Coffee has played an important role in society and in todays modernised worldand has a rich history dating back centuries. In the West, both coffee and teaare precious commodities, both used to enhance productivity or to enjoy insocial settings.
Coffee and tea houses have been important places for socialgatherings. They provide spaces for discussion, debate and social integration. Understanding the social, economic and physical impact of coffee in countriesin Africa, Asia and Latin America that produce the commodity is extremelyimportant.
Especially with regards to future policy making and concerns over sustainabilityand development. Coffee is grown in countries across the world including Yemen, Brazil, Ethiopiaand many others. The following examination of coffee’s significance in societywill focus on Latin America, specifically Costa Rica and Mexico. It will alsoexplore how coffee relates to the anthropology of development and how coffeehas both helped and hindered the lives of those that produce the ‘irresistiblebean’ and how communities are impacted and affected by coffee.An examination of how coffee in Latin America is connected to ideas ofidentity, kinship, gender, poverty and migration will also be discussed. Ethnographicwork has enabled these issues to be elucidated from the perspectives of coffeefarming communities and the individuals within them. Coffee plays an important role in international development and ethnographiescan help shape the future of coffee and its farmers. Fair Trade movements haveattempted to alleviate some of the challenges faced by individuals in coffeecommunities and have gained substantial popularity in recent years.
Latin America was relatively late in its involvement in the coffee business. Originallydiscovered in Ethiopia, Africa then moving to Arabia, Europe and the Far East,and then on to South America. However,Latin America now produces most of the world’s coffee. Oxfam states that coffee is the ‘most valuable and widely traded tropicalagricultural product’ and estimates that approximately 125 million peopleacross the world depend on coffee for their livelihoods. (Oxfam, 2018)Throughout history in Latin America, coffee has shaped national identities andsocial bonds but has also been at the centre of crisis. Development strategieshave attempted to solve these problems that surround coffee farming and areenabling coffee communities to benefit from coffee once again. Coffee has had both positive and negative impacts on society in Latin America. Thepositive impacts include women’s active involvement in coffee farming which hasenabled them to challenge the traditional gender stereotypes that oncerestricted their daily lives allowing them to gain a certain degree ofindependence.
The negative impacts within these communities have invovled economicand social crisis and hardship for many individuals.AnthropologistSarah Lyon has researched how changing economic relations, labour practices andfair trade have impacted communities and how these changes have affected thegendered conditions of women’s coffee production in Mexico and the struggle forgender equity. (Lyon, 2011)In Coffee, Society, and Power in LatinAmerica, William Roseberry and other researchers assess how coffee hasimpacted class structure, political power and labour mobilisation in LatinAmerican coffee regions. Their research examines how these communitiesresponded to the growing glowing demand for coffee in the nineteenth andtwentieth centuries and the consequences of these demands. (Roseberry et al.1995)KatherineFischer’s ethnographic research on coffee and identity in Orosi, Costa Ricaillustrates the social significance of coffee in farming communities. In 1821the Costa Rican government gave out land plots to encourage coffee farming toprovide stable family businesses. In 1969 coffee provided 10% of the nationalincome and 50% of its exports (Loveless, 2012:2) Fischer examines how coffee created a ‘sense of social responsibility andconciliation in Central America’ during times when militarism was the norm.
Fischer’sresearch explores how coffee is credited with fomenting democracy and stabilityand anchoring national identity in Costa Rica. It created cooperation andcommunity which epitomised the identities and values of Costa Ricans. (Fischer,2014: iii) Many Costa Ricans believe that coffee helped transform Costa Ricafrom an under developed colonial region into an ‘ecological tourist paradise’.The children of Costa Rican farmers had access to higher education paid forwith coffee money enabling them to widen their job opportunities. Moreover, themoney created from an export tax on coffee was used to invest in socialsecurity, healthcare and education. (Fischer, 2014:12)Coffee also played a significant role in familial bonds. In Costa Rica, whole familieswould work together in the fields picking coffee, helping to keep familiestogether and thus solidify kinship ties. In recent years however, there hasbeen a shift from family work to wage work and Costa Ricans who once pickedcoffee are now working in the city where achievement and success is related tomaterial gain rather than kinship networks.
(Fischer, 2014: 14)In the 1980s there was a collapse of coffee prices worldwide. (Oxfam, 2018) Asa result, coffee was no longer an anchor for identity in Costa Rica. (Fischer,2014:14)The decline of coffee resulted in younger generations changing occupations andmoving away from the coffee industry. In Costa Rica a large proportion of theadult male population in coffee regions left to find work in urban areas and inEl Norte (The USA). Consequently, families and communities withinthese regions were fractured. (Murray, 2003:3)The decline also resulted in public services suffering which affected manyCosta Ricans. Many farmers abandoned coffee altogether and sold their fields to corporationsthus disconnecting themselves from their previous way of life and their oldidentities. (Fischer, 2014:15)Fischer’s ethnography illustrates the rise and fall of coffee in Costa Rica andthe serious implications for individuals and families.
In 2001, green coffee commodity prices hit a 30 year low as a result ofchanging patterns in global coffee commodity chains such as the disintegrationof the International Coffee Agreement in 1989. Subsequently a humanitariancrisis was created as 25 million coffee farmers were affected. In CentralAmerica, The World Food Program declared a food security emergency with manyfarmers going hungry in coffee-producing areas. School attendance dropped andmigration rates increased. (Bacon, 2010: 51) Many coffee farms have beenabandoned due to the coffee crisis as farmers decide to migrate to the USAoften embarking on extremely perilous journeys.
