Thanks to the invasion of Starbucks, the worldwide thirst for coffee is higher than it’s ever been, despite the fact that their coffee sucks and is totally overpriced. Coffee consumption and cafe culture has been around Europe for centuries, around North America for decades, and is now spreading into Asia. It’s an enormous industry, over 2 billion cups of the stuff consumed PER DAY worldwide, yet the division of these billions of dollars is completely screwed, with huge wealth being created at the sale and immense poverty forced on those at the origin.
I’m not an expert on economics or world history or agriculture, but what I’ve seen with my own eyes makes me question why these growers, who control this powerful commodity, are so poor? And when you start to really examine the politics behind it, and just how artificial the whole thing seems, I have to wonder why poverty exists at all and how is it all connected.
I know, heavy stuff, but that’s the way we roll in the MB house! We travel, we try to see things and form opinions about them from direct experience. We take tours with people who are passionate and informative about their life’s work, and try to make the world a classroom for us and for our kids.
We were in Boquete, Panama, the mountainous interior part of the country, home to some of the world’s most valuable and prestigious coffee – the Geisha. When grown at the right elevation, a few growers get such high rankings for this coffee that it is only sold at auction to the highest bidder. We’d signed up for a tour at the Finca Dos Jefes coffee plantation, an organic coffee farm owned and run by an American expat named Richard Lipner and were amazed at what we saw and heard – eye opening, heart breaking injustices – hard not to think about every morning when you sit down, open your computer, and take a sip of a cappuccino.
Some basics: coffee is an ancient drink with almost magical properties. It’s made from little cherries that only grow between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, in 70 countries. There’s an organization that was set up in the last century to protect the prices, probably helping to stabilize some countries by putting a floor on what other, more desperate countries can charge. That was when there was a possibility of a coffee abundance. Now, if anything, there’s a shortage. And yet, despite the high demand, the farmers are barely able to stay afloat.
The cherries are grown, picked when ripe, usually by hand, then they are either dried outside on mesh beds, or a load of water is wasted and contaminated to remove the sticky “mucilage” around the bean. There’s a fermentation process and a roasting process – which can be an art form itself, and a variety of ways to brew it (in my opinion, the moka is the best).
If you want to learn all about how coffee is grown and roasted, you can take a tour with Rich in Boquete. But I don’t want to dwell on the details of coffee itself. I want to dwell on poverty – because coffee and poverty, at least in Panama, seem to go together.
Around Boquete, cherry pickers make about 5-7 USD a day when it’s cherry picking season. This is the lowest of lowly work, and almost entirely delegated to the indigenous people who were displaced in the early 1900′s when the French came to build the canal. Eventually, after having their land taken and getting pushed up almost into Costa Rica, they were then given a batch of wild land as an Indian reservation where they currently live. They have no infrastructure, and thus, no way to get an education (unless you walk 10-20 miles to school in the rain) and lift themselves out of poverty. Between the poor Panamanian (which by North American standards is quite poor already), and this lower caste of Indian who picks coffee cherries, you go so far down the ladder of “wealth” that there’s about zero chance of any of these people making it on to the ladder, let along climbing up it.
Here’s an example of living quarters for a family of 10.
Note the absence of windows and no ventilation.
Cooking on a concrete slab and dealing with the smoke. These people actually aren’t the worse off.
Here’s a make-shift home where about 30 people live. When it rains (which is often) their home is continually destroyed.
Like I said, I’m no expert and I don’t claim to know why the world is the way it is, but I do have to try to string some basics together, to understand what I’m seeing, and to respond to my kids who ask innocently why these people can’t build a bigger house; why they can’t get better jobs; why they can’t just leave.
As I travel more, and especially as I travel with my kids, I find that the more I learn about the world and our interconnectedness, the more I can’t untangle it all.
I don’t know if capitalism can work without cheap labor, or whether an alternative to capitalism could be an improvement. I don’t know why rich countries can’t coordinate with impoverished ones more fairly, nor am I naive enough to think that simply paying people more will truly solve their problems – it can help, at times, but money, after all, isn’t the same as wealth. The problem is political, economical, and the power play between them.
What I do know is that it’s 3:45 pm and I’ve just had an espresso, a fair-trade coffee from Nicaragua. I know that, like it or not, I’m connected to those farmers, even as I leave to go get my youngest daughter from school.