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What’s behind your cup of coffee?

The writer and photographer Sebastio Salgado has brought out a new book, a photo-book which presents itself as a journey in the world of coffee.  Spanning countries within Latin America, Africa and Asia, the book, “The Scent of a Dream: Travels in the World of Coffee is dedicated to the time, effort, sacrifice and perseverance of the men, women and children whose hands have cared for the grains in every cup of coffee.”

Coffee is the world’s second most tradable commodity after oil, and that is evidenced by the sheer number of coffee shops popping up and down British High Streets.  From chains like Starbucks, Costa, Caffe Nero to independent coffee houses marketing their coffees brewed with care, these coffee houses are realising the kind of profits the coffee farmers cannot even begin to dream of. Farmers receive 10 percent from the retail price.  In order to satisfy global demand, competition among growers has led to price reductions but also undercutting.  Unfortunately, those suffering more from this stiff competition are the men, women and children Sebastio Salgado dedicates his book to.

A study published in the Journal of Development Economics found that in Brazil, child labour rate was approximately 37% higher with school enrollment at 3% in coffee-producing regions.  In Honduras and Kenya, during the harvesting season, 40% of the workers are children and they are paid a wage of $12 a month.

There is of course the Fairtrade model, which, according to Harriet Lamb from the Fairtrade Foundation, does what it says on the tin: better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world.  And farmers who are members of their local fair-trade alliance are not saying otherwise.  Even if some like Moses Rene from St Lucia complain that “400 (£91) per year to be registered is a little too much, especially when your production is low and you have high costs.”  But he continues to say, “we are more empowered here.”

And empowerment is the by-word, although there are critics like Philip Booth from the Institute of Economic Affairs who have reservations about the Fairtrade movement.  For him, “farmers can get better prices through speciality brands, traditional trade channels and other labelling initiatives.”  Furthermore, he argues that there is “no clear evidence that farmers receive higher prices under Fairtrade.”

For the Fairtrade Foundation, obtaining higher prices is not the goal.  Rather, Fairtrade “has become a price setter” and farmers outside of the Fairtrade group, rather than be penalised, can “negotiate higher prices” as it has been observed in Bolivia.

Perhaps a sustainable model that benefits farmers needs to be found.  In the meantime, some coffee drinkers are turning towards the fairly traded coffees.  The Fairtrade Foundation has estimated that 6.4 million cups of Fairtrade coffee are consumed everyday in the U.K.  However, seeing that 70 million cups get drunk in the world everyday, more still needs to be done.

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