From Socialist Voice, July 2007

Film review

Black gold

“Trade precedes the flag and has outlasted it. Giant