Java's inferno
‘Black Gold’ travels to the underworld of coffee trading


by Judith Reynolds

We’re in the people business serving coffee,” chirps an American teen-ager in a Seattle Starbucks. She appears in the middle of the film “Black Gold.” In her perky uniform, she tells us she loves her job and recently got promoted to manager. “Everything is really, really, great,” she says.

Before you get another whiff of mall euphoria, filmmakers Nick and Marc Francis plunge you into the flip side of the international coffee story – a famine in Ethiopia. At a Therapeutic Feeding Center, mothers bring in skeletal children for emergency treatment. The coffee farmers and their families have been selling their beans for lower and lower prices. “We’re poor again,” says one of the farmers.

Suspended from a large hook, emaciated children in a crude harness are weighed to determine if they qualify for aid. Among other things, admission criteria include such things as “too weak to suck.” Yet one painfully thin child is rejected for being a few ounces over the minimum weight. The discouraged mother slowly walks out the center’s rusty gate. What’s the connection to Starbucks?

The coffee industry may be booming, but millions of growers, principally in Africa, are near starvation. The crisis is particularly evident in Ethiopia, ironically the birthplace of coffee.

In 2002, filmmakers Nick and Marc Francis learned that Ethiopia faced another famine, and they got angry. “We were provoked to make a film about coffee,” the directors write in a joint statement. Twenty years earlier, the country experienced a different famine, and the world responded with aid. In that 20-year span, the coffee industry has boomed into an $80 billion phenomenon controlled by multinational corporations. Today, coffee is one of the most valuable trading commodities on worldwide markets, second only to oil. Yet vast numbers of poor coffee farmers are paid pennies for their produce. What’s wrong with this picture?

The main challenge facing Nick and Marc Francis was to make a complex, economic story human. They achieve this by focusing on one man and one coffee cooperative, both buffeted by policies set by the World Trade Organization.

Tadesse Meskela is our guide, our Virgil, taking us to the underworld of international coffee production, distribution and sales. Meskela is the general manager of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative in Ethiopia. He represents 75,000 local members who must compete with conglomerates like Kraft, Proctor and Gamble, Nestle, and Starbucks – not to mention the World Trade Organization which sets prices and controls distribution channels. This is a tangled world where the haves and have-nots meet, and the filmmakers, in a fast-moving, highly cinematic manner, make it come to life

Humid African villages surrounded by small coffee farms are one part of the equation. It’s there that a daily double shot of backbreaking hand labor and poverty go together. Contrast that with the cool underbelly of WTO’s behind-closed-door negotiations in Cancun by men in crisp suits.

The film moves quickly from one contrasting pair of scenes to another: field and factory, farmers and businessmen, the hard work of harvest and the humdrum of trade fairs. Sweeping panoramas alternate with brief text screens. There are a lot of facts to absorb, and the filmmakers know how to simplify and balance material.

At the core of this fine documentary is one man, Meskela. Born outside of Addis Ababa into rural poverty, he worked his way up and into university studies. Afterward, he worked in an agricultural bureau and developed a cooperative system as a way for Ethiopian farmers to conserve funds normally paid to middlemen. We witness scenes of workers voting hard-earned minimal funds to be set aside for a new school building.

Glenn Lathrop, of Desert Sun Coffee Roasters, has organized a showing of “Black Gold” at 4 p.m. on Sun., Sept. 9, the day after Durango’s annual Saturday coffee festival.

This showing at the Abbey is free, but it is also a fund-raiser for a school library in the Ethiopian community of Afursa Waro.

“I encourage people to come to the film with an open mind,” Lathrop said in a recent interview. “It’s a vehicle to raise awareness about the impact of Fair Trade on a common product. This is specifically about the Ethiopian coffee industry. We were looking for a way to raise money for a library over there. And this is it.” •



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