The coffee industry has a long history of colonialism and the exploitation of human beings. However, some people might be surprised that nowadays coffee is still heavily linked to slavery, child labour and other forms of exploitation. Coffee is one of the most tradable commodities in the world and is often produced in poor countries. Today, it’s being produced in 80 tropical countries and employs 125 million workers in Latin America, Africa and Asia. The main coffee producers are Brazil, Vietnam and Colombia. Because of the huge scale of coffee production and the long supply chains, it’s virtually impossible for big companies to know where their coffee comes from, let alone under what conditions it was produced. This lack of transparency makes it especially difficult for consumers to make ethical choices, as there is little information on which to base your decision. In this blog we discuss the problems in the coffee industry.
Slavery is not unusual in the coffee industry. In many coffee-producing areas, the elite owns large plantations. Many workers are enslaved there through debt and are forced to continue working to repay these debts. They often receive less than minimum wage and are forced to buy their food and other products at the estate shop, as the long hours of work and lack of transportation doesn’t allow them to shop elsewhere. As the prices at estate shops are often high, this way they become indebted to the plantation. Also the costs of renting land or loans for medical care can indebt families, forcing them to continue working on the plantation for decades.
Big coffee companies such as Douwe Egberts and Nestlé, who sell 40 percent of all coffee, admit that they don’t know exactly where their coffee comes from. They also admitted that it’s possible that their coffee is produced on plantations that use slave labour. According to the Danish research organisation DanWatch, slavery on coffee plantations is very common, especially in Brazil. The Brazilian government saves hundreds of enslaved workers every year, but it’s unclear how many people are still enslaved. Research from DanWatch showed that workers were tied up and exposed to dangerous pesticides without protection. On some plantations workers were forced to live between rubbish and were only allowed to drink water from the same buckets as animals. Some reports also state that at some coffee estates, workers are supervised by armed guards and threatened and physically abused when trying to leave.
While most information about slavery in the coffee industry comes from Brazil, this is still very significant, as Brazil is the largest producer and exporter of coffee, producing 30% of all coffee and employing 8 million people in the coffee industry. While the Brazilian government frequently saves enslaved workers, they are still unable to say on what scale slavery occurs in this industry. However, slavery is definitely not limited to Brazil alone. For example, according to the United States Department of Labor, forced labour is also common in Ivory Coast.
Some coffee companies such as Starbucks and Illy say they know at which plantations their coffee is produced and that they avoid plantations that are known to use slaves. However, as there are so many plantations, this still does not guarantee that no slaves are used for their coffee. In addition, Nestlé has stated that no company can guarantee that their coffee is 100% slave free, because of the long supply chain and lack of transparency and inspections.
Child labour is also common in areas where coffee is being cultivated, even though most coffee-producing countries have regulations against child labour. Poverty often means that children are unable to go to school or are taken out of school in order to work. This helps to keep families in a cycle of poverty. In Brazil, researchers found that child labour rates were 37 percent higher in areas where coffee was produced. School enrolment was 3 percent less in these areas. 40 percent of coffee harvesters in Honduras are children and they are often hired as temporary workers for a wage that is even lower than that for adult workers. The conditions in which children work are also far from safe, being exposed to dangerous levels of sun, poisoning from chemicals and injuries and often being forced to work for eight to ten hours a day.
Research in Ivory Coast has shown that child labour is also very common there, often related to cocoa production. Cocoa and coffee are often grown on the same farms there, with coffee growing in the shade of the cacao trees. On some of these farms, children are kept as slaves and forced to both harvest cocao and coffee beans. Research by Finnwatch in Honduras showed that child labour was widespread on coffee plantations there, with the youngest child workers being only 5 to 6 years old. In addition, the United States Department of Labor states that child labour is also used in the coffee industry in Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Guinea, Kenya and Mexico.
Other human rights violations
Even when coffee is produced without slaves or child labour, that doesn’t mean it’s produced fairly and under normal conditions. Extremely low wages, high recruitment fees, discrimination and unsafe working conditions are the standard. According to DanWatch and Finnwatch, not only are slaves and child labour often used in the coffee industry in Brazil, but bad living conditions, discrimination against women, working without a contract and working with dangerous chemicals without protection are also common, even at certified farms. In addition, research by Finnwatch in India showed that most workers had to pay up to a third of their already meagre wage to person who had recruited them, which also contributes to causing debt bondage.
