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Posts tagged ‘South America’

African Rice

I’ve recently finished lecturing an undergraduate course on African history up until 1914. It’s one of my favourite areas to teach, partly because students – even South African ones – tend to have very little knowledge about the continent’s past.

In fact, it’s often quite difficult to persuade them that there is a pre-colonial African history to study and teach. Now, most people would be horrified by the racism which underpinned Hugh Trevor-Roper’s 1963 assertion that

Perhaps in the future there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none, or very little: there is only the history of Europe in Africa. The rest is largely darkness.

But there’s still a relatively widespread belief that not only were African societies not subject to change over time – that their ways of life remained static over the course of several centuries – but that only anthropologists have the requisite skills to study Africans and their past.

This is all nonsense, of course. Since the early 1960s, an extraordinarily rich and varied body of work on African history has been produced by scholars working all over the world. More recently, and particularly as global history has emerged as a popular field, historians have begun to examine the links between the continent and other parts of the world.

Far from being isolated until the arrival of Portuguese traders in the fifteenth century, Africans have long had contact with foreigners. For instance, the trade in gold and salt across the Sahara from around the second and third centuries onwards, connected African kingdoms in the Sahel with the Islamic world.

Too often accounts of, particularly European, contact with Africa describe this trade as benefitting only one side of the exchange: that a plundering of Africa’s natural resources in exchange for beads, alcohol, or muskets deliberately bamboozled Africans into giving up incredibly precious ivory or gold for objects of considerably lesser value.

This was not entirely the case. One of the best ways to understand the complex history of exchange between Africans and traders and other visitors from Europe and Asia is – naturally, dear readers – through food.

Since the second and third centuries AD, the east coast of Africa was part of an international trading network which extended around the Indian Ocean. As Africans came into contact with Arab traders, goods, languages, ideas, and people arrived and left this long coastline over the course of nearly a millennium. During this period, African crops – including millet, sorghum, okra, and watermelon – were taken to the Middle East, India, and beyond. In return, coconut palms, sugarcane, and bananas were introduced to the continent.

Coffee from Ethiopia probably reached Yemen – via the port of Mocha – during the sixth century. Here, Yemenis roasted, rather than fermented, coffee beans, and the drink spread slowly around the Middle East, Turkey, and North Africa. When Europeans discovered that it could be made more palatable with the addition of milk and sugar, it became popular in Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Coffee plantations established in Dutch and French colonies in southeast Asia and the Caribbean during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries helped to fuel the growth of these European economies.

Sometime between the eighth and twelfth centuries, Oryza sativa, or Asian rice, was introduced to east Africa from India. Muslim traders were probably responsible for the earliest cultivation of rice in Kenya, and migrants from Malaysia and Indonesia brought rice to Madagascar.

All this occurred long before 1492, the year of Christopher Columbus’s crossing of the Atlantic to the Americas, and the beginning of the Columbian exchange. Although there was a significant circulation of crops around the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean worlds, the Columbian Exchange holds a particular significance in histories of food and medicine: it describes the introduction of livestock, European and Asian crops – predominantly wheat – and diseases like syphilis and smallpox to the Americas, and the gradual cultivation of New World staples – maize, potatoes, tomatoes, squash, beans – in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Judith A. Carney writes:

Within decades of the arrival of Columbus in the Americas, the New World domesticate, maize, was being planted in West Africa. Other Amerindian staples soon followed, such as manioc, sweet potatoes, capsicum peppers, tomatoes, peanuts, cashew nuts, pineapple, pumpkins, squash, and tobacco. The early establishment of maize as a food staple in West and Central Africa illuminates the radical transformation of African agricultural systems wrought by the Columbian exchange.

By the time that the transatlantic slave trade reached its height during the eighteenth century, maize cultivation was widespread throughout west Africa, and was a staple for slaves shipped across to the Americas.

Slaves took with them not only their own languages, cultural practises, and social structures – but also their knowledge of agricultural production. African rice, Oryza glaberrima, had been grown in west Africa since long before the arrival of Asian rice on the east coast of the continent. Carney explains:

Muslim scholars reaching the western Sudan from North Africa in the eleventh century found an already well developed system of rice cultivation in the inland delta of the Niger Delta and a robust regional trade in surpluses. The domestication of glaberrima rice in West Africa was thus established centuries before Asian sativa arrived in East Africa.

