The Tea & Coffee Trade Journal / March 2002
By Larry Luxner
In early April, the anti-poverty organization Oxfam International will launch an ambitious trade campaign aimed, among other things, at changing the rules and practices of the global coffee business.
Liam Brody, coffee coordinator for Oxfam America, complains that "the largest companies in the world are benefitting at a time when producers are being driven further into poverty, and I don't think that has to be the case."
Brody told The Tea & Coffee Trade Journal his organization would present a 100-page report on Apr. 11 -- most likely at a National Press Club luncheon -- that examines the winners and losers in global trade. The business practices of key importers such as Sara Lee, Nestle, Kraft and Procter & Gamble will be a focus of the campaign, which is also being launched in Mexico City, London and 13 other world capitals.
In September, Oxfam will extend its high-level advocacy campaign "to educate consumers in developed countries about their purchasing choices, and will also seek to engage with coffee companies about what they can do to help alleviate global poverty."
The campaign has a number of components including consumer education; policy and advocacy work (looking to influence international financial institutions and governments of coffee-consuming countries) and development work to support and increase the capacity of producer cooperatives around the world.
Oxfam, a non-profit organization that operates in 130 countries, is coordinating its coffee campaign with a dozen like-minded groups including ActionAid USA, Consumer's Choice Council, Fair Trade Federation, Friends of the Earth, Global Exchange, Greenpeace, Northwest Shade Coffee Campaign, Rainforest Action Network, Rainforest Alliance and Witness for Peace.
"We're looking for alternatives to the current crisis," Brody said in a phone interview from Boston, where Oxfam's U.S. operations are based. "What we're saying is, in order to have a real solution, we need to have all the folks at the table. If the crisis continues, the specialty coffee producers will lose their market. If people can't continue to produce high-quality coffee and are driven off their land because of low prices, then nobody will benefit."
In a Feb. 5 letter to Robert Nelson, president and CEO of the New York-based National Coffee Association, Brody complained that about the "virtual absence of producers, producer organizations and civil society groups" at the NCA's recent "summit" in Miami called to address a global crisis sparked by the lowest coffee prices in 35 years.
"Groups such as SalvaNATURA (El Salvador), Frente Solidario (Costa Rica) and the Oromiya Coffee Farmers Cooperatives Union (Ethiopia) must be present if real solutions are to be created," wrote Brody. "Such stakeholders are profoundly committed to alleviating the negative impact that plummeting prices are having on the economic and environmental sustainability of coffee-growing communities. Given the magnitude and complexity of the crisis, lasting solutions require the active participation of all stakeholders. We therefore regret any attempt to develop 'solutions' to this problem without the full inclusion of those affected by it."
Despite Brody's complaints, endorsed by four Democrats in the House of Representatives -- Ohio's Sherrod Brown and California's Barbara Lee, Sam Farr and George Miller -- Nelson says the Feb. 5-6 "summit" encouraged the participation of everyone affected by the coffee crisis.
"The U.S. coffee industry is concerned about the current situation in the producing nations that has come about due to the oversupply of coffee," Nelson told us in a Feb. 20 phone interview. "One of the reasons we cosducted that summit in Miami -- where we invited producers from Asia, Africa and Latin America -- was to identify options and address how we could assure adequate quality and provide for mechanisms that would limit the socioeconomic impact on producers."
But Brody says that's not enough.
"The elite get to show up, and those caught up in the crisis are at home, because it doesn't mean much when they can't put food on the table," he said. "If meetings are held where their voice can't be heard, there needs to be a forum where they can."
Brody added: "We've tried to secure a meeting with the NCA, and they're not interested in talking to us. That leads me to believe that they're not interested in the producer's voices."
In order to pressure the big coffee companies, Brody said Oxfam would enlist the help of powerful institutions such as the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
One way to help producers and bring prices back up, Brody suggested, would be to remove the estimated 14 million to 17 million bags of poor-quality "triage" coffee from the market, which is generally used as filler, and compensate producers accordingly.
"For us, it's about pragmatic engagement," he said. "We're willing to work with companies to find solutions. Last year, we worked with Starbucks, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and Equal Exchange to help promote their products and increase the demand for fair-trade coffee."