• Introduction

    Coffee has always been connected with emotions and opinions; therefore the debate about socio-economic aspects of coffee production is decades old already. One regular topic, especially in times when coffee prices are low or when there is political turmoil in coffee producing areas, is the working and living conditions of coffee farmers and workers on coffee plantations.

    Advocacy groups and NGOs lobby for improved livelihoods and fair treatment of coffee growers and plantation workers. Some consumer activists wanted to change the system from within and started constructing alternatives to the dominant free market coffee economy. They began to import coffee, tea and other commodities from small producer organizations which they sold through so-called Third World shops.

    Another step was the initiative in the Netherlands to develop a certification system and a label for coffee of such producers in order to create sales potential for these products in supermarket chains under the Fairtrade label (see 03.06). These systems engage the producers, who then rely on the market to pay a premium. But as a percentage of the total world trade in coffee these various initiatives still represent less than 1%.

    Another example is the Rainforest Alliance, formerly known as ECO-OK (see 03.05.08). The certification effort of the Sustainable Agriculture Network in Central and South America, coordinated by the Rainforest Alliance, is based on the forestry certification model. Under this system a rigorous set of mutually agreed international standards are used to verify best management practices, leading to an operation that is sustainably managed. The conservation of natural resources, protection of biodiversity, respect for workers’ rights and the commercial success of the farms are central themes. The standards for sustainable coffee farms include: a minimum number of native forest trees per hectare; no replacement of virgin forest with coffee plantings; preservation of watersheds; minimal use of agro-chemicals; promotion of biological controls; soil conservation; and protection of wildlife and natural resources.

    The Sustainable Agriculture Network’s programme also emphasizes decent working conditions, adequate pay, access to proper housing and sanitation, and respect and fair treatment for workers. Details at www.rainforest-alliance.org.

    Biodynamic coffee
    usually is high quality arabica at high premiums with a low market share. A well-known example is coffee from the Finca Irlanda (Chiapas, Mexico) where organic cultivation began in the 1960s. Biodynamic products are organic and can be marketed as such, but they meet even higher production standards and represent a true niche market. For more see www.demeter-usa.org.

    Shade grown coffee. Especially in the United States and Canada, there is a market for so-called bird-friendly or shade grown coffee. Limited use of agro-chemicals is permitted and the emphasis is put on the conservation of shade trees on plantations in order to preserve bird life and biodiversity. Shade grown coffee is not the same as organic coffee but there are specific standards and a certification system has been developed by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, http://nationalzoo.si.edu/scbi/migratorybirds/coffee/, and other institutions and NGOs in Canada, the United States and Mexico. Shade grown represents a step along the way towards environmentally sustainable coffee. So far the market for such coffees is small and mostly limited to North America.

    A more general development is that the mainstream coffee industry is increasingly accepting responsibility for the conditions under which the coffee is produced. Coupled with growing interest in and support for environmental causes in importing countries generally this has led to the introduction of terms such as environment-friendly or environmentally sustainable coffee. For a good introduction to the subject go to http://www.conservation.org, the website of Conservation International, and look for the Conservation Principles for Coffee Production which are listed as Sustainable livelihoods for coffee producers; Ecosystem and wildlife conservation; Soil conservation; Water conservation and protection; Energy conservation; Waste management and Pest and disease management.

    All these and related aspects gained considerable public interest during the years 2001-2005 when the ICO Composite Indicator Price (see 01.04.01) fell below 50 cts/US per lb. This period of shockingly low producer prices became known as the Coffee Crisis and motivated the appearance of new initiatives as, for example, the 4C Coffee Association that promotes a mainstream verification standard. See 03.05.06 for more.
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