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|Written by Brendan Blom|
|Saturday, 01 March 2008 19:00|
During one of our Monday night sessions at Quinn's, a friend was complaining about being unable to wake up in the mornings without hitting the snooze button on her alarm clock at least once. The only way she'd be able to wake up instantly, she said, would be if her clock was hooked up to a coffee machine that would serve her a cup as soon as her eyes opened. (Another help, she said, would be if the coffee was served by a man wearing nothing but an apron -- but that's an eye-opener of a kind we don't need to discuss here.)
Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world after oil. While oil is the fuel that drives the mechanical processes of our economy, coffee propels the intellectual activity of the people in it. We are constantly consuming it: brewing pots when we get up in the morning, buying large cups of it throughout the day -- from an independent corner cafe, or a multinational chain, or a machine at our work -- to keep us focused and alert; and then we drink more of it at home, in the evening, if we have additional work or studying or socializing to do. The only time we're not drinking coffee is when we're drinking alcohol to unwind. And then what do we drink when we're hung over? More coffee!
Canadians drink about 40 million cups of coffee every day, or about 2.6 cups for every coffee drinker. 63 percent of adult Canadians drink coffee on a daily basis. Worldwide, more than 2 billion cups are consumed each day.
Coffee has a long history of providing workers in the western world with mental stimulation and alertness. It has an equally long association with social conflict and upheaval.
17th-century England was the first place to experience a coffee craze. London filled up with thousands of coffee shops where, for virtually the first time, the working class and the moneyed class congregated and conversed in the same physical space. This led to increased transmission of ideas and innovation -- the very first insurance company, for example, Lloyd's of London, was founded in Edward Lloyd's Coffee House in 1688. The social intermingling and turbulence engendered by these coffee shops made some people very uneasy; King Charles II for one, who in 1675 suppressed coffee houses in London on the grounds that they produced "divers[e], false, malitious, and scandalous reports," which were "spread abroad to the Defamation of His Majesty's Government." Coffee was also attacked (on less political and more, er, physiological grounds) in a satirical pamphlet, the Women's Petition Against Coffee. The authors, identified only as "Several Thousands of Buxome Good-Women, Languishing in Extremity of Want," protested against that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE, which Riffling Nature of her Choicest Treasures, and Drying up the Radical Moisture, has so Eunucht our Husbands, and Cripple[d] our more kind Gallants, that they are become as Impotent as Age, and as unfruitful as those Desarts whence that unhappy Berry is said to be brought.
For the continual flipping of this pitiful drink is enough to bewitch Men of two and twenty, and tie up the Codpiece-points without a Charm. It renders them that us[e] it as Lean as Famine, as Rivvel'd as Envy, or an old meagre Hagg over-ridden by an Incubus. They come from it with nothing moist but their snotty Noses, nothing stiffe but their Joints, nor standing but their Ears: They pretend 'twill keep them Waking, but we find by scurvy Experience, they sleep quietly enough after it....[N]or can all the Art we use revive them from this Lethargy, so unfit they are for Action, that like young Train-band-men when called upon Duty, their Ammunition is wanting; peradventure they Present, but cannot give Fire, or at least do but flash in the Pan, instead of doing executions.
There is no record of whether or not this petition had any success; but it is interesting to note that coffee was gradually supplanted by tea as the hot beverage of choice in England.
In Germany, as well, the importers and distributors of coffee had to struggle to gain acceptance of their product. In 1732, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote his Coffee Cantata in response to the turbulent debates about the morality of drinking coffee that was stirring up Leipzig society. (Sample line of dialogue from Bach's cantata: "If I can't drink my bowl of coffee three times daily, then in my torment I will shrivel up like a piece of roast goat.")
A few decades later, in 1777, Frederick the Great of Prussia issued a proclamation stating, "It is disgusting to notice the increase in the quantity of coffee used by my subjects, and the amount of money that goes out of the country as a consequence. Everybody is using coffee; this must be prevented." What was Frederick's proposed alternative? It was typically German: "His Majesty was brought up on beer, and so were both his ancestors and officers. Many battles have been fought and won by soldiers nourished on beer, and the King does not believe that coffee-drinking soldiers can be relied upon to endure hardships in case of another war."
These episodes, though, in England, Germany and elsewhere, were merely the brief growing pains of an exotic and wildly popular new product appearing on the market. A far more profound protest movement was to begin in the Netherlands, during the 19th century.
In 1859, a novel entitled Max Havelaar: Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company was published in the Netherlands. Written under the pseudonym Multatuli (Latin for "I have suffered much"), it was the work of Eduard Douwes Dekker, an official in the Dutch colonial administration in the Dutch East Indies - what is now Indonesia. Max Havelaar tells the story of an administrator in the East Indies who struggles against his corrupt superiors and the economic policies the Dutch government maintained in order to keep the local population poor, uneducated and politically unorganized.
