Justo Rufino Barrios. With the mentality that any land that was not used for producing coffee, sugar, or cocoa was considered "tierras baldías" (idle land), he proceeded to convert the stolen indigenous lands into plantations where he subsequently forced the Mayans to work.

In time, large coffee producers and the Guatemalan government came together to officially enforce a debt slavery system that legitimized using Mayans for forced labor. Despite their refusal to work on the confiscated lands, they were ultimately forced to labor for long hours in horrid conditions for low pay or face severe consequences including death.

Moving forward into the 20th century, under the dictatorship of Jorge Ubico, the debt slavery system was replaced with new vagrancy laws which ultimately increased the influence of the central government. However, these new laws had no concern for the welfare of the Mayans and continued to enforce labor upon them.

Coffee Production – Worldwide

Today, the environment surrounding the coffee production industry has remained comparable to these historic roots with human rights violations being endured by plantation workers, both of indigenous and non-indigenous descent, in Guatemala and worldwide.

A 2012 Human Rights Watch report on Vietnam cited incidents of forced labor on coffee plantations for human rights, political, and religious activists, as well as other detainees in detention centers within the country. The coffee produced as a result of this forced labor is supplied to various companies that in turn sell it abroad unbeknownst to the consumers buying the product off supermarket shelves.

In Ethiopia, the International Labor Organization reports widespread use of child labor in the production of coffee and other agricultural products within the country. On average, these children work for 15 hours a day, 7 days a week and begin working as early as 6 years old. Of these children forced into labor, between 41-50 percent do not receive any monetary compensation. Most child laborers are not allowed to see their families on a regular basis and go as long as five years or more without a visit. Beyond these horrific conditions, many of these children are also victims of physical, psychological and sexual abuse.

The human rights violations taking place in Vietnam and Ethiopia are just a few examples of the harsh realities perpetuating in the coffee production industry today worldwide.

A Global Problem

Despite common misconceptions, human rights violations against individuals working in the coffee production industry not only occur within developing countries, but in developed countries as well.

A 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Labor highlighted the discovery of widespread labor violations against 150 coffee plantation workers in Hawaii, USA. Investigations underwent in 2012 concluded that these workers were paid below federal hourly minimum wage and were not paid for all hours worked including overtime.

Incidences of child labor were also reported. The results of these findings culminated in the payment of $63,000 in back wages for the 150 workers and more than $42,000 in civil money penalties. This incident highlighted the fact that corruption and violations within the industry are not country specific; human rights violations against coffee plantation workers happen in all corners of the world and need to be addressed on a global scale.

Fair Trade Coffee

In response to the poor working conditions and mass poverty faced by workers in developing countries, the fair trade movement began in the 1940’s when visionary businesswoman Edna Ruth Byler started the non-profit organization Ten Thousand Villages. Both historically and presently, the organization provides economic opportunities in the North American market for artisans in developing countries with the goal of eradicating poverty.

By the 1980’s, the fair trade movement shifted attention towards agricultural products, the first two commodities being coffee and tea. Today, with the creation of Fairtrade International (FLO) and the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO), Fair Trade is now a global trade model and certification that allows for consumers to identify products such as coffee, tea, sugar, flowers, juices and more that were produced and traded in an ethical manner.

Fair Trade certified organizations offer better prices to producers for their products, as well as improved terms of trade between producers and buyers. When a product such as coffee bears the FLO or WFTO Fair Trade label, it means that the organization buying the product has met a set of standards involving their relationship with the producer in order to become certified as a Fair Trade organization. These standards span from not using forced or child labor, maintaining good working conditions and paying fair wages to plantation workers on the part of the producer to transparency, accountability, payment of fair prices for products and trading with concern for the well-being of the producers on the part of the organization buying the product. Like the origins of the fair trade movement, the ultimate goal of the Fair Trade model and certifications is to reduce poverty and better the livelihoods of plantation workers wordwide.

As a consumer, you can help realize these goals by choosing to buy coffee with a Fair Trade label from your local supermarkets or coffee shops.

Positive Results

A 2006 case-study analysis of seven small-scale Fair Trade coffee producers in Latin America concluded that Fair Trade has successfully enhanced the well-being of thousands of small-scale farmers in the region. One of the greatest benefits of Fair Trade reported was the increased economic benefits and stability it provided to coffee producers. These benefits can be seen in the case of Fair Trade coffee producer Majomut of Mexico.

Under the Fair Trade model, Majomut receives $1,700 for approximately 1500 lbs of Fair Trade coffee it produces compared to the paid street rate of $550, amounting to the receipt of more than double the price. Other benefits cited in the case-study analysis include increased social stability, greater access to technical training for workers, as well as improved access to education for workers and their families.

Focusing away from Latin America, the benefits of Fair Trade have been realized in all regions of the world.

FLO reports that in 2012, farmers and workers in India received an additional $3.3 million as Fairtrade Premium than what they would have received within the standard market for products such as rice, tea, cotton, spices, and coffee. This economic byproduct has made a difference not only in the lives of the workers in India, but has also allowed for them to invest in their communities allowing others to reap the benefits of Fair Trade. By increasing consumer support and demand for fairly traded coffee and additional products, the benefits and goals of the fair trade movement will continue to grow and be achieved at greater levels.

Going Forward

The Fair Trade model for coffee production has been supported and alternatively criticized by many.

The certifications have indeed reduced poverty and minimized human rights violations on many small plantations and cooperatives worldwide. However, seasonal workers such as the indigenous peoples of Guatemala most often have not experienced these benefits and continue to work in poor conditions for low wages. As fairly trade coffee accounts for only a small fraction of worldwide coffee sales, the lack of demand for the ethically grown product often results in coffee producers selling their products to other buyers for lower prices. As a byproduct, many coffee plantation workers’ wages continue to be minimal.

Changes indeed need to be made to the Fair Trade model to optimize and spread its benefits. However, the positive impacts of FLO, WFTO, and Fair Trade certified organizations and producers along with the awareness they have raised has made the model worth advocating for. You can find fairly traded coffee options at your local supermarkets and coffee shops, and if by chance they do not sell it, request for them to do so.

As consumers, choosing to support and buy coffee and other fairly traded products is a step towards a more just world. So the next time you order a cup of coffee, request for one milk, two sugars, and zero human rights violations to be included; the taste will indeed be sweeter.



Alex-Alecio-LiccioneAlex Liccione works in the field of higher education/civic engagement in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. She is also an active writer/advocate for women's rights with specific focuses on indigenous rights, as well as equal access to education for women and minority groups.

She has lived and worked on four continents throughout her life which has given her a global perspective that she incorporates throughout her work and everyday life.

Alex holds a master's degree in Sustainable Economic Development and Responsible Management from the United Nations Mandated University for Peace.

Follow Alex on Twitter: @Alex_Licci