It was slaves taken from these regions who used their expertise in rice production in the Americas, and particularly successfully in South Carolina. The cultivation of rice had begun there in the 1690s, and by the eighteenth century, was the source of significant revenue for the colony. There is compelling evidence to suggest that African slaves used the same irrigation and planting systems that they had in west Africa, in South Carolina. Far from being only the labour which worked the plantations in the Americas, they were also responsible for establishing a successful system of rice cultivation.

Labourers on a rice plantation, South Carolina, 1895 (http://www.niu.edu/~rfeurer/labor/chronological.html)

African slaves also pioneered the cultivation of a range of other crops, including black-eyed peas, okra, yams, and watermelons. Perhaps the best example of the circulation of crops around the Atlantic world was the peanut: introduced to west Africa from South America by the 1560s, it was taken to North America by African slaves during the eighteenth century.

What all of this demonstrates is not only that Africa and Africans have participated in global trading networks for centuries, but that they shaped food production in the Americas.

One of the many narratives peddled by foreign coverage of Africa is that the continent’s salvation – whatever we may mean by that – lies in outside intervention: in Nicholas Kristof’s ‘bridge characters’ (foreign aid workers, volunteers), or in elaborate packages created by the IMF or other international organisations.

This narrative is predicated on the wholly incorrect belief that Africans have, historically, been acted upon – have had change thrust upon them – rather than being actors themselves. As an understanding of the transfer of agricultural knowledge and produce across the Atlantic from the seventeenth century onwards demonstrates, this could not have been further from the truth.

Sources

Judith A. Carney, ‘African Rice in the Columbian Exchange,’ Journal of African History, vol. 42, no. 3 (2001), pp. 377-396.

Judith A. Carney, ‘From Hands to Tutors: African Expertise in the South Carolina Rice Economy,’ Agricultural History, vol. 67, no. 3 (Summer 1993), pp. 1-30.

Judith A. Carney, ‘The Role of African Rice and Slaves in the History of Rice Cultivation in the Americas,’ Human Ecology, vol. 26, no. 4 (Dec. 1998), pp. 525-545.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Bananas

This term a colleague and I are teaching a course on the 1960s to our third-year students (who are uniformly lovely – henceforth I shall only teach third-year students, Head of Department-willing). I’ve spent the past two lectures on the counter-cuisine, a movement located mainly in California from around 1966 onwards. Aside from the loonier fringes represented by the Diggers and some members of the back-to-the-land movement, the most durable remnant of the food counterculture was the co-operative movement. Over five thousand buying clubs and co-operative groceries were established between 1969 and 1979. Warren Belasco explains:

Although many consumers flocked to these hip stores just for the cheaper, healthier food, co-op organisers frequently had a more ambitious agenda: using socialised food distribution as a starting point, they hoped to establish a decentralised, democratic, alternative economic network that would sustain an oppositional culture and eventually subvert the wider society.

One woman, who was a member of the West Concord Food and Friendship Co-Op remembers:

Every week we picked up our orders of whole grains, nuts, oils, dried fruits, seeds, tofu, yogurt, cheese, and peanut butter, bringing our own re-used quart and gallon jars and plastic containers. When it was our turn to place and break down the order we collated all the previous week’s orders, placed the order with NEFCO, the New England Federation of Cooperatives, and then divided up the bulk goods into boxes for each member. The food was first rate: gallon jars of organic yogurt with the cream on top, vats of tofu in pound blocks bought directly from Boston’s Chinatown, and 10-pound blocks of sharp cheddar cheese from the Cabot dairy cooperative in Vermont – for we purchased from producer cooperatives whenever possible.

One of the things which struck me as I wrote these lectures was how similar the present food revolution – whatever that may be – is to the counter-cuisine: as the Diggers distributed free food at Golden Gate Park in 1966, using food discarded by supermarkets, so organisations like This is Rubbish raise awareness about food waste by ‘skipping’ – collecting fresh produce past its sell-by date and then serving it in free feasts. The amazing People’s Supermarket provides an alternative to supermarkets by being run along co-operative lines.

As the co-operatives of the 1960s went out of their way to support local producers – as Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse (founded in 1971) bases its menus on what local organic farmers are harvesting – so now eating ‘locally’ is seen as one of the best ways of eating responsibly and sustainably. ‘Locavorism’ offers an alternative to a globalised, industrialised food system which stocks supermarkets with strawberries – flown halfway across the world – in the middle of winter.

