The (complicated) History of Coffee

Understanding the challenges that coffee farmers across the world face is both a necessity and an impossibility. It is a necessity because of how widespread coffee consumption is in the US (with over 83% of the country’s adults drinking the beverage), and an impossibility for the same reason (1). The coffee industry is a massive one, necessarily interconnected with other global industries, to create a product digested worldwide and sold on nearly every corner. Thus, the issues that farmers face are multi-faceted: A small, family-run coffee farm that deals in direct trade is going to be different than a massive corporate farm, naturally, and the issues that they face are going to be different. Without de-legitimizing the problems of either, it is necessary to deal sometimes in broad strokes and sometimes with extreme precision to gain a clear picture of the problems that people involved in the coffee industry face the world over.

Farmers picking coffee beans outside of Bogota, Colombia (2)
Farmers picking coffee beans outside of Bogota, Colombia (2) 

Like any social or political problem, the issues of the coffee industry can be traced through history: the intermingling of cultural norms, imperialism and colonialism, and the development of a capitalistic world market can all be seen through the magic bean. While there are many paths that coffee has taken throughout the world, its roots lie within Ethiopia, where it was used as a medicinal herb in years prior. Carried across Africa by Sufi pilgrims and merchants, coffee became a delicacy of the Ottoman Turkish throne — from there, it interacted with the West (3). Its effects on sociability, wakefulness, and general attitude made it a delicacy; Voltaire was said to have drank nearly 40 cups a day.

Europe’s climate was unsuited for the growth of coffee, though, so its development and growth was left to tropical colonies, wherein coffee became a massively exported crop. Starting in the French-conquered islands of Martinique and Sant-Dominique, the French used brutal slave labor to produce an ever-increasing amount of beans. Wanting to keep pace, the other European powers matched France both in scale and brutality. Moving through 19th century, the plantations remained privately owned, but massively consumed by the general public; sheer demand defied any ability for a single government to regulate.

Thus, the coffee industry continued relatively without legal impediment; there is very little data, if any, on the production, regulation, or fairness of coffee produced throughout the 19th century. 

Coffee monopolists, the massive plantation owners throughout Central and South America, fixed prices, murdered dissenting workers, and formed agreements between one-another to help standardize the market (4).

This absolute lack of any basic regulation or concern for persons that stains the history of Western coffee consumption can be felt today — while the call for ‘fair trade’ or ‘direct trade’ coffee has been sounded by conscious consumers, a great many companies employ a great deal of children and slaves; even fair-trade coffee farms still face habitual unemployment and exploitation.

An overseer watches slaves on a Brazilian plantation - Hulton Archive/Getty Images (5)

However, this post is not meant to implicate everyone who drinks coffee into a worldwide system of slavery and exploitation, but to call to attention and action the various problems of coffee as it stands.

Just because the coffee industry is this way does not mean it must be this way. 

Introducing some of the problems of coffee, problems that linger to this day, should be rallying cry to support those farmers who are enslaved, who are systematically impoverished, who are sexually and racially exploited. The Haitian Revolution, in its glory, freed the island from the bondage to the coffee bean. So, too, can we imagine a coffee bean free from the strangling vine of tyranny.








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