The Roots of Slavery in Coffee
Juneteenth honors the end of slavery in the U.S. Since officially declared a federal holiday in 2021, Juneteenth commemorates the day in 1865 when federal troops took control of Texas to ensure the freedom of enslaved people.
The roots of slavery in coffee
The coffee industry is reliant on the painstaking work of Black and Brown people around the world who grow and produce green coffee.
It is impossible to talk about progress within our industry without acknowledging the racist and colonialist roots of coffee and how these power structures persist today.
The coffee crop originated in Africa in the highlands of Ethiopia. Eventually, coffee was traded throughout the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and the Americas by European colonizers. As with most imported goods at the time, the global coffee trade was dependent on enslaved people. Through “Triangular Trade,” European powers established colonies in coffee-growing regions like the Caribbean, Asia, and Central and South America, then imported slaves from Africa to work on the coffee plantations before exporting the coffee back to Europe. As such, an inhumane trade triangle thrived.
Over the course of 400 years, about 11 million Africans were enslaved on coffee plantations to work in cruel, abusive, and dangerous conditions all in the name of the economic and geopolitical success of European colonies.
In regions like Latin America, coffee production depended more on indigenous populations. Mayan land, for example, was optimal for growing. As a result, the Mayan people were evicted and forced to work on the land they once stewarded.
The dark history of the coffee industry explains why few countries dominate global production, and elucidates how slavery continues to impact the industry today. Coffee continues to be grown by indigenous people and communities of color, often in impoverished communities. While African coffees are highly prized, Africa has never reached the levels of production as Latin America because many former European colonies in Africa were left without adequate infrastructure and political systems when European occupation ended. Today still, millions of farmers throughout Latin America, Asia, and Africa live in poverty. This is partly due to the racial divide between farm owners and laborers and low C market prices paid to farmers for the sake of affordable coffee for Western consumers.
How we can move forward together
Groundwork acknowledges the dark history and structural power inequities that the coffee industry carries and the oppression that still exists in the coffee supply chain. Our goal is to “do more good than harm” when we source and import coffee. We commit to organic coffee and invest in co-ops and farming communities who want to make the difficult and expensive transition away from traditional pesticide-reliant agriculture. We celebrate and support co-ops that are working to implement health, education, and gender equality programs at origin. We put our money where our mouth is by ensuring fair trade and direct trade that pays farmers premium prices for their efforts.
There is still work to be done. We invite you to continue this conversation with us as we continue forward. You can always submit questions or ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to learning with you.
- A History of Coffee podcast: Episodes “Slavery, Suffering, and Affordable Luxury,” Bonus) “Decolonizing Coffee History,” “A Lasting Stain: Haiti, Colonialism and Coffee”
- Cxffeeblack blog, social media, and more resources on their webpage
- Perfect Daily Grind article: “Addressing Colonial Inequalities In The Coffee Sector”
Books from our summer reading list: “The Triumph, Black Brazilians in Coffee” and “Coffee Milk Blood”
Barista, Coffee Captain, Blogger