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Can you change the world by changing your brand of skinny latte? Two new films give very different views.

Nathalie Rothschild

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Black Gold, by brothers Nick and Marc Francis, is a documentary about the multibillion dollar coffee industry and the efforts of Tadesse Meskela, general manager of a co-operative union that represents thousands of Ethiopian farmers, to establish a fair trade market for coffee growers.

The Bitter Aftertaste, directed by Philip Thompson and produced by the development charity WORLDwrite, argues that fair trade enshrines the in-vogue redefinition of development as ‘survival only’ and questions the idea that we can transform poor farmers’ lives by paying a few extra pennies while we shop. According to Ceri Dingle, director of WORLDwrite, the focus on fair trade is ‘a moralistic campaign which facilitates Western guilt and pity for the poor’.

Black Gold was one of several films screened during the London Film Festival last month which explored the production process behind consumption goods and how it connects the developed and developing worlds (1). The Black Gold website claims that ‘through just one cup of coffee, we are inextricably connected to the livelihoods of millions of people around the world who are struggling to survive’ (2).

The theme of corporate callousness and the moral pitfalls of the capitalist production process is not new: it has recently been explored in documentaries such as Supersize Me and The Corporation (3), and in feature films like The Constant Gardener. But considering the stir caused by Black Gold, there still seems to be a strong appetite for films that problematise the Western world’s consumption. Common to all of them is the lesson that we in the West can use our buying power to correct the wrongs of the world and bring justice to the powerless.

Nick Francis, one of the makers of Black Gold, tells me the question of what we can do about the unjust situation facing Ethiopian coffee-growers has been continually raised in debates kickstarted by his film. He says we must tackle the ‘pathological indifference underpinning our consumer lifestyle’, and we can start doing that by ‘making a conscious choice’ not to choose ‘unfair’ products from our supermarket shelves. For example, we can ask companies how much farmers are being paid per pound for the coffee they sell, and demand more transparency from the coffee industry as well as from our governments. Francis believes ‘the more awareness that is given to the consumer, the greater the likelihood for changing the situation’.

Ironically, many corporations seem to agree. For instance Gap, Motorola and Converse are supporting Product RED, through which, we are told, consumers can help fight AIDS in Africa while shopping (4). As a fundraising strategy, and a way of easing the consciences of fairly well-off Westerners, this seems quite effective. But what does it actually do for people living in abject poverty?

For Ceri Dingle of WORLDwrite, ‘Talking up “consumer power” in fact estranges us from our fellow man. It assumes our power lies in our purse rather than in our capacity to take political action. If that were true, only rich people would ever change anything.’ She says ‘the idea that we have something in common with people living degraded poverty-stricken lives simply because we drink the coffee they pick is nonsense’: ‘It would be far better to restate the obvious fact that what we have in common is our humanity, which includes the universal desire for less toil and a decent life.’

Though Black Gold looks beyond the PR ploys of corporations – it even targets Starbucks, which supports various fair trade initiatives – it doesn’t challenge the widespread notion that consumer power can involve radical transformative change. Nor does it offer any release from a guilt-infused view of what we eat and drink. The film’s tag line tells us to: ‘Wake up and smell the coffee’. Apparently our coffee ‘will never taste the same again’ after seeing the film. The directors aim to reveal how poverty-stricken farmers in Ethiopia break their backs while urbanites in Europe and the US obliviously sip away on lattes and frappuccinos.

Francis stresses that fair trade solutions are ‘just one way’ of changing the situation; but fair trade is ‘not fair enough’. Black Gold, he says, simply shows ‘the journey of one person trying to use fair trade to somehow get more money back to the farmers’. He insists the film isn’t even about fair trade as such and says that Ethiopia’s need to diversify its market is stifled by the ‘brain drain’ of Africa – ‘more qualified Ethiopian doctors live in New York than in Ethiopa’. Meskela’s ‘journey’ has to be understood within a macro-level context, and that’s why the film also covers issues such as how coffee is consumed in the West and how the 2003 World Trade Organisation summit in Cancun collapsed after developing nations protested against their marginalisation, says Francis.

