April 25th, 2021
Coffee is the second most-produced and traded commodity around the world, right behind oil. From multimillion-dollar companies like Starbucks to Dunkin Donuts, it is often never questioned the origin of the coffee and the factors affecting the people in those communities. Whether you enjoy a small, fair trade, fresh brew, or an espresso drink at a large corporation, coffee beans tell a story. Originating in Ethiopia, the coffee bean is said to be discovered by an Ethiopian goat herder, who discovered the effects of coffee after feeding the plant to his goats. From that point, the plant became internationally known, really being defined by the trade economy of the Arabian Peninsula. From there, the farming of coffee plants and the harvesting of coffee emerged in countries around the world. Today, the world’s largest producers of the plant include countries like Brazil, Vietnam, and Colombia. As much as the Western world values, and loves coffee, the plant is rarely, if ever, produced in North America, and Europe. This means that there is a huge focus on the logistics of trade, farmer compensation, and government regulations on this plant. Growing coffee is an extensive practice; Many farmers must work over 10 hours consistently in the heat, just to produce positive results. And even further than that, many of these farmers are consistently exposed to carcinogenic chemicals every day. As much manual labor and risk that the job carries, most coffee farmers only make around 80 cents to $1 for their work. For context, this is a plant that can take years to harvest, and even then only yielding as little as 1 pound.
The coffee industry in countries like Ethiopia is still vivid today, yet these countries are not getting the pay nor recognition for their contribution to a global trade network. More than 4 million people in Ethiopia are coffee farmers, and many of these are small families of lower socioeconomic status who harvest coffee as a way to make ends meet, yet Baristas are pouring this coffee in Western countries for $13 an hour. The exploitation of coffee farmers is clear, and even further than that, the exploitation of women within coffee farming creates a problem for them to create their economic stability in these regions. As I’ll explain, many of these women were met with misogyny and exploitation by larger corporations and their communities. Many cultures state that women were at the forefront for harvesting the best possible coffee beans, which of course takes time and care; which are not attributes that are valued in a quick, globalized, competitive economy.
The first community I examined is the case of women coffee farmers in Oaxaca, Mexico. From the mid-90s to 2013, the percentage of women farmers increased from 9% to 42%. This may sound like an amazing step for women in this region, and it is, but not only are women expected to now farm and care for the land, but also complete the majority of domestic work, and be expected the bear, birth, and for children. The burdens that all of these obligations place on women, usually, force them out of the workforce because of the constraint on their time and energy, Even if they find time to do it all, that would mean women would have to give up everything except working and their family “duties;” Meaning she would not have a chance to have a social, political, or even educational life. On top of that, women are rarely making what their male counterparts are in this region because there are a disproportionate number of men to own and run coffee farms, to women, who are mainly the laborers getting paid the lowest wages.
A second community, which encompasses another issue that is not fully recognized in the coffee industry, lies in the country of Haiti. Since the end of French rule in Haiti, coffee production has been one of the main sources of income for Haiti. But, as we’ve seen many times, many of these coffee farmers are women, who have way more responsibilities than the men in their families and communities. In an interview with a Haitian coffee farmer, Iderle Brénus, she explained that not only we’re women responsible for tending the land and crops, with no ownership in the property, but they receive very little support outside of their families and home. The community still imposed gender roles and expectations on these women, despite their major role in contributing to the Haitian community.
It would be ignorant of me not to also mention the emergence and current existence of the Fair Trade movement started. “Fairtrade” accounts for about 35% of the coffee industry, yet, Fair Trade is more complicated than it may seem. To be USDA-certified Fairtrade, companies must abide by certain standards including “fair” wages, high-quality environmental care, and reasonable working regulations. It is important to note that because of the existence of “fair” wages, fair trade coffee farmers make a minimum of $1.40 a pound, while Western buyers pay $5 or more a cup. The problem with Fair Trade practices is that it gives a small percentage of rural farmers to make a “decent” profit from growing coffee beans, but for the majority of the farming community, it decreases the worth of their labor and beans, by not being viewed as “organic” or “fair trade.” As much as Westerners praise the sustainability of Fair Trade companies, the majority of farmers who can connect with these companies, are men, and again, the women are the ones who tend and care for the land. Fair Trade is, however, a great first step to creating equity among coffee farmers and compensating them for what they deserve; it does not support enough coffee farmers to be completely effective.