But our food supply has been globalised since at least the beginning of the twentieth century. Already in the 1870s, improvements in transportation meant that Canadian and American wheat fed Europe during one of the worst harvest failures of that century. But the excitement many felt during the twentieth century at the prospect of relatively cheap pineapples and papaya grown abroad and flown and shipped to Western supermarkets, has been replaced by a deep concern about the environmental cost of unseasonal eating, and the power of Big Food.

There is another reason to think twice about food shipped in from abroad: its political cost.

I’ve just finished reading Nicholas Shaxon’s eye-poppingly good Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World (2011). He argues that tax havens – which the International Monetary Fund estimates to hold more than a third of the world’s GDP on their balance sheets – have fundamentally undermined the world’s economic system. Not only has the legitimate, on-shore financial system become progressively deregulated to compete with offshore – helping to cause the 2008 crash – but tax avoidance keeps poor nations reliant on aid. He explains:

Offshore business is, at heart, about artificially manipulating paper trails of money across borders. To get an idea of how artificial it can be, consider the banana.

Each bunch takes two routes into your fruit bowl. The first route involves a Honduran worker employed by a multinational who picks the bananas, which are packaged and shipped to Britain. The multinational sells the fruit to a big supermarket chain, which sells it to you.

So far, so obvious. But then it becomes more interesting:

The second route – the accountants’ paper trail – is more round-about. When a Honduran banana is sold in Britain, where are the final profits generated, from a tax point of view? In Honduras? In the British supermarket? In the multinational’s US head office? How much do management expertise, the brand name, or insurance contribute to profits and costs? Nobody can say for sure. So the accountant can, more or less, make it up. They might, for example, advise the banana company to run its purchasing network from the Cayman Islands and run its financial services out of Luxembourg. The multinational might locate the company brand in Ireland; its shipping arm in the Isle of Man; ‘management expertise’ in Jersey and its insurance subsidy in Bermuda.

Say the Luxembourg financing subsidiary now lends money to the Honduras subsidiary and charges interest at $20 million per year. The Honduran subsidiary deducts this sum from its local profits, cutting or wiping them out (and its tax bill). The Luxembourg’s subsidiary’s $20 million in extra income, however, is only taxed at Luxembourg’s ultra-low tax haven rate. With a wave of an accountant’s wand, a hefty tax bill has disappeared, and capital has shifted offshore.

What are the implications of this? Most importantly, our banana multinational has managed to avoid paying the Honduran government – or indeed any government – any tax.

About two-thirds of global cross-border world trade happens inside multinational corporations. Developing countries lose an estimated $160 billion each year just to corporate trade mispricing of this kind. That much spent on health-care, Christian Aid reckons, could save the lives of 1,000 under-five children per day.

In 2006, the world’s three biggest banana companies, Del Monte, Dole, and Chiquita, paid only $235,000 tax between them – despite combined profits of nearly $750 million.

I’m sure that Shaxon chose deliberately to use Honduras as an example. Until 1970, Chiquita was known as the United Fruit Company. Fans of One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez might have inkling about the United Fruit Company’s murky past:

The gringos…built a separate town across the railroad tracks with streets lined with palm trees…. The section was surrounded by a metal fence topped with a band of electrified chicken wire which during the cool summer mornings would be black with roasted swallows. No one knew yet what they were after, or whether they were actually nothing but philanthropists, and they had already caused a colossal disturbance…. Endowed with means that had been reserved for Divine Providence in former times, they changed the pattern of the rains, accelerated the cycle of the harvests, and moved the river from where it had always been and put it with its white stones and icy currents on the other side of the town, behind the cemetery.

The coming of the Americans – all of them employees of an unnamed banana company – is the cause of the ‘events that would deal Macondo its fatal blow’, chief of which is a massacre of striking workers. The employees of the banana company decide to down tools because of low pay and their appalling working conditions – something justified by the ‘mournful lawyers’ of the banana company on the grounds that

the banana company did not have, never had had, and never would have any workers in its service because they were all hired on a temporary and occasional basis. …it was established and set down in solemn decrees that the workers did not exist.

