Coffee has played an important role in society and in todays modernised world
and has a rich history dating back centuries. In the West, both coffee and tea
are precious commodities, both used to enhance productivity or to enjoy in
social settings. Coffee and tea houses have been important places for social
gatherings. They provide spaces for discussion, debate and social integration.
Understanding the social, economic and physical impact of coffee in countries
in Africa, Asia and Latin America that produce the commodity is extremely
important. Especially with regards to future policy making and concerns over sustainability
and development.
Coffee is grown in countries across the world including Yemen, Brazil, Ethiopia
and many others. The following examination of coffee’s significance in society
will focus on Latin America, specifically Costa Rica and Mexico. It will also
explore how coffee relates to the anthropology of development and how coffee
has both helped and hindered the lives of those that produce the ‘irresistible
bean’ and how communities are impacted and affected by coffee.
An examination of how coffee in Latin America is connected to ideas of
identity, kinship, gender, poverty and migration will also be discussed. Ethnographic
work has enabled these issues to be elucidated from the perspectives of coffee
farming communities and the individuals within them.
Coffee plays an important role in international development and ethnographies
can help shape the future of coffee and its farmers. Fair Trade movements have
attempted to alleviate some of the challenges faced by individuals in coffee
communities and have gained substantial popularity in recent years.

 

Latin America was relatively late in its involvement in the coffee business. Originally
discovered 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 tropical
agricultural product’ and estimates that approximately 125 million people
across the world depend on coffee for their livelihoods. (Oxfam, 2018)
Throughout history in Latin America, coffee has shaped national identities and
social bonds but has also been at the centre of crisis. Development strategies
have attempted to solve these problems that surround coffee farming and are
enabling coffee communities to benefit from coffee once again.
Coffee has had both positive and negative impacts on society in Latin America. The
positive impacts include women’s active involvement in coffee farming which has
enabled them to challenge the traditional gender stereotypes that once
restricted their daily lives allowing them to gain a certain degree of
independence. The negative impacts within these communities have invovled economic
and social crisis and hardship for many individuals.

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Anthropologist
Sarah Lyon has researched how changing economic relations, labour practices and
fair trade have impacted communities and how these changes have affected the
gendered conditions of women’s coffee production in Mexico and the struggle for
gender equity. (Lyon, 2011)
In Coffee, Society, and Power in Latin
America, William Roseberry and other researchers assess how coffee has
impacted class structure, political power and labour mobilisation in Latin
American coffee regions. Their research examines how these communities
responded to the growing glowing demand for coffee in the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries and the consequences of these demands. (Roseberry et al.
1995)

Katherine
Fischer’s ethnographic research on coffee and identity in Orosi, Costa Rica
illustrates the social significance of coffee in farming communities. In 1821
the Costa Rican government gave out land plots to encourage coffee farming to
provide stable family businesses. In 1969 coffee provided 10% of the national
income and 50% of its exports (Loveless, 2012:2)
Fischer examines how coffee created a ‘sense of social responsibility and
conciliation in Central America’ during times when militarism was the norm. Fischer’s
research explores how coffee is credited with fomenting democracy and stability
and anchoring national identity in Costa Rica. It created cooperation and
community which epitomised the identities and values of Costa Ricans. (Fischer,
2014: iii) Many Costa Ricans believe that coffee helped transform Costa Rica
from an under developed colonial region into an ‘ecological tourist paradise’.
The children of Costa Rican farmers had access to higher education paid for
with coffee money enabling them to widen their job opportunities. Moreover, the
money created from an export tax on coffee was used to invest in social
security, healthcare and education. (Fischer, 2014:12)
Coffee also played a significant role in familial bonds. In Costa Rica, whole families
would work together in the fields picking coffee, helping to keep families
together and thus solidify kinship ties. In recent years however, there has
been a shift from family work to wage work and Costa Ricans who once picked
coffee are now working in the city where achievement and success is related to
material gain rather than kinship networks. (Fischer, 2014: 14)
In the 1980s there was a collapse of coffee prices worldwide. (Oxfam, 2018) As
a 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 and
moving away from the coffee industry. In Costa Rica a large proportion of the
adult male population in coffee regions left to find work in urban areas and in
El Norte (The USA). Consequently, families and communities within
these regions were fractured. (Murray, 2003:3)
The decline also resulted in public services suffering which affected many
Costa Ricans.
Many farmers abandoned coffee altogether and sold their fields to corporations
thus disconnecting themselves from their previous way of life and their old
identities. (Fischer, 2014:15)
Fischer’s ethnography illustrates the rise and fall of coffee in Costa Rica and
the serious implications for individuals and families.

