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
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
~~ Jules Brenner