A study in Guatamala showed that most coffee workers did not get paid for overtime nor did they get employee benefits, even though these are required by law. More than half of the workers got paid less than minimum wage. Other problems were unsanitary living environments, discrimination against women, no access to education and companies did not adhere to the required health and safety regulations.
The low wages in the coffee industry are especially appalling as CEOs of coffee companies often earn ridiculously high amounts. An average worker in the coffee industry is lucky to earn a few hundred dollars per year if he or she gets paid at all, while the CEO of Starbucks earns 30 million dollar per year and the CEO of Douwe Egberts earns 7 million per year. With the wages of CEOs being so high, the problem is not that coffee companies can’t afford to pay their workers fair wages, but that they don’t want to. This is particularly unfortunate as a small increase in salary could already help prevent most slavery and child labour. And while it’s nothing compared to the suffering in the coffee growing countries, let’s not forget that many coffee companies such as Starbucks are also known for exploiting their workers who work in coffee shops.
Under natural circumstances, coffee plants grow in the shade of bigger trees in tropical and subtropical forests. At coffee plantations, coffee can either be grown in the shade of other trees or in the sun in monocultures. While most coffee is grown in these sunny monocultures, this is actually much worse for the environment. Therefore, if you buy coffee, it’s better to go for shade-grown coffee. Shade-grown coffee prevents soil erosion, maintains more biodiversity in both plant and animal species, reduces water consumption and causes less run-off of harmful chemicals into nearby eco-systems. In addition, farmers on shade-grown coffee plantations often have a more stable income. Coffee prices can change fast and often, leaving farmers vulnerable, but at shade-grown coffee plantations, farmers can grow other plants to supplement their coffee income. Unfortunately, sun-grown coffee monocultures are more profitable as more coffee can be cultivated on the same area of land, which means an increasing number of shade-grown plantations is being converted to these monocultures.
However, another problem with sun-grown coffee production is that it depletes the soil, which means that productivity decreases after a while. Often after about 15 years these plantations are so depleted of nutrients that they are often abandoned and a new area is cleared to make space for coffee plants. This is not only disastrous as nature is destroyed to make space for coffee production, but the abandoned area is now even more vulnerable to soil erosion and other ecological problems and can no longer be used for agriculture. According to an report from the WWF, coffee production is a major contributor to deforestation, especially for sun-grown monocultures. In Central America alone, 2.5 million acres of forest have been cut down to make extra space for coffee production in recent years and 37 of the 50 countries that have the highest deforestation rates are major coffee producers.
An additional problem with the monocultures and the use of a limited number of coffee species is that many coffee species are slowly becoming extinct. While there are more than 125 species of coffee, the overwhelming majority of coffee production consists of only two species. Researchers believe this may become a considerable problem in the future, threatening the livelihoods of coffee growers. The use of limited coffee species means that it’s much more difficult for farmers to adapt to climate change, fight off pests and diseases and to deal with increasing droughts. With coffee plants being particularly sensitive to changes in climate, this is likely to become a problem. Some researchers believe that about 65 to 100 percent of the area currently being used for growing Arabica coffee will no longer be suitable for growing this most popular coffee species by 2080.
Another problem with coffee is that it requires a lot of chemical fertilizer (at sun-grown coffee plantations) and pesticides. Coffee is even the third most heavily sprayed crop in the world. Besides the fact that this is likely not very healthy, it also causes a lot of pollution and the run-off of chemicals can cause environmental disasters in a wide area around the plantation.
During the processing of coffee, the environment is also harmed. Most coffee is processed using the ‘wet’ processing procedure, especially for Arabica coffee beans. This requires an enormous amount of water and generates a lot of polluted waste water. This is a major source of river pollution in coffee producing countries, causing eutrophication. In addition to polluting waste water, coffee processing also causes a lot of other waste. The beans have to be separated from the coffee cherries, which generates huge amounts of pulp, residual matter and parchment. During 6 months in 1988, the processing of coffee in Central America created 1.1 million tons of pulp and polluted 110,000 cubic metres of water every single day. With coffee production also taking place in other countries and having increased greatly since 1988, the amount of waste and pollution caused by this industry has likely only become worse. While nowadays this waste is sometimes used to make biogas or animal feed, most of it is still being dumped in nearby waterways.
