History

Where is coffee come from?

Whatever the song suggests, coffee does not come just from Brazil – right round the world, along the equator and between the two tropics, there are coffee growing areas, and there are vast differences in what they turn out.

On the one hand, Hawaii has always imposed import limits on coffee and heavily promoted its exports, so local growers are content and well treated. On the other hand, Oxfam has recently caused a storm with its allegations that beans which leave South American farmers at 14 cents a kilo are on our local shelves at $26.40 a kilo.

Some people have been working on this for ages Ð Bill Fishbein of Santa Fe, new Mexico, was a coffee dealer who happened to visit growers in South America and realised the truth of the problem Ð 30,000 unemployed coffee workers in Nicaragua, one-third of Mexican growers attempting to secretly cross the border to America for work, and a situation succinctly summed up by a worker from Veracruz who told him: “We have gone from being just poor to being poor and miserable”.

He founded Coffee Kids, and most supermarkets in Oxford now stock the Percol brand which puts money into his projects to help the poorest farmers.

In radical moves of support, the Californian town of Berkeley recently forced a council vote on making it illegal to sell locally any coffee other than organic or fair-trade, with a possible jail penalty.

British coffee bars do not have any noticeable record of supporting starving coffee farmers, except for the Tinderbox chain, which donates every year.

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However, in one way, Britain can claim to be in the lead – because it was British buyer Steven Hurst, The Coffee Hunter, who recently paid the highest-ever price given to working South American farmers. Two growers from Nicaragua had expected 20 cents a pound for their beans, knowing that this would not be enough to cover the cost of growing them. To their astonishment, he paid $11.75 a pound.

“The tragedy of this business is that small farmers sometimes don’t know the quality of what they’re growing,” he said later. “These guys were in tears, because it was the equivalent of ten years’ income for them.”