Both of these communities have ended up in this situation because of the historic drop in the price of coffee in 2014, by 70%. Because in many coffee-producing countries like Mexico and Haiti, that is the main form of income for the nation, these countries had no choice but to take lower wages, because there were not the resources to switch economies. It is important to highlight the existence of neoliberal economic globalization, which stems from the globalization of this commodity to make profits for large corporations. The problem is not that this commodity is being traded and sold around the world, but the problem arises when these farmers are not making nearly as much ad the corporate companies buying them or the companies thereinafter selling them. This is especially a problem because as Western countries we have little to no way of developing or planting coffee plants on our land, yet we are the largest and most exploitive countries utilizing the plant. The coffee business is one of the most successful in North America and Europe right now, yet many coffee farmers in countries like Ethiopia, Haiti, and Mexico are barely getting by on their wages.
When it comes to social reproduction, it is important that we specifically have to understand the culture that is underlying the issues of the coffee trade industry. We have normalized Western countries paying high prices, while marginalized communities in the “Global South” continue to work long hours, in harsh conditions, to makes sure coffee is produced. This creates an inherent power structure between countries like North America and countries like Etiopia. We have normalized the oppression of these people, and this oppression will continue to repeat until true fair trade is achieved among all coffee farmers. The bigger problem is that many people know that this oppression exists, and coffee farmers have to live through it every day. This imposes ideals on future generations of hard work with no fair pay, as well as the normalization of American and European Oppression. This gives Westerners the urge to consider these countries “developing” or “poor” even though we are the ones stopping their development and exploiting them for the money they deserve.
When it comes to gender and race, we see themes are social hierarchies that already exist, become heightened within coffee farming practices and trade. For example, as mentioned, women are primarily the ones farming the land, and also have responsibilities of domestic work and childcare. Many times, the men are the ones who own the land and make the most profit, while women usually get paid just enough to sustain their families. Because of this, it places a great burden on women, both physically and mentally to be the backbone of their communities and professions, but not getting the recognition or benefits of that. Therefore, when policy arises surrounding market regulation, or fair compensation for coffee farmers, the people who are doing the hard work, for long hours, are not included in the decisions. Property owners, or men, get the chance to decide everything within the coffee harvesting process, down to the price, and type of bean that is grown. For women to have any type of equity within this process, there first needs to be an increase in land ownership on behalf of women, and then there need to be systemic changes in the way coffee farmers, in general, are treated including, higher, reasonable prices, because even “fair trade” is allowing families to barely scrape by, and exploiting these women for their labor.
It is also important to emphasize the racial and gendered majority of the corporate coffee business. Many of the employees or higher-up executives that participate in the lucrative, exploitative business of buying coffee beans from smaller countries and selling them for commercialized profit in the US and Europe, are white men. This means that not only are the women in these countries being exploited to tailer the Western lifestyle but women in Western countries are also being exploited because as we are the number one buyer of this product, we have little to no investment and participation within that.
The environmental issues that surround this practice are broke off into two main problems: the first is the effect of Climate Climate change and other environmental issues on coffee production, and second, the effects that the coffee industry has on our environment. To Begin, many studies have shown that random drops in the production of coffee and thereafter the loss of suitable crops, can all be derived from the changing climate of our planet. Briefly, climate change refers to the large shifts in weather that we experience, as well as global warming, as a byproduct of human waste and unsustainability. Around the world, we see climate change, affecting marginalized groups, the most despite its inherent nature. This is because, climate change and global warming, pose new problems for humans to solve, but because marginalized people are usually at the backbone of our society, the burden to create a solution usually falls on them. This paired with the disparities that come with natural disasters, especially effect those of lower socioeconomic status more than others, creates an issue that intertwines both social and environmental oppression. This applies specifically to coffee farmers, because as mentioned earlier, many of these farmers are women, as well as of lower socioeconomic status, and even further because of their main way of life in agriculture. Growing coffee takes a very specific environment, as well as large risk, because many times, and especially due to climate change, coffee beans may “die” before they even start to grow. This causes a large setback in labor and in time, which causes backup within corporate organizations, and the blame usually falls back on the small farmer. Because of climate change, women are forced to deal with unforeseen circumstances, without the support of the men who own these farms, or the corporations buying coffee beans from them, therefore exacerbating the issue of wen coffee farmers’ oppression.