The Dutch, under a regime known as the "Cultivation System," forced the natives to grow cash crops -- such as tea and coffee -- for export, rather than rice or vegetables. Additionally, the corruption of the tax collectors was notorious. The administration also, in order to better maintain order, forbade the native population from migrating to different parts of the country, with the result that, whenever there was a famine - a regular occurrence - thousands died. When Dekker's book was published, it exposed these practices and demonstrated their link to the many luxuries enjoyed by Europeans at that time. (Its impact has been compared to that of Uncle Tom's Cabin.) Awareness of the injustices grew and, already stumbling economically, the Cultivation System collapsed under the pressure of public criticism.
After another few decades of trying to determine what course to take with its once-lucrative but now ailing colony, the Dutch government implemented a new "Ethical Policy" in the East Indies. This policy was an altruistic program that was designed to help pay back the "debt of honour" the Dutch owed the natives, and it called for three new streams of liberal policies to be implemented: in irrigation, transmigration and education. The Ethical Policy was announced by Queen Wilhelmina in 1901, but apart from this announcement, no explicit, detailed explanation was ever made of all the different mechanisms the Policy was supposed to include.
The lack of organization in the development and implementation of these policies meant that its effects were underwhelming. The economy of the Dutch East Indies grew only haltingly, and the plight of the natives improved only slightly over the next few decades. Ultimately, though, the educational reforms did end up having a significant influence. While in 1900 only about 1,500 natives attended westernized schools, by 1928 that number had reached 75,000. A new class of educated, empowered locals was created. Along with this development came a strong nationalistic spirit that, in 1945, exploded into full-fledged revolution -- first against the Japanese occupiers during World War II, then against the returning Dutch colonial forces. The Dutch military, straining to reach so far across the globe, and still recovering from German occupation during World War II, was obliged to withdraw in 1949. Indonesia became a free country (though not a democratic one).
Indonesia's revolution served as an example for the dozens of other countries across Asia and Africa who fought for independence from their European colonizers throughout the 1950s and '60s. For this reason, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the Indonesian novelist and political dissident, in a 1998 article in New York magazine, referred to Max Havelaar as "the book that killed colonialism."
130 years after the publication of Max Havelaar and the beginning of the Indonesian liberation struggle, the name Max Havelaar was again at the centre of a social movement. In 1989, the Max Havelaar Foundation – based in the Netherlands and named after the famous novel -- implemented the first ever fair trade certification program for coffee. Since then, numerous organizations and companies have signed onto the fair trade ideals, or variants thereof.
The fair trade movement in the coffee industry first gained prominence in 1989 when, following the failure of the International Coffee Agreement, the price of coffee began to fluctuate wildly -- from a high of over $2 per pound to only 42 cents per pound. The price paid by western consumers in cafes and grocery stores remained relatively stable; it was the farmers in South and Central America, Africa, and Asia who bore the brunt of the turmoil and uncertainty. The middlemen in the industry, particularly the four corporate giants who buy more than 50% of the world's coffee – Sara Lee, Procter & Gamble, Nestlé and Kraft - continued to make excessive profits.
Eventually, non-governmental organizations stepped in to try to help coffee farmers obtain a fair price for their product. NGOs such as Oxfam, CARE and the Fairtrade Foundation have negotiated deals with small collectives of farmers to set prices at a rate that will provide the farmers and their communities with a sustainable lifestyle; they also find importers and distributors in Europe and North America. (In Ottawa, the prominent ones are Bridgehead coffee shops and Ten Thousand Villages stores.)
There are many resources online for those who want to find out more about the issues. The BBC and CBC have both reported extensively on coffee controversies and fair trade practices; for anyone seriously interested in finding out the true stakes involved, the powerful coffee-industry documentary Black Gold is a must-see; and following the release of Black Gold, the Times Literary Supplement and the Guardian published excellent reviews supplemented with extensive background material.
In 1949, an editorial in the New York Times stated, "Over second and third cups flow matters of high finance, high state, common gossip and low comedy. [Coffee] is a social binder, a warmer of tongues, a soberer of minds, a stimulant of wit, a foiler of sleep if you want it so. From roadside mugs to the classic demi-tasse, it is the perfect democrat."
Perfect democrat it may be, but, 15 years earlier, a Brazilian farmer remarked, "Coffee is our national misfortune."
Marc Francis, one of the directors, with his brother Nick, of Black Gold, has said, "[A]t the end of the day, every cup of coffee we drink relies on exploitation."
Now there's a thought to keep you awake at night.
February 25 to March 9, 2008 is Fairtrade Fortnight.