Research in Brazil showed that 1000 kg of coffee required 11,400 kg of water, 94 kg of diesel, 900 kg of fertilizers, 620 kg of correctives (like limestone to correct soil acidity) and 10 kg of pesticides. While there are also other products that require a lot of resources and cause a lot of pollution, it’s important to remember that coffee is a luxury product, with the overwhelming majority of coffee being sold in only 17 percent of the world’s countries and a product that we can easily live without.
Coffee production is not only bad for the environment, it’s also bad for many animals. As mentioned in above, coffee production is a significant contributor to deforestation, which causes many animals to die and leads to a decrease in biodiversity. The focus on sun-grown coffee cultivation also doesn’t help to keep up biodiversity. In addition, the pollution caused by coffee production also harms a lot of animals.
However, with specific types of coffee, animals are used in a more direct way. For example, kopi luwak is an Indonesian coffee. It’s made by feeding coffee beans to an Asian palm civet, a jungle animal, and then making coffee of the excreted beans. Apparently the coffee gains in flavour when it’s being digested by the civet, but of course keeping civets in captivity for this purpose is not exactly animal friendly. Similarly, in Thailand elephants are fed coffee beans in order to make Black Ivory Coffee. It’s been reported that even some elephant sanctuaries use their elephants to make this type of coffee as they claim it doesn’t harm the animals. However, it remains a type of animal exploitation.
As coffee production is causing so much suffering and destruction, you may be wondering if there are any coffee brands that produce their coffee in a more ethical way. Here we will discuss the fair trade, Rainforest Alliance and organic certifications and whether they make a difference.
The idea behind Fairtrade is to give farmers a fairer price for their products so they can have a more dignified life and about 30 percent of all coffee is Fairtrade. According to Fairtrade, their procedures help farmers towards more development projects, healthcare services and quality improvement training, and it should protect them against market fluctuations. However, as the price of coffee has decreased over the last few decades, reports have shown that the extra money farmers get from Fairtrade certification is often not enough. Farmers often have to work together in cooperatives in order to get the Fairtrade certification in the first place, but they often struggle to pay off their debt to these cooperatives, especially with rising production costs and decreasing wages. Therefore, Fairtrade does not guarantee that a farmer can actually live off his wage. In addition, as with cocoa, Fairtrade coffee is actually a mix of fair trade and ‘normal’ coffee. While Fairtrade can be seen as a step in the right directions, researchers believe that it is not the solution to overcoming the cycle of indebtedness of farmers in the coffee industry.
Rainforest Alliance certification
The Rainforest Alliance certification is not concerned with the human conditions during the coffee production, but with its environmental impact. There is no fixed price for the growers. The organisations aims to improve the land use practices and conserve biodiversity. To get certified, growers need to adhere certain principles, such as no deforestation, developing shade-grown coffee and partial re-forestation. However, just as with Fairtrade, this can be a bit misleading, as companies can use the certification on their products, even when their coffee only consists of 30 percent of certified Rainforest Alliance coffee beans. In addition, many have criticized the Rainforest Alliance for having really low environmental standards and not being very strict, making the certification almost meaningless.
To become organic-certified, coffee needs to be produced without using synthetic pesticides or chemical fertilizer. However, as mentioned in the blog about organic food, that isn’t necessarily better for the environment. In addition, the yields from organic cultivation are much lower, meaning more land is needed to produce the same amount of coffee. It is also usually not more profitable for farmers. While they get more money for organic coffee, they also need as their harvest is now considerably less and to invest in the necessary natural pesticides.
Clearly of Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance and organic-certified coffee isn’t much better than non-certified coffee and many problems remain. So what is a more ethical choice? Some people decide to buy coffee from small roasting companies who buy coffee directly from the farmers that grow their coffee beans. However, a report by Finnwatch showed that while many consumers believe this type coffee to be more ethical, it is often based on trust and unverified assumptions and is regularly not produced under better circumstances. Buying more expensive brands is also no guarantee for better circumstances. In addition, some researchers worry that if the coffee price goes up in the future, that will be an environmental disaster, giving people in coffee producing countries more incentive to destroy even more nature to create more coffee plantations. Therefore, the best thing to do would be to stop buying and consuming coffee. As it is a luxury product, we can easily live without. Is your daily cup of coffee really worth all the human and animal suffering and the environmental damage it does?
Would you like to limit your coffee intake or even stop drinking it entirely? Please join our coffee challenge and refrain from drinking coffee in April.
Food Empowerment Project
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