Cinema Signal:

The Joy of Coffee:
The Essential Guide to Buying, Brewing, and Enjoying
by Corby Kummer

. "Black Gold"

No, the black gold of the title doesn't refer to oil. It's a reference either to the roasted coffee bean or to the color of the farmers' African skin -- farmers who don't share in the price escalations of their product on the consumer level. Either way, this exposure of the marketing system behind my favorite fix serves my wider understanding of what I'm paying for.

It's clear that not much of the cost of coffee is going to the people who are growing it -- the farmers of the world. This documentary focuses particularly on one of the areas hardest hit by price manipulation that pretty much leaves them out of the equation for fair payment for their product: Southern Ethiopia, in the Oromia district. Coffee growers there have formed the Oromia Coffee Farmers Co-Operative Union and one man represents the group to the commodity trade for the purpose of getting them a piece of the pie just large enough for self-preservation.

Tadessa Meskela is that representative and directors Marc and Nick Francis focus on him and his travels to village meetings and traders' offices, to trade shows, auctions, and to the decisive convention staged by the WTO (World Trade Organization) where prices are negotiated. But the negotiators are the large coffee corporations to whose benefit the prices are set and rigged against the growers of third world countries. They are locked out of these closed door sessions and their ignored interests is the source of frustration every year for Meskela and his peers.

You can be sure that the five largest conglomerates didn't want to be interviewed for a documentary that details farmer impoverishment despite the retail prices of their high quality beans. Small wonder that a few have destroyed their coffee crops in order to grow chat, a narcotic leaf that brings in a better rate of compensation than coffee bean. Those who do this do so reluctantly and only as a last resort--they have no love of the narcotic.

In fact, the priorities of these hard workers is indicated in their voting to spend any extra money they can squeeze out on a school for their children. Contrast that against the pure self interests of those who declined to speak for their corporate policies, the likes of Sara Lee, Nestle, Kraft and, oh, yes, Starbucks.

As the film indicates, seven million people in Ethiopia are dependent on foreign aid. Over the last 10 years, Africa's share of world trade has fallen to 1%.

Though Meskela is our primary guide through the world of growing, roasting and marketing coffee, the Francises also train their camera on drinkers of the beverage, factory workers, dock workers, shippers and others, making for a comprehensive exploration of the business. But the intention is to make the point for the impoverishment of 3rd world farmers and their families, which the Fancises do with well composed, artful cinematography and to the haunting accompaniment of a score by Andreas Kapsalis who also played acoustic guitar. His music contains a folk song and aboriginal quality while conveying the melancholy plight of the Ethiopian subjects.

Now, just what should be done to bring a larger share of the payment pie to the farmers is a little tricky. As consumers, we wouldn't appreciate paying a higher retail price if the middle men are going to use that as a multiplier of their profits. Some pressure must be applied to roasters, commodity traders and major distributors to act morally and less greedily.

As a home roaster -- that is, a buyer of green beans -- retail markups aren't as damaging to my budget as they might otherwise be. My supplier's latest price for a pound of organic Harar bean from the Oromio Co-op is $5.30. Since these beans don't go through the roaster middleman stage, maybe the farmers are receiving a better cut. That would let me sleep off the caffeine a little easier after seeing this film.

As for Meskela, his industriousness is impressive in working on behalf of his charges, promoting their product and bypassing the commodity exchanges whenever he can, dealing directly with retail buyers. Which is how he's managed to improve the economics for his Ethiopian co-ops representing 70,000 farmers who want nothing more than to reject international aid by living strictly off their labors. These poor people have a very respectable work ethic which should be encouraged with due compensation. Economic repression by competitive market forces is a systemic injustice in this corner of the marketplace.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

Andreas Kapsalis Trio - on CD

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The production line of sorters:
Picking out inferior beans.
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