The Black History of Coffee
Author | groundwork coffee Date | February 15, 2021
The past year has been a reckoning in how we as a company, and the coffee industry in general, is reliant on the labor of Black and Brown people around the world who grow and product green coffee. As a company, we are proud to support organic coffee farming as a healthier alternative for the farmers and environment to traditional, pesticide-reliant agriculture. And we maintain a commitment to fair trade and direct trade pricing that ensures farmers are paid for their efforts. However, the history of the coffee trade is a less cheerful story and it is impossible to talk about progress within our industry without first acknowledging the racist and colonialist roots of coffee and how many of these power dynamics persist today.
While Brazil is currently the largest producer of coffee globally, the coffee crop originated in Africa in the highlands of Ethiopia. Eventually it came to be traded throughout the Middle East, Asia, Europe and the Americas via European colonizers. As with most imported goods at the time, the success of coffee was dependent on the slave trade, especially through Triangular Trade. This was the arrangement whereby European colonial powers established colonies in tropical areas suitable for coffee growing, like the Caribbean, Asia and Central/South America. They would then import slaves from Africa to these colonies to labour on the coffee plantations before exporting the coffee back to Europe, thus creating a triangle.
In some areas, like Latin America, coffee production depended less on enslaved people and more on indigenous populations. Mayan land, for example, was optimal for growing. As a result, the Mayan people were increasingly evicted and forced to work on the land they once claimed.
It is important to understand the history of the coffee industry to understand why certain parts of the world dominate production. Moreover, it makes visible the remnants of slavery that continue to impact today's coffee industry. Coffee continues to be grown by indigenous people and communities of color, often in impoverished communities. And while African coffees are frequently awarded for being some of the best in the world, African growing communities have had to rise to this level in post-colonialist nations that were left without infrastructure or stable political systems.
As a company, we choose to acknowledge the history and power structures that coffee carries along with it. We recognize that oppression still exists in the coffee supply chain. We make an effort every day to do more good than harm when we source and import coffee. This includes committing to organics in order to protect the health and safety of those growing our coffee and those living in the growing communities. We look to invest in co-ops and farming communities that want to make the difficult and expensive transition from traditional, pesticide-based agriculture. We celebrate and support co-ops that are working to implement health, education, and gender equality programs at origin. And we choose to put our money where our mouth is by paying a premium price for all our coffee.
This is just the start. We invite you to continue this difficult conversation with us as we move forward. You can submit questions or ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to learning with you.