The efforts of Meskela, the hero of Black Gold, to seek justice and improve the living standards of his union members, and to circumscribe Ethiopia’s weak position on the global coffee market, are commendable. It is also refreshing to see a film portray an African man as strong-minded and opinionated rather than as the eternal fly-pursued starvation victim which has come to symbolise Ethiopia and Africa as a whole in recent years.

However, it is rather disingenuous of Francis to distance himself from fair trade solutions, since Black Gold doesn’t at all challenge the logic of fair trade or put forward any real alternatives. In fact, Meskela promotes the basic, limiting premise of fair trade, namely that by cutting out as many middle men as possible in the chain linking Ethiopian coffee growers to Western consumers, and by selling fair trade coffee at higher prices in our supermarkets, coffee growers can earn more money.

As Francis himself admits, this involves no transformative power to lift farmers out of poverty. At best it will, as Dingle says, give them a few more pennies per day for their back-breaking work; at worst it will be an even greater obstacle to development because it sends the message that farmers should keep doing what they’re doing, only with a small pay rise.

Two scenes from the Francis brothers’ and WORLDwrite’s films are revealing in this respect. In Black Gold, a young third-generation coffee farmer living in a mud hut with 14 other adults and one baby says he does not want to break his back like his father and grandfather before him. Rather he wants to be a doctor, or get any other job that actually pays a wage. He didn’t talk about wanting to leave Ethiopia or simply improve his own lot, instead expressing a desire to help make things better for his country as a whole.

In WORLDwrite’s The Bitter Aftertaste, a British fair trade campaigner admits that her organisation has no policy of introducing mechanisation. Yet it seems raising productivity on farms is a far more obvious solution to generating revenue than raising coffee prices in Western supermarkets. How are farmers like the young man interviewed in Black Gold supposed to make a decent living and change their conditions if they can’t even take basic steps towards modernising their production processes? When the campaigning interviewee in The Bitter Aftertaste talks about farmers being happy to ‘work together within their communities’, the low horizons of fair trade campaigners become all too clear.

In Black Gold it also becomes clear that the fair trade agenda is not simply about putting more money into farmers’ pockets; it also actually steers development, imposing conditions on how money made from fair trading should be spent. In one scene, Meskela brings back some profit to locals in a farming community, saying ‘this money is given to you from the profit obtained from the fair trade market’ – and then proceeds to demand that they use it for ‘social development’ projects, like schools, health centres and clean water. In the end, a resolution is passed to build a new school. Fair enough – education and the chance to learn about other things besides coffee beans is not a bad start. But once farmers manage to bring in some hard-earned cash, shouldn’t they at least have the right to decide what they spend it on without being dictated to? What if they wanted to spend it on machinery, on things that might improve their day-to-day lives and their yield?

Meskela tells us the good life is not about having a car, electricity or a motorbike, but rather is about receiving a school education and having clean clothes and nutritious food. In truth, the bar is only as a high as we set it. It’s a shame that for some activists, that bar is set at ‘basic needs’, and that for others the opportunity to drink an endless variety of coffee in plush cafés has become a source of guilt rather than a benchmark level of the kind of comfort everyone has the right to reach – and to go beyond.

Black Gold was the ‘Official Selection’ at the 2006 London Film Festival and screened at the RESFEST10 festival in London on Sunday 19 November. It is currently showing across the US.

The Bitter Aftertaste was selected for screening at the 2005 Raindance Film Festival and was on Propeller TV on Sunday 19 November. A compressed version of the film is available via the WORLDwrite website.

Read on:

Fair trade: the bitter aftertaste, by Philip Cunliffe, 11 May 2006

(1) Other films on this theme at the 2006 London Film Festival included Richard Linklater’s Fast Food Nation, Nick Broomfield’s Ghosts and Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread.

(2) See the director’s statement on the Black Gold website

(3) See A feel-smug movie, by Dolan Cummings

(4) See Why the new Amex card makes me see RED, by Daniel Ben-Ami

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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