Caught in this ‘hermeneutical delirium’, the striking workers are at the mercy of the banana company and the army, sent to quell their action. The strike ends with a massacre in the town square, when soldiers turn their automatic weapons on an unarmed crowd.

This is a description of a real event, the massacre de las bananerasthe banana massacre – in Ciénaga, Colombia, on 6 December 1928. Garcia Marquez’s ‘banana company’ was the United Fruit Company, which hired labour only through local agents to avoid having to comply with Colombia’s labour laws. When Colombian workers demanded better conditions and formalised contracts, their strike became the biggest in Colombian history, and came to an end when the Colombian army opened fire on peaceful protestors in Ciénaga.

The term ‘banana republic’ was coined by O. Henry in his anthology Cabbages and Kings (1904) in his account of his brief stay in Honduras – on the run from an embezzling charge – to describe a country run for the profit of a small elite of politicians and businessmen. The business in question was the United Fruit Company – and the term could be used to describe most of the Latin American countries in which United Fruit operated.

Founded in 1909, United Fruit emerged as the largest North American banana importer during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Its success was due partly to its strategy of manipulating governments into allowing it to pursue its interests, mainly by excluding all other opposition. It created monopolies by paying local producers higher prices than its competitors – and then dropped these prices to well below acceptable levels once the rivals had left the market, often impoverishing its suppliers.

When United Fruit began cultivating its own plantations during the 1930s, it did so across Latin America. If one of its divisions succumbed to Panama disease (Fusarium cubens), the company simply abandoned it – and those workers – and destroyed all the infrastructure which would have allowed other companies to begin farming there again once the plants were rid of the fungus.

To top this, the company was not averse to manipulating governments through bribery and intimidation, and sponsoring the odd coup d’état. United Fruit lobbied hard for the CIA-backed coup in Guatemala in 1954, when the left-leaning Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán – who had expropriated land claimed by the company – was replaced by the rightwinger Carlos Castillo Armas.

As Pablo Neruda wrote in his poem ‘La United Fruit Co.’ (1950):

When the trumpet sounded
everything was prepared on earth,
and Jehovah gave the world
to Coca-Cola Inc., Anaconda,
Ford Motors, and other corporations.
The United Fruit Company
reserved for itself the most juicy
piece, the central coast of my world,
the delicate waist of America.

It rebaptised these countries
Banana Republics,
and over the sleeping dead,
over the unquiet heroes
who won greatness,
liberty, and banners,
it established an opera buffa:
it abolished free will,
gave out imperial crowns,
encouraged envy, attracted
the dictatorship of flies:

It seems that Chiquita still engages in questionable practises, other than doing its best not to pay tax. An investigation into Chiquita’s business dealings in Latin America during the late nineties alleged that the company bribed officials, used dangerous pesticides, employed its workers in appalling conditions, and illegally maintained a monopoly on banana production.

In 2003, Chiquita admitted to paying $1.7 million to the paramilitary group the United Self Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), which has been listed as a terrorist organisation by the US State Department. The company also allegedly provided AK-47s to the group. Chiquita said that the payments were to protect its workers, but the Colombian authorities reject this, arguing that they were meant to allow Chiquita to continue producing bananas and to discourage labour unrest. It’s difficult to believe Chiquita’s claims as it becomes clear that nearly all of the victims of the AUC were Colombian workers.

So what are earnest locavores to do? They could stop buying bananas altogether, along with other imported produce. I have mixed feelings about this. I really like being able to support farmers in Kenya. We know that the distance that food travels between producer and plate is not necessarily linked to its impact on the environment: a ready meal made in a local factory may have a bigger carbon footprint than string beans grown in Tanzania. Another alternative would be to buy certified, Fair Trade products.

But, even so, Fair Trade can have only a limited impact. The problem with Fair Trade is that it asks consumers – those at the end of the food chain – to make the choices which will change a whole food system. This, particularly during a recession, is absolutely impossible. For real change to happen, we need a fundamental reform of both political and economic systems:

Fair trade alone cannot address the core problem of excessively concentrated markets in which a handful of overpowerful transnational corporations dictate terms of trade and suck profits up into their own coffers.

What is needed for really fair trade is a more equitable distribution of the money in the chain. That will only be achieved with a shift in power which requires political action.

Which is why, oddly, getting Chiquita to pay its taxes is the first step in creating a better and fairer food system.

