Monday, November 26, 2007
More Coffee Talk

Two Fridays ago, having skipped out on OC's second birthday party the night before early enough (after the first glass of free champagne, that being) to be upright, I made it to the CCC DC TC for the cupping. I'm quite glad I did. One of the three coffees we tried, as it turned out, was the Ikawa microlot that came in third place in Rwanda's Cup of Gold competition. The stuff is on sale at $32 for a 12-oz. bag, and while every cent might not be detectable in a cup, it was the hands-down favorite and certainly a treat for everyone present.

Now I'm far from a cheerleader for multinational capital, but I have to admit that it's pretty amazing what high-end coffee production has done for Rwanda. As Peter Giuliano points out:

Whenever I talk about Rwanda, I always mention the fact that there was no good coffee there six years ago. None. There was coffee, but it was dried on the ground and sold to the generic market, destined for “filler” and instant coffee. The turning point was the building of the first washing station in the Kenyan and Ethiopian style, which revealed Rwanda’s potential to produce delicious, world-class coffees. I made my first trip there not long after that event, as Rwanda was taking its first, tentative steps towards building a wonderful coffee industry. I helped train cuppers and assisted cooperatives secure financing to build more and better washing stations. We began to work closely with the Karaba cooperative and Epiphanie Mukashyaka’s Bufcafe washing station. Over the years, as Rwandan coffee grew, we developed relationships with other communities such as Humure, Rusenyi, and Nyakizu, and have returned over and over again to visit our partners, help train cuppers, and lend our expertise as the coffee industry flourished here.

Apparently, coffee production has even helped heal some of Rwanda's infamous cultural rifts, with feuding tribes forced to work together on the various steps required to harvest and process the beans. Giuliano also founded the Bikes to Rwanda charity, one of the chief goals of which is to give coffee farmers a means to get coffee cherries from the fields to the washing stations before they begin to ferment.

This is the kind of thing that gives capitalism and enlightened self interest in general a good name: the first world's thirst for quality coffee aids in the reconstruction of a troubled nation.

But how far does this go? I'm neither an economist nor an expert in international relations, but I read a lot. And any time I hear about the power of international investment to help troubled countries I'm always reminded of Conrad's masterpiece Nostromo and of the Goulds' liberal faith in good business-- in the ability of a silver mine to transform Costaguana. Even an operation run in good faith leads to turmoil and bloodshed. What happens when an operation is run (as a corporation, in essence, must be) in rapacious pursuit of the most profit possible?

I still remember a tour I took of a Dole-owned pineapple plantation island in the Hawaiis when I was a lad. The workers there worked for subsistence wages, were grossly overcharged for cheap housing, souls sold to the company store. People throw around terms like "wage slave" half in jest, but if anyone deserves such a term... If something like this could happen on American soil, where laws meant to protect workers from such naked exploitation exist, what can you expect in countries where they don't? What can you expect in a world where international organizations and treaties can strike down such laws as forms of protectionism?

More pleasantly, Counter Culture Coffee isn't Dole Pineapples. That is much more a testament to the caliber of people working there, however, than to anything to do with the "invisible hand" of the so-called free market.

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