‘Black Gold’

Buy the latte and line the pockets of the rich who exploit the poor


Some two decades of involvement in the music industry has done little to dull my amazement at how the person who creates the actual product for sale — the musician — is the lowest person on the food chain. Musicians get paid last and least, their cut far less than that of the retailer or the distributor handling their CDs, never mind the label.

And if you think that downloads are an improvement, think again. Less than half of the 99 cents of an iTunes MP3 makes it back to the label, and you can be sure the artist will only be getting about 15 cents from that. Why not cut out the middlemen, you ask? Sorry, iTunes won’t let you. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

All this has served to raise my awareness of how true this is in nearly every industry: People who actually make something are exploited mercilessly by the people who do the distribution, marketing and branding. These middlemen tend to be more consolidated, and the producers more disparate, which only exacerbates the problem.

Nowhere is this more true than with coffee. Try this statistic on for size: If you buy a tall latte for ¥419 at your favorite coffee chain, how much of that do you think goes back to the farmers who grew the coffee beans? ¥100 maybe? Or ¥50? ¥25? Try a measly ¥1.7, not even half of 1 percent of the cup’s price.

Black Gold
Director Marc and Nick Francis
Run Time 78 minutes
Language English

This ridiculously unfair situation is the topic of “Black Gold” (Japan title: “Oishii Kohii no Shinjitsu”), a documentary that explores the global coffee trade. Moving from Ethiopian coffee fields to New York City trading floors, the film tracks the production of a cup of coffee, from beans to brew.

Co-directors Marc and Nick Francis clearly have an agenda, but there’s no way you can look at the current situation and not have one. This is probably why the major multinationals that dominate the coffee market — Kraft, Nestle, Procter & Gamble, Sara Lee and Starbucks — all refused requests for interviews from the filmmakers; ignorance is their best weapon in maintaining this system.

“Black Gold” spends much of its time following one man, Tadesse Meskela, the general manager of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Co-operative Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Meskela is clearly the sort of man the world could use more of: driven and idealistic, he founded the co-op as an attempt to get more money back to the farmers through bypassing — as much as possible — the six (!) steps of middlemen that lie between producers and consumers.

Meskela represents some 74,000 coffee farmers, and we see him shuttling around the world, to London and New York, trying to find buyers for his high-grade, sun-dried beans. We also see him meeting with farmers, explaining the economics to them. He tells the filmmakers that the farmers need a price 10 times higher to improve their lives, and that, he clarifies, doesn’t mean a car or electricity, just clean water, clothes, and enough food for their families.

People often call documentaries like this leftist or socialist, but this is no such thing. Meskela is clearly a capitalist, it’s just that his vision of capitalism is one in which labor gets a fair shake, unlike the American corporate model, where labor is to be exploited mercilessly in order to redirect those profits to stockholders and executives.

The filmmakers draw clear parallels between the luxury of the high-grade coffee culture in the West and the poverty of the people making the product they enjoy. We see professional coffee tasters at the International Cupping Competition — one declares an Ethiopian Harrar to be the best cup he’s ever tasted. Then we see the people who made those beans, threatened by bankruptcy, with no power whatsoever to set their own price, living in villages lacking the most basic amenities.

Coffee, the film points out, is the most traded commodity after oil. Since 1990, retail sales have increased from $30 billion to $80 billion. And yet, unlike OPEC, coffee-producing nations are at the mercy of the buyers. The film documents how Ethiopia, with an economy that’s dependent on coffee (67 percent of GDP), is still wracked by famine and heavily dependent on food aid. (Central America isn’t much better — farmers there can end up losing money on each kilo they sell.)

Having read a bit on this topic, I was surprised how poorly the film assembled its argument — the film’s Web site, or its press notes, are much more informative and to the point. “Black Gold” flits around from the Illy company’s offices to a World Trade Organization meeting in Cancun, Mexico, to a Seattle Starbucks to a feeding center in famine-struck Shidamo Province in Ethiopia. There’s a damn good sketch of the ills of globalization and of the interconnectedness of the modern marketplace, but if fails to cohere as powerfully as, say, “Darwin’s Nightmare.” Exactly how New York traders can set a price irrespective of any reality on the ground is never made clear, nor are simple economics like how Starbucks’ expansion is largely funded by underpaying their providers.

“Black Gold” will open your eyes to certain realities, though. So often, in documentaries like these, one walks out enraged but feeling rather powerless. Not so in this case: Fair-trade coffee, which seeks to pay producers a living wage, is a readily available option. “Black Gold” ‘s distributor, Uplink, has handily provided a pamphlet listing a host of cafes offering fair-trade coffee in Tokyo. And for your home brew, there’s really no excuse. Try the Intagu Coffee dark roast available from organic-coffee.jp. It’s a full, rich roast, organically-grown and pesticide-free as well as fair-trade, and priced a bit cheaper than beans from the major chains. This coffee junkie swears by it.