Many will die attempting tocross the border. The full impact of the coffee crisis on human lives is notknown, however the detrimental effects are elucidated in ethnographic work. (Murrayet al, 2003: 3) NGOs responded to the crisis and helped to expand sustainable coffee marketsand increasing consumer awareness in the West. Small scale farmers also unitedto strengthen their production and establish connections with sustainablecoffee certification programs such as Fair Trade with the help of Internationaldevelopment agencies like Oxfam.
(Bacon, 2010:51)Coffeealso plays a significant role with regards to women and their changing roles insociety. According to Lisa Fry, coffee production in Latin America is undergoing a’feminisation’ as male producers migrate to urban areas or abroad. (Fry,2010:2) However, although the number of female coffee producers is rising, genderoppression is often a central issue in the coffee industry. Women have lower wagesand face gender discrimination in plantation settings. Moreover, amongsmall-scale producers, patriarchal social relations shape aspects of the coffeeproduction which limit the possibilities for gender equity. Women are oftendenied resources that are vital for coffee production.
Moreover, men often haveprivileged access to land and income whilst women have to balance their time betweenworking in the field and working at home. (Lyon, 2010) (Fry, 2010:3)Ethnographic insights can enable policy makers to understand how removingcertain constraints can empower female coffee farmers and create long-termsolutions. (Fry, 2010:3)Coffee farming has allowed women to challenge their stereotypical gender rolesby moving into the industry in large numbers (Fry, 2010:4) Moreover it isweakening the traditional patriarchal social relations and machismo that were both strong and controlling in rural regions ofLatin America.
(Fry, 2010:11)Women are sometimes given important jobs within the coffee sector, oftenimproving their social standing in the community due to the authoritativenature of their new role. (Fry, 2010:18)Understanding the gender inequality through anthropological eyes, enables FairTrade movements to understand the challenges faced by many female coffeefarmers. The creation of opportunities and projects that help strengthen therole of women through training programmes is extremely important. These initiativeshave been important in advancing gender equality among coffee producingcommunities. In The future of Fair Trade coffee:dilemmas facing Latin America’s small-scale producers Douglas Murray et al.highlights the need for the Fair Trade movement to ‘clarify and strengthenefforts to overcome gender inequality’ in order to sustain the advances thathave already been achieved.
In Latin America, some women have become coffeeproducers however not in large numbers. The limited participation of womenperpetuates the traditional gender bias that is present in the Latin Americancoffee producing sector. (Murray, 2006: 189) Thecoffee industry employs millions of people worldwide, many of whom live indeveloping countries. Across the globe, areas of extreme poverty coincide withareas that produce coffee. Fairtrade initially started as a response to thestruggles of Mexican coffee producers due to the global collapse of coffeeprices in the 1980s. It gave farmers a minimum price for their coffee whichcovered the cost of production and financial security. (Oxfam, 2018)Small-holder farmers also face challenges due to their lack of business skillsthat are needed to produce quality coffee.
Education programs help improvefarming husbandry which consequently yields better coffee harvests and higherprices from companies who want a stable supply of coffee. The money can then beused by farmers to access health care, education and food, thus improving theirstandard of living. Training programs also enable farmers diversify crops toavoid struggles resulting from price fluctuations. A more stable andsustainable coffee production can enable investment in other areas of societysuch as education and improved facilities. Providing opportunities for youngpeople, who for years had to move abroad or to larger cities in order to find differentoccupations. (Global Washington, 2018)Social movements such as Oxfam have also attempted to raise consumer awarenessin the West and have promoted the improvement of conditions for the coffeeproducers. The strengths and limitations of Fairtrade have been debated among manyresearchers.
Evidence of the benefits of Fairtrade can be found throughout Latin America. InOaxaca, UCIRI, a Fair Trade registered cooperative created a centre for women’sliteracy. (Murray, 2003:3) Majomut in Chiapas hired an organic farming promoterenabling farmers to produce organic coffee that would generate higher incomes(Murray, 2003:4) Fair Trade is also helping to rescue traditional Mayan Farmingtechniques in Guatemala.
Fair trade coffee is predominantly produced inindigenous communities in Latin America. Therefore the Faitrade movement can beargued as enabling indigenous cultural survival. (ibid)In Fair Trade and a global commodity:Coffee in Costa Rica Peter Luetchford illustrates the crucial roleethnography plays in understanding the social significance of coffee in LatinAmerican communities and how effective Fairtrade movements are in aiding thesegroups.
Luetchford investigates Fairtrade from the perspective of Costa Rican campesinos and their families, and theirviews on the market as being unfair and unreliable despite the efforts of fairtrade. (Luetchford, 2008) Evidently,coffee has had a major impact in many Latin American communities. The rise andfall of coffee in Costa Rica has significantly affected families, individualsand society as a whole. Coffee’s role in helping women challenge genderstereotypes has been a positive one. Similarly, its initial role instrengthening community and kinship ties may also be argued as a positiveimpact.
In contrast, its role as a push factor for many young farmers whoembark on dangerous journeys in order to escape the economic insecurity of coffeefarming has seriously affected many coffee farming families. Anthropology and ethnography both help elucidate the human experience of coffeeproduction. Coffee plays an important role in the economies of developing countries andtherefore sustainable coffee productions are vital for communities.
Ethnographicresearch on the personal experiences of the coffee farmers can help developmentprojects in Latin America and other parts of the world. Furthermore, anthropologicalwork can enable understanding of the social context surrounding coffee production.Anthropologists can also explore how effectively alternative food networks suchas Fair Trade help to create and sustain diverse economies. (Lyon, 2011)