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The Dark Side of Coffee:

Choices for a Better Planet

People drink coffee more than any other beverage on the entire planet. It has
become part of our modern social consciousness. We wake up and have a coffee,
we make plans to meet friends for coffee, we use it to keep focused on projects
and to stay energized. Only water is consumed in greater quantities than coffee.
It’s a powerhouse that outsells tea, pop, juice and every other form of drink and
its price is determined by the stock market – by our demand to consume ever-
greater amounts. Whether or not you drink coffee yourself, you can’t help but
notice the coffee culture in cities and towns across the country.

Coffee is such a force in the world that it’s traded as a commodity much like gold
or oil, and it’s second only to oil as the most-traded natural resource. Fortunes “We are not
are made and lost over the price of coffee. Free trade agreements between
countries have accelerated the movement of raw materials to the finished product
beggars. If you
by reducing barriers such as tariffs and subsidies. But free trade also marked the pay us a
end of the International Coffee Agreement (ICA) in 1989. This agreement ensured reasonable price for
that prices were kept in check by controlling the amount of coffee available
(supply) in relation to how much was consumed (demand). The ICA allowed our coffee, we can
Carlos Gomez and his coffee-farming family some stability, and the ability to plan then move forward
for his future by ensuring that the coffee beans he grew wouldn’t be worthless.
without your help.”
While free trade has enabled the industry to grow, the lives of farming families
like Carlos’ have become increasing brutal. Labour conditions are dangerous, Isaías Martínez Morales,
workers are made to work long days for little or no pay, sickness is rampant, and co-founder of the UCIRI
health care and education are scarce or non-existent. Only 3% of the price of Co-op in Central America
produced coffee gets to small scale family farms like his. Only a small portion of
that makes it to the workers. This is an industry fraught with greed at the expense
of justice. This is an industry whose origins are steeped in cruelty and

The year is 1992. A social-justice minded Jeff Moore from Nova Scotia, disguised
as a photojournalist, sneaks into a conference of political leaders and is moved by
a speech from Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the President of Haiti. Aristide just wants
things to be fair for the people of his country. He wants opportunities for hope
and health for the workers and their families – they shouldn’t have to beg.
The following year, while visiting his sister in Ethiopia (the birthplace of coffee), Jeff met coffee growers first hand.
He was fascinated! Later, in 1994, at a conference in Havana, Cuba, the message about poverty alleviation was
once again made very clear: secure fair prices and conditions for the workers of Central and South America. Just
after Christmas of 1995, Jeff and his friend Sean flew to Mexico. This was at a time when coffee was run by a kind
of drug cartel. The middlemen were fierce and armed with guns. They were known as “coyotes”. In response,
small-scale farmers began to organize into co-ops to gain more bargaining power. Jeff and Sean arranged a
coffee purchase from one of the growers’ co-ops. The thing is, you couldn’t just buy a few pounds of beans. They
had to buy a 17-tonne container of them!

Back in Nova Scotia, they pooled the expertise and financial contributions of a few friends. Jeff and his wife Debra
mortgaged their house. Six people in total worked together to form Just Us! - a coffee roasting co-op, and
Canada’s first ever fair trade coffee operation. This North-South partnership
(Northern producing countries paired with Southern resource suppliers) comprises
a fair trade network. Fair Trade Networks operate within overarching international
free trade systems and have remarkable promise for social change. Just Us!
currently works with ten small producer co-ops representing 100,000 farming
families and sells 400,000 pounds of fair trade coffee every year. This is no small
contribution! The co-op supports better working conditions, better coffee prices
and wages, and enables community building. They promote development
education and trade justice awareness. Now it’s your turn.

Questions for discussion:

1. Farmers get paid a premium for fair trade certified coffee - a percentage above the regular market price.
50% of this coffee is also organic, which gets another premium above market value. In your group, discuss
ways that these premiums could be used to improve the lives and communities of these farmers. How
would you invest the money? If you have time, check online to see if your guesses were correct.

2. Companies like Nestle, one the biggest coffee giants in the world, have admitted they don’t know where
they get their supply from, and that there could be slave labour involved. What can you do personally to
decrease the demand for products from abusive companies while showing support for fair trade? Even a
little bit helps.

3. Out of 25 million coffee grower suppliers, only about 750,000 are certified fair trade growers. This
represents 3% of the total supply. What happens if more people want fair trade coffee and other fair trade
products? What are ways you could raise awareness about the benefits of fair trade at your school and in
your community?

SOURCES: JUDES/Just Us! Coffee Roasters Co-Op, Oxfam International, Dr. Gavin Fridell, SMU

Information about Nestle can be found at the links below:

Just Us! Development and Education Society (JUDES)

JustUs! Coffee Roasters Co-Op

Fair Trade Canada

Oxfam Canada

Gavin Fridell, PhD. Canada Research Chair, IDS. St. Mary’s University, Halifax, NS

Other relevant titles at:

“25 Years of Fair Trade: From Coffee till Now” (at Fair Trade International)