Monday, March 24, 2008

‘World Fair Trade Day’ - coming to Gwangju

The man with glasses and a nice jacket stood outside under the clear blue sky. He spoke with the other men. They stood in a semi-circle around him, watching, paying close attention. He asked how much a cup of coffee costs. They all knew the answer to that question. Then he asked them how much a cup of coffee costs in western countries. They did not know that one. It was his job to travel around the world, and his work to know that answer.

The man told the farmers a cup of their coffee overseas costs not twice the price, not even ten times the price, but actually more than 24 times the price of that same coffee in their home towns. The farmers simply looked at him in astonishment. They were stunned into a sudden, sullen silence. They tried to understand where all that money went. Then, he told them that for each kilo of coffee which they worked so hard to grow, they were paid barely 100th of the price earned by a multinational company selling coffee to a customer overseas.

This is only one scene from the quietly powerful movie named ‘Black Gold.’ The movie follows the man with glasses, the sales representative for the Ethiopian coffee farmers, as he travels around the world trying to find a fair price for his farmers’ coffee beans. Other scenes in the movie also point to one larger truth: ‘fair trade’ works well enough in a world where ‘free trade’ often seems badly broken.

1.) Tadesse Meskela and the coffee farmers from Ethiopia.

The word ‘free’ seems appropriate only in that four multi-national coffee companies are free to pay a bare minimum price to poverty-stricken farmers, while still making a record profit. Those four companies are Kraft, Nestle, Proctor & Gamble and Sara Lee. Whatever the name of the brand on your cup or packet of coffee, one of these companies probably owned those coffee beans at some stage before they got to you. They probably will have taken a big slice of the profit, unless your coffee is clearly labelled ‘fair trade.’

Coffee farmers used to earn better prices on the world market commodity exchange. That was until 1989, when the United States of America pulled out of the International Coffee Agreement which regulated the supply of coffee in the world. Vietnam, which had never been a coffee producing nation before, suddenly gained investment and finance to develop itself into a cheap, low grade coffee producing nation. This greatly increased the international supply of coffee which in turn led to a huge drop in price – for coffee growers – and since then, the price paid to farmers has fallen to a 30-year low. Meanwhile, the four coffee multinationals share record profits totalling more than US$80 billion per year.

Why is more profit not passed back to the workers within the ‘free trade’ market system? The man with glasses described the typical travel plan of his farmers’ coffee:

"Once the coffee is bought here [from the farms], the coffee buyers or the coffee exporters are going to unload the coffee at the warehouse and process it and sell to their buyers abroad. And after that, the buyer is going to distribute this coffee to roasters. And the roasters are going to buy this coffee again, and then they roast the coffee and sell to retailers and cafes. Coffee reaches the consumer after six [links in the] chain."

The man with the glasses is Tadesse Meskela. He manages the Oromia Coffee Farmers Co-operative Union, representing over 74,000 coffee farmers in Ethopia. Tadesse described the way ‘fair trade’ coffee travels a different route to get to coffee drinkers:

"We are cutting the chain, like the coffee suppliers, collectors, and also middlemen in between and we are eliminating these and directly linking the farmer through their own co-operative … directly to the roaster. About 60% of the chain is removed by working through co-operatives."

Some larger and established companies which are not labelled as being fair trade deal directly with co-operatives like Tedesse’s, such as the high quality Italian coffee brand ‘Illy’. Other, smaller companies exist with the specific goal of returning more profit directly to farmers. These are ‘fair trade’ companies. They often charge a higher price to coffee drinkers. This is called a ‘premium.’ Due to the ‘economies of scale’ small fair trade companies cannot afford to compete in price with larger companies. Larger companies buy and sell much larger amounts of coffee, and so can afford to charge a lower price.

Competition is played out instead in terms of quality, and the assurance that a ‘fair’ amount of the price is indeed returned to the original producers of the coffee in developing economy countries. This assurance is supported by various organisations which have recently established easily identified logos or symbols. At least one of these logos you are able to find on a packet of coffee you can buy in Gwangju. Other varieties of ‘fair trade’ coffee can also be bought in other places in Gwangju.

"For a product to display the FAIRTRADE Mark it must meet international Fairtrade standards which are set by the international certification body."
Read more here.

2.) This officially labelled fair trade coffee is available in Gwangju.
Find out where you can buy this and other brands on Saturday 10th, 2008, at GIC - The Gwangju International Center.

Some people are still cynical about the the ‘fair trade’ label. In a world where ‘seeing is believing’, few people get the chance to even care about where something as common as coffee is grown, and by whom, and in what living conditions those farmers live. Not many people get to actually travel to the place to see for themselves what impact trade is having on lives there. A student from New Zealand was among a group who did just that. Late last year Michelle, from Wellington, travelled to Ethopia and actually met Tadesse Meskala and some of the farmers from his co-operative.

On Saturday, 10th May, at GIC, from 2.30pm there will be a presentation of a brief report by Michelle on her trip to Ethopia. This will be part of the GIC Saturday afternoon talk series with a special focus on fair trade. Saturday 10th May is actually World Fair Trade Day for 2008. The day is being celebrated around the world as more and more people in western countries support the fair trade movement.

At the GIC Saturday afternoon talk that day there will also be a report on a survey of larger chain cafes and fair trade coffee in Gwangju and South Korea, a talk about the history of the development of fair trade, a screening of the movie Black Gold at 3.45 p.m., samples of fair trade coffee, tea and chocolate to try, and at around 4pm the draw of the raffle for the fantastic fair trade prize pack worth w150,000.

You can buy raffle tickets at GIC for only w1,000, and learn more about fair trade, and the fair trade raffle prize pack on this website,

and find more information on World Fair Trade Day at:

Find out more about Black Gold, the movie, at:

3.) The fair trade raffle prize pack
to be drawn at GIC on World Fair Trade Day, May 10th.

Tickets available at GIC from now until then.


Edited version appeared in Gwangju News - Volume 8, Issue 4 - April, 2008

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