Further Reading

Sources cited here:

Warren Belasco, Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

Warren Belasco, Review of Storefront Revolution: Food Co-ops and the Counterculture by Craig Cox, The Journal of American History, vol. 82, no. 2 (Sep., 1995), pp. 853-854.

Marcelo Bucheli, ‘Enforcing Business Contracts in South America: The United Fruit Company and Colombian Banana Planters in the Twentieth Century,’ The Business History Review, vol. 78, no. 2 (Summer, 2004), pp. 181-212.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude, trans. Gregory Rabassa (London: Penguin, [1967] 1973).

Mark Moberg, ‘Crown Colony as Banana Republic: The United Fruit Company in British Honduras, 1900-1920,’ Journal of Latin American Studies, vol. 28, no. 2 (May, 1996), pp. 357-381.

Nicholas Shaxon, Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World, revised ed. (London: Vintage, 2012).

Other sources:

Anthony Ashbolt, ‘From Haight-Ashbury to Soulful Socialism: Culture and Politics in the Movement,’ AJAS, vol. 1, no. 3 (July 1982), pp. 28-38.

Warren Belasco, Appetite for Change: How the Counterculture Took on the Food Industry, 1966-1988, revised ed. (London: Cornell University Press, 2007).

Andrew Kirk, ‘Appropriating Technology: The Whole Earth Catalog and Counterculture Environmental Politics,’ Environmental History, vol. 6, no. 3 (Jul., 2001), pp. 374-394.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

A world in your coffee cup

My friend Elizabeth and I have breakfast together every Friday morning. For the past month or so, we’ve managed to eat at a different cafe each week – our only criteria being that they’re in central Cape Town and open early. This week we went to The Power and the Glory, a restaurant and club now irredeemably associated with the city’s burgeoning population of hipsters. But it serves an excellent breakfast. (More evidence that hipsters can serve breakfast well.) And it is – inadvertently – immensely entertaining. As I sat at a window, waiting for Elizabeth to arrive, a hipster customer arrived to buy a take-away coffee.

The scene was almost a parody of hipster-ness: hipster customer was wearing a high-waisted print skirt, brogues, and an elaborate tattoo; hipster waitress behind the serving counter was in a red vintage frock with a tousled pixie hairdo. Both were very pale, and very skinny. (I think we need a term to describe the extreme thinness of hipsters.) Hipster customer removed her hipster shades and asked for a cappuccino.

An awkward silence fell.

Hipster cafes don’t sell cappuccinos. They sell flat whites. Asking for a flat white is as much an indicator of hipster membership as a subscription to The Gentlewoman.

This left hipster waitress in a difficult position. Should she forgo her hipster principles for a moment, ignore the faux pas and order her customer a flat white? Or should she correct her? Was the hipster customer an influential hipster, and not worth insulting? Or was this the time to establish which of the pair was the real hipster?

The barrista, a beefy non-hipster who’d been watching this with some amusement, stepped in. ‘I think you mean a flat white,’ he said.

‘I do!’ said hipster customer.

And all was resolved.

Even if this hilarious moment of hipster awkwardness was so much of its time and place – it was at once typically Capetonian and typical of a particular sub-culture – the fact that it happened over a coffee, gives it almost a timeless quality.

Coffee is unusual in that it has managed to remain fashionable since its arrival in Europe at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Flat whites are only the most recent manifestation of cool coffee. They seem to have originated in Auckland in the late 80s, and differ from cappuccinos or lattes – the more familiar, Italianate forms of hot coffee-and-milk – in that the milk is heated until it’s thick and warm, rather than only frothy.

Flat whites arrived in London four or five years ago, with the opening of a series of small coffee shops in the cooler parts of east and central London by Kiwi expats. Chains like Costa and Starbucks have since added flat whites to their menus, but – as hipsters know – a flat white is defined as much as the cafe and person who makes it, as it is by its ratio of coffee to milk.

And that is the issue. Coffee is coffee, but we’ve come to associate particular meanings with the ways in which we prepare it: between someone who buys their coffee from Origin or Truth in Cape Town and another who only drinks instant, chicory-flavoured Ricoffy with UHT milk. (Which is, incidentally, my idea of culinary hell.) Both are forms of coffee, but they are socially and culturally miles apart. Studying shifting patterns in coffee fashion is fascinating in itself, but they become more interesting when we think of them within the complex networks of trade and finance which allow us to buy coffee at restaurants and in supermarkets.

