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What does “fair trade” really mean? This gripping and beautifully produced documentary answers that question by looking at one man’s struggle to get fair compensation for coffee growers in Ethiopia.

Java Man

Coffee workers get pennies but need dimes
Coffee workers get pennies but need dimes

The film centers on the efforts of Tadesse Meskela, the general manager of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Co-operative Union, who travels the world to market the coffee produced by his co-op and to negotiate better prices for the African country’s product. He repeats a simple message: Africans are not fairly compensated for their crops, especially when considering the value that people all over the world place on their daily cup of coffee.

The tireless Meskela also spends time educating his growers about what coffee is worth, informing them that people in the West pay $2.90 for a cup of coffee. The growers are accustomed to having a buyer come to them and inform them of the going rate for a kilo (2.2 pounds) of unroasted beans, typically $0.13.

Because prices for coffee are artificially low, Africans are forced to depend on international aid. Meskela says a ten-fold increase in compensation is required to allow Ethiopians to continue to provide the world with some of its finest coffee and to afford to clothe and educate their children, which they cannot do today.

The world may not be ready to pay $29.00 for a cup of coffee, but if the supply chain can be shortened, as Meskela hopes, the growers can still be compensated and consumers can still afford their morning buzz.

The Whole Cup

Black Gold also explores the broader context of coffee by taking us to the world barista championships, to cafes where coffee drinkers and gung-ho Starbucks managers are oblivious to the plight of the impoverished growers half a world away, and to the Italian headquarters of Illy, where professional tasters agree that the quality of the coffee from Ethiopia is some of the finest in the world.

We see the international commodities trading floor and the scene of the WTO talks that influence African trade policies — often behind closed doors, closed even to the representatives of the nations most affected by these policies.

While these scenes and Meskela’s impassioned words build a strong case for fair trade policies, the most haunting is the scene at an aid tent in a spindly toddler gets weighed and sent home with her mother without help because she’s only “semi-malnourished” and so doesn’t qualify for their aid.

I think sadly of the fellow shown hacking down his beautiful, mature coffee plants to clear the field for growing chat (also called qat), a narcotic leaf that local men chew to “feel better” and that brings in a higher income per acre than coffee.

Nor can I shake the image of Meskela going into a London supermarket and searching for his country’s coffee, amidst the bewildering array of choices on the shelf. He finds one or two packages that contain Ethiopian coffee, but as each is branded uniquely, it’s impossible to tell just what the source is.

On Edge

You might presume a documentary on this topic would grow dull, but it never does: Directors Marc and Nick Francis have assembled film that tells a fascinating story that keeps you on edge throughout the film. Not only are the production values high, with gorgeous cinematography and a beautifully composed (and judiciously used) score, but the film is also well edited. It’s one of the most watchable documentaries I have ever seen.

This film is a must-see for the conscientious omnivore, or anyone at all interested in how their grande latte got to their hand. It is a documentary that should become a classic in the growing field of food journalism.