 

In 2001, green coffee commodity prices hit a 30 year low as a result of
changing patterns in global coffee commodity chains such as the disintegration
of the International Coffee Agreement in 1989. Subsequently a humanitarian
crisis was created as 25 million coffee farmers were affected. In Central
America, The World Food Program declared a food security emergency with many
farmers going hungry in coffee-producing areas. School attendance dropped and
migration rates increased.   (Bacon, 2010: 51) Many coffee farms have been
abandoned due to the coffee crisis as farmers decide to migrate to the USA
often embarking on extremely perilous journeys. Many will die attempting to
cross the border. The full impact of the coffee crisis on human lives is not
known, however the detrimental effects are elucidated in ethnographic work. (Murray
et al, 2003: 3)
NGOs responded to the crisis and helped to expand sustainable coffee markets
and increasing consumer awareness in the West. Small scale farmers also united
to strengthen their production and establish connections with sustainable
coffee certification programs such as Fair Trade with the help of International
development agencies like Oxfam. (Bacon, 2010:51)

Coffee
also plays a significant role with regards to women and their changing roles in
society.
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, gender
oppression is often a central issue in the coffee industry. Women have lower wages
and face gender discrimination in plantation settings. Moreover, among
small-scale producers, patriarchal social relations shape aspects of the coffee
production which limit the possibilities for gender equity. Women are often
denied resources that are vital for coffee production. Moreover, men often have
privileged access to land and income whilst women have to balance their time between
working in the field and working at home. (Lyon, 2010) (Fry, 2010:3)
Ethnographic insights can enable policy makers to understand how removing
certain constraints can empower female coffee farmers and create long-term
solutions. (Fry, 2010:3)
Coffee farming has allowed women to challenge their stereotypical gender roles
by moving into the industry in large numbers (Fry, 2010:4) Moreover it is
weakening the traditional patriarchal social relations and machismo that were both strong and controlling in rural regions of
Latin America. (Fry, 2010:11)
Women are sometimes given important jobs within the coffee sector, often
improving their social standing in the community due to the authoritative
nature of their new role. (Fry, 2010:18)
Understanding the gender inequality through anthropological eyes, enables Fair
Trade movements to understand the challenges faced by many female coffee
farmers. The creation of opportunities and projects that help strengthen the
role of women through training programmes is extremely important. These initiatives
have been important in advancing gender equality among coffee producing
communities.
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 strengthen
efforts to overcome gender inequality’ in order to sustain the advances that
have already been achieved. In Latin America, some women have become coffee
producers however not in large numbers. The limited participation of women
perpetuates the traditional gender bias that is present in the Latin American
coffee producing sector. (Murray, 2006: 189)

 

The
coffee industry employs millions of people worldwide, many of whom live in
developing countries. Across the globe, areas of extreme poverty coincide with
areas that produce coffee. Fairtrade initially started as a response to the
struggles of Mexican coffee producers due to the global collapse of coffee
prices in the 1980s. It gave farmers a minimum price for their coffee which
covered the cost of production and financial security. (Oxfam, 2018)
Small-holder farmers also face challenges due to their lack of business skills
that are needed to produce quality coffee. Education programs help improve
farming husbandry which consequently yields better coffee harvests and higher
prices from companies who want a stable supply of coffee. The money can then be
used by farmers to access health care, education and food, thus improving their
standard of living. Training programs also enable farmers diversify crops to
avoid struggles resulting from price fluctuations. A more stable and
sustainable coffee production can enable investment in other areas of society
such as education and improved facilities. Providing opportunities for young
people, who for years had to move abroad or to larger cities in order to find different
occupations. (Global Washington, 2018)
Social movements such as Oxfam have also attempted to raise consumer awareness
in the West and have promoted the improvement of conditions for the coffee
producers.
The strengths and limitations of Fairtrade have been debated among many
researchers.
Evidence of the benefits of Fairtrade can be found throughout Latin America. In
Oaxaca, UCIRI, a Fair Trade registered cooperative created a centre for women’s
literacy. (Murray, 2003:3) Majomut in Chiapas hired an organic farming promoter
enabling farmers to produce organic coffee that would generate higher incomes
(Murray, 2003:4) Fair Trade is also helping to rescue traditional Mayan Farming
techniques in Guatemala. Fair trade coffee is predominantly produced in
indigenous communities in Latin America. Therefore the Faitrade movement can be
argued as enabling indigenous cultural survival. (ibid)
In Fair Trade and a global commodity:
Coffee in Costa Rica Peter Luetchford illustrates the crucial role
ethnography plays in understanding the social significance of coffee in Latin
American communities and how effective Fairtrade movements are in aiding these
groups. Luetchford investigates Fairtrade from the perspective of Costa Rican campesinos and their families, and their
views on the market as being unfair and unreliable despite the efforts of fair
trade. (Luetchford, 2008)

 

 

Evidently,
coffee has had a major impact in many Latin American communities. The rise and
fall of coffee in Costa Rica has significantly affected families, individuals
and society as a whole. Coffee’s role in helping women challenge gender
stereotypes has been a positive one. Similarly, its initial role in
strengthening community and kinship ties may also be argued as a positive
impact. In contrast, its role as a push factor for many young farmers who
embark on dangerous journeys in order to escape the economic insecurity of coffee
farming has seriously affected many coffee farming families.
Anthropology and ethnography both help elucidate the human experience of coffee
production.
Coffee plays an important role in the economies of developing countries and
therefore sustainable coffee productions are vital for communities. Ethnographic
research on the personal experiences of the coffee farmers can help development
projects in Latin America and other parts of the world. Furthermore, anthropological
work can enable understanding of the social context surrounding coffee production.
Anthropologists can also explore how effectively alternative food networks such
as Fair Trade help to create and sustain diverse economies. (Lyon, 2011)