The coffee craze in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries contributed to a boom in the coffee trade. Coffee had been available since early 1600s, having been imported to Europe from Turkey via Venice. Mixed with milk and sugar, it became popular with the new European middle classes. It was associated with exotic sophistication – and also became a marker of intellectual adventurousness. It’s difficult to underestimate the extent to which drinking coffee and the culture and politics of the Enlightenment were entangled, as Anne EC McCants writes:

The expression ‘to break bread together’ now has an archaic feel to it. A proximate contemporary substitute, albeit devoid of the powerful religious significance of bread, is to ‘go out for a cup of coffee’, which is at least as much about conversation as it is about nourishment per se. Historians associate this total reorientation of the culture of food and drink with the substitution of coffeehouses for taverns; the wider dissemination of public news; trading on the stock exchange; new table etiquette and table wares; new arrangements of domestic and public space; the ability to sustain new industrial work schedules despite their tedium….

One of the best depictions of the appeal of the new, middle-class coffee culture is JS Bach’s Coffee Cantata (1732-1735), in which a ‘disobedient’ and ‘obstinate’ young woman’s addiction to coffee so annoys her father that he threatens not to allow her to marry, unless she gives up coffee. In the end she agrees, but – without her father knowing – resolves to include her clause in her marriage contract which stipulates that she must have a steady supply of coffee.

The first coffee house opened in Britain in 1650, and within a decade there were around 3,000 of them in London. These were places where men could meet to talk in relative freedom. In 1675, Charles II tried to close them in fear that coffee house patrons were plotting to overthrow him. (Given his father’s sticky end, a paranoia about the middle classes was always inevitable.) Monarchical and official suspicion of coffee houses never really ended, though. These were places where the free exchange of information allowed for the dissemination of the Enlightenment ideas that transformed the eighteenth-century world.

But trade was also changing this world. When the Dutch managed to get hold of coffee plants from Arab traders in 1690, they established plantations in Java, where they already cultivated a range of spices. The French began to grow coffee in the West Indies at the beginning of the eighteenth century, and over the course of the next hundred years or so, coffee was planted in West Africa and parts of Latin America.

The plantation system – in many ways the origins of modern capitalism – was dependent on slave labour. Europe’s taste for coffee was satisfied by slavery. But even after the abolition of slavery in the early and middle of the nineteenth century, European demand for coffee shaped the economies of countries very far away.

The domestication of coffee consumption in the nineteenth century – when women began to drink coffee, and more of it was served at home – caused demand to spike. Improvements in transport meant that coffee could be shipped over longer distances far quicker and in greater quantities than ever before. During the 1820s and 1830s, coffee cultivation became a way of linking the economies of newly-independent nations in Latin America, to global trade. Coffee production in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and El Salvador increased exponentially, and governments introduced measures to facilitate the industry: new transport infrastructure, tax breaks for landowners, low or no export duties, and legislation to lower the cost of labour.

Plentiful land and cheap labour were secured by progressively disenfranchising Indian populations, whose right to own property and to work where they pleased was eroded by pro-plantation legislation. Uprisings against governments and landowners were stamped out – usually with the help of the military. The argument for increased coffee production just seemed so compelling. By the end of the nineteenth century, ninety per cent of the world’s coffee came from South America.

Brazil was the largest single Latin American supplier of coffee, and from 1906 onwards was the controller of the international coffee trade. The Brazilian government bought up beans, stockpiled them, and then released them into the market, thereby regulating the coffee price. European and North American countries encouraged African countries to begin cultivating coffee on a grander scale too.

African producers tended to grow Robusta coffee varieties, which are generally hardier, but less tasty, than the Arabica coffee produced in Latin America. This meant that when demand for instant coffee grew in the 1950s, coffee production in postcolonial African states, whose governments subsidised coffee farmers and facilitated the free movement of labour, flourished. The entry of African coffee growers into the world market meant that the price began to plummet – and the Kennedy administration in the US realised that this was an ideal opportunity for some Cold War quiet diplomacy.

The 1962 International Coffee Agreement was meant to stabilise Latin American economies and to immunise them against potential Soviet-backed revolutions by introducing production quotas for every major coffee producing nation. Even if the ICA did include African producers, it favoured the US and Brazil, effectively giving them veto rights on any policy decisions.