Secondly, the coffee industry is not known to be a sustainable or eco-friendly one. By trying to keep up with the high demand for coffee; farmers are forced to use practices that cut corners and save time and money, rather than the best option for the environment. In an Article, Mellissa Kravitz Hoeffner mentions that: “When it comes to sustainability in coffee, there are a vast number of factors to consider. With regards to production, sustainability is an important element in everything — growing, processing, transport, roasting, consumption — and these processes can impact things like soil health, water supply,, and even the migratory paths of animals like whales, birds,, and deer.” Not only do harmful coffee harvesting processes decrease biodiversity among farms, confusing animal and plant species, but even at the lowest level, has wiped out entire species of birds because of it. The problem is that these farmers have to work with what they have, in the circumstances they are in, which no support. Many do not have the money to invest in the environmentally friendly farming options that would qualify them as “Sustainably Certified.” This is a term that applies to farms that utilize practices such as recycling coffee materials for other agriculture, shade growing, and the halt of synthetic chemicals for farming. About 40% of all coffee farms are Sustainability Certified, ad because of this, similar to “fair trade” farms. These are the farms that are receiving the highest profits and best treatment, leaving other farms to be marginalized for what many justify as a “good reason.” But, if a family's primary means of wealth is coffee farming, and one day they are told that they need to pay more money to be sustainable or to “ensure” fair trade, that is a risk that many do not have the privilege to take.
As much as it oppressed coffee farmers to force sustainable practices on these coffee farmers it is important to understand the margin that these regulations fall under When it comes to fair trade, organic or sustainable coffee farming, much of it is a way to commercialize products to be more appealing to Western societies obsessed with momentary trends like the environment. It promotes the belief that by imposing these standards and ideals on these communities, that we are in turn advocating and improving Mother Earth, and our condition, yet, the impact of these certifications is not as great as it needs to be. If we want to focus on sustainability, we need to focus on the US specifically, and the use of wasteful and hazardous materials that are associated with the production of coffee. This includes plastic and paper cups, straws, coffee filters, k cups, and more. This also encompasses the idea that coffee is “used” then thrown away. And even further than that billions of cups and pots of coffee are thrown away each year, and despite these alarming rates and facts that we see in Western countries, we still focus on regulating the actions of coffee farmers in smaller countries. The consumption of coffee has become so monopolized, that sustainability is not seen as fully attainable, but as a courtesy or luxury, for those who can afford it.
The current focus of women’s involvement in coffee farming stems from the push for women to be further involved within the coffee production business. This includes having better access to land and resources, as well as creating equitable practices to even out the roles that are placed on men and women so that women do not take on most of the physical labor. For that to happen, not only do large corporations need to start valuing agricultural work, because, without it, we could not survive, but we as a society need to value the environment and its needs before humanity and its needs. If we keep going at the rate we are going, not only will we not have coffee or the environmental resources to grow it, but many plants and resources will start to “dry up” if we don’t focus more on the people that are impacted, rather than the money that is to be made. The coffee industry is one that we rely on, but in reality, we rely on coffee farmers, and unless we are ready to pay them what they deserve, and see them as equals, Mother Nature will suffer, and so will these women.
Balthazar, C. (2019). Coffee, gender and sustainability in rural haiti: Finding meanings for “Success” in sustainability through a gendered lens (Order No. 27666863). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses A&I; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (2349665438). Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.proxy.libraries.uc.edu/dissertations-theses/coffee-gender-sustainability-rural-haiti-finding/docview/2349665438/se-2?accountid=2909 \
Canning, A. (2018, September 28). Low prices and exploitation: Recurring themes in coffee. Retrieved April 25, 2021, from https://fairworldproject.org/low-prices-and-exploitation-recurring-themes-in-coffee/
Caswell, M., V.E. Méndez & C.M. Bacon (2012) Food security and smallholder coffee production: current issues and future directions. ARLG Policy Brief # 1. University of Vermont: Burlington, VT
Janet Lee and Susan Shaw Women Worldwide: Transnational Perspectives on Women. 2010 McGraw Hill. – Environment, Women, and subsistence farming.
Kettler, P. (2020, August 28). We love coffee. are we willing to pay the price? Retrieved April 25, 2021, from https://www.fairtradeamerica.org/news-insights/we-love-coffee-are-we-willing-to-pay-the-price/#:~:text=Fairtrade%20is%20the%20only%20global,or%20%241.70%20per%20pound%20organic.
