From the Caffeine Fix to the Narcotic Fix

Grant YDecember 2nd, 2008
By: Grant Y

(Page 3 of 4)

In Ethiopia, a number of factors such as climate, soil, access to seeds, and poverty are barriers to changing or rotating crops. There aren't very many different crops a farmer can successfully grow outside a few key plant types, which tie most farmers to strictly growing coffee.

However, one alternative crop that has become common for Ethiopian farmers is a local narcotic plant known as khat (or chat), which is widely used in East Africa, but illegal in most of the Western world. Khat is fares better than coffee in terms of price, which means that during hard times, coffee farmers often turn to it as a means of supplementing their income. The farmers interviewed were aware of the narcotic's illicit status and addictive behavior, but all had the same rationale that they would do what was necessary to feed their families.

This pattern of turning to narcotic cash crops is not unique to Ethiopian coffee farmers. In Afghanistan, an increasing number of farmers have been growing poppies, the raw material for opium, despite a notable decrease in cultivation levels over the last several years. Although some theorists point towards a Taliban-orchestrated operation to increase drug production, an equally reasonable explanation is that in this war-torn nation, impoverished farmers are simply growing the crops that can be sold for enough money to support their families. Most likely, both theories are at least somewhat true.

The same theories may also hold true regarding the cocaine production in Columbia. The Colombian terrorist group known as FARC has a clear connection to cocaine production. However, the cultivation of the infamous coca plants is also a result of poor farmers attempting to make ends meet. And much like the coffee business, the real money is made by the middlemen, which are the members of the FARC.

Black Gold doesn't arrive with a clear message about the link between farming and drugs, but the links to make that connection are laid out for the viewer to connect.

The Starbucks Factor

In Seattle's famous Pike Place market, a young Starbucks manager and assistant are shown doing a coffee demonstration for guests. The manager talks openly about her admiration for Starbucks and CEO Howard Shultz, quoting the company mantra that the business is "about the connections we have with the people". The subtlety is not lost when the scene cuts to the Sidamo region of Ethiopa, an area where Starbucks imports many of it's beans, and also where children are starving.

The directors note that Starbucks, along with the four major coffee players - Kraft, Nestle, Proctor & Gamble and Sara Lee - were approached but declined to participate in the film. In some ways, the companies' reluctance to appear on camera indicates their awareness of ongoing PR issues within the coffee industry - though Starbucks claims that the request was never communicated through the proper channels.

Black Gold projects Starbucks into spotlight, probably because the fast-growing company is a readily identifiable brand that has become synonymous with coffee. However, it would be a mistake to vilify the Seattle-based company solely for the global coffee crisis, as Starbucks makes up only a tiny fraction - about 2% - of the multi-billion dollar coffee industry. In addition, Starbucks (as of this article), is the largest buyer of Fair Trade certified coffee and has dedicated division that handles the company's social responsibility and image.

To say that Starbucks is without fault however, would (and should) be left to a wholly different discussion. Critics of the company have long rallied that Starbucks attempts to white-wash its own image while making insidious behind the scenes deals. Even recentlly, Starbucks found itself mired in controversy over it's attempt to trademark Sidamo beans over the objections of farmers from the Sidamo region.

Since the airing of Black Gold, Starbucks flew Meskela out to Seattle to a PR filled weekend to announce that they were going to do more to support the African region. out to speak unfavorably against Black Gold.

A farmer explaining why he must grow khat to survive
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