The collapse of the Agreement in the late eighties – partly as a result of the increased production of non-signatories, like Vietnam – caused a major decline in the price of coffee. For consumers and cafe owners, this was distinctly good thing: good coffee was cheaper than ever before. Coffee shops in the US, in particular, fuelled a demand for good, ‘real’, coffee.

But for Rwanda, the collapse of the international coffee price and the end of regulation had disastrous implications. In 1986 and 1987, Rwanda’s annual coffee sales more than halved. The government was bankrupted and increasingly dependent aid from international institutions including the World Bank, which demanded the privatisation of state enterprises, cuts in government spending, and trade liberalisation. (Hmmm – sound familiar?) The government could no longer fund social services and schools and hospitals closed. This exacerbated existing political tensions, and created a large unemployed population, many of whom became volunteers for the paramilitary groups which carried out the genocide in 1994.

It’s supremely ironic that Rwanda has turned – again – to coffee to pull itself out of the disaster of the nineties. This time, though, coffee is being produced in ways which are meant to be more sustainable – both ecologically and economically. There, though, problems with this. Isaac A. Kamola writes:

However, widely lauded ‘fair-trade’ coffee is not without its own contradictions. First, fair-trade coffee is an equally volatile market, with much of the additional price paid to growers dependent upon goodwill consumption. Such consumption patterns are highly vulnerable to economic fluctuations, changes in cultural and ethical patterns, education campaigns, and individual commitment. Furthermore, fair-trade coffee also faces an oversupply problem, with more fair-trade coffee being produced than there are consumers of it.

In Mexico, for instance, the current instability in the global food prices – caused partly by food speculation – is placing incredible pressure on small farmers who cultivate coffee: the fluctuating coffee price has shrunk their incomes at a time when maize has never been so expensive. And even prosperity brings problems. Kenyan coffee is of particularly good quality, and the increase in the coffee price has benefitted local farmers. It has also brought an increase in crime, as gangs steal coffee berries and smuggle them out of the country.

Demand abroad fuels coffee production in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere. No other commodity demonstrates the connectedness of global patterns of consumption and production than coffee. As Kamola makes the point, we need to make this system fairer, but the fair-trade model still ensures that African farmers are dependent on demand abroad:

This does not mean that fair trade should be discouraged. It should be underscored, however, that reforms in First World consumption patterns are not alone sufficient to ensure the protection of people from the violent whims of neoliberal markets.

As much as coffee is associated with sophistication in the West – as much as it helped to facilitate the Enlightenment – it has also been the cause of incredible deprivation and suffering elsewhere. Invented in New Zealand, popularised in the UK, and made from Rwandan beans certified by the Fairtrade Foundation based in London, a flat white in Cape Town tells a global story.

Further Reading

Sources cited here:

Anne E.C. McCants, ‘Poor consumers as global consumers: the diffusion of tea and coffee drinking in the eighteenth century,’ Economic History Review, vol. 61, no. 1 (2008), pp. 172-200.

Isaac A. Kamola, ‘Coffee and Genocide,’ Transition, no. 99 (2008), pp. 54-72.

Dale Pendell, ‘Goatherds, Smugglers, and Revolutionaries: A History of Coffee,’ Whole Earth, (June 2002), pp.7-9.

Craig S. Revels, ‘Coffee in Nicaragua: Introduction and Expansion in the Nineteenth Century,’ Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers, vol. 26 (2000), pp. 17-28.

Other sources:

Joyce Appleby, The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism (New York: WW Norton, [2010] 2011).

Merid W. Aregay, ‘The Early History of Ethiopia’s Coffee Trade and the Rise of Shawa,’ The Journal of African History, vol. 29, no. 1, Special Issue in Honour of Roland Oliver (1988), pp. 19-25.

Roy Love, ‘Coffee Crunch,’ Review of African Political Economy, vol. 26, no. 82, North Africa in Africa (Dec.,1999), pp. 503-508.

Sidney W. Mintz, Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).

Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin, 1985).

Stefano Ponte, ‘Behind the Coffee Crisis,’ Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 36, no. 46/47 (Nov. 24-30, 2001), pp. 4410-4417.

Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants, trans. David Jacobson (New York: Random House, 1992).

James Walvin, Fruits of Empire: Exotic Produce and British Taste, 1660-1800 (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1997).

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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