Lyon, S., Mutersbaugh, T., & Worthen, H. (2017). The triple burden: The impact of time poverty on women's participation in coffee producer organizational governance in mexico. Agriculture and Human Values, 34(2), 317-331. doi:http://dx.doi.org.proxy.libraries.uc.edu/10.1007/s10460-016-9716-1
National coffee Association. (n.d.). Retrieved April 25, 2021, from https://www.ncausa.org/about-coffee/history-of-coffee#:~:text=Coffee%20grown%20worldwide%20can%20trace,potential%20of%20these%20beloved%20beans.
Person. (2018, October 06). Our coffee addiction is destroying the environment. Retrieved April 25, 2021, from https://www.salon.com/2018/10/05/our-coffee-addiction-is-destroying-the-environment_partner/
Power, Production and Social Reproduction : Human In/security in the Global Political Economy, edited by
Stephen Gill, and Isabella Bakker, Palgrave Macmillan Limited, 2003. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uc/detail.action?docID=269172. Created from uc on 2021-02-06 09:51:55. p. 176
Spector, A. J. (2010). Neoliberal globalization and capitalist crises in the age of imperialism. Globalization in the 21st Century, 33-56. doi:10.1057/9780230106390_3
 National coffee Association. (n.d.). Retrieved April 25, 2021, from https://www.ncausa.org/about-coffee/history-of-coffee#:~:text=Coffee%20grown%20worldwide%20can%20trace,potential%20of%20these%20beloved%20beans.  Ibid.  Caswell, M., V.E. Méndez & C.M. Bacon (2012) Food security and smallholder coffee production: current issues and future directions. ARLG Policy Brief # 1. University of Vermont: Burlington, VT  Canning, A. (2018, September 28). Low prices and exploitation: Recurring themes in coffee. Retrieved April 25, 2021, from https://fairworldproject.org/low-prices-and-exploitation-recurring-themes-in-coffee/  Lyon, S., Mutersbaugh, T., & Worthen, H. (2017). The triple burden: The impact of time poverty on women's participation in coffee producer organizational governance in mexico. Agriculture and Human Values, 34(2), 317-331. doi:http://dx.doi.org.proxy.libraries.uc.edu/10.1007/s10460-016-9716-1 Balthazar, C. (2019). Coffee, gender and sustainability in rural haiti: Finding meanings for “Success” in sustainability through a gendered lens (Order No. 27666863). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses A&I; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (2349665438). Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.proxy.libraries.uc.edu/dissertations-theses/coffee-gender-sustainability-rural-haiti-finding/docview/2349665438/se-2?accountid=2909  Kettler, P. (2020, August 28). We love coffee. are we willing to pay the price? Retrieved April 25, 2021, from https://www.fairtradeamerica.org/news-insights/we-love-coffee-are-we-willing-to-pay-the-price/#:~:text=Fairtrade%20is%20the%20only%20global,or%20%241.70%20per%20pound%20organic.  Canning, A. (2018, September 28). Low prices and exploitation: Recurring themes in coffee.  Power, Production and Social Reproduction : Human In/security in the Global Political Economy, edited by Stephen Gill, and Isabella Bakker, Palgrave Macmillan Limited, 2003. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uc/detail.action?docID=269172. Created from uc on 2021-02-06 09:51:55. p. 176  Janet Lee and Susan Shaw Women Worldwide: Transnational Perspectives on Women. 2010 McGraw Hill. – Environment, Women, and subsistence farming, p. 403  Spector, A. J. (2010). Neoliberal globalization and capitalist crises in the age of imperialism. Globalization in the 21st Century, 33-56. doi:10.1057/9780230106390_3  Janet Lee and Susan Shaw Women Worldwide: Transnational Perspectives on Women. 2010 McGraw Hill. – Environment, Women, and subsistence farming.  Person. (2018, October 06). Our coffee addiction is destroying the environment. Retrieved April 25, 2021, from https://www.salon.com/2018/10/05/our-coffee-addiction-is-destroying-the-environment_partner/  Kettler, P. (2020, August 28). We love coffee. are we willing to pay the price?  Janet Lee and Susan Shaw Women Worldwide: Transnational Perspectives on Women. 2010 McGraw Hill. – Environment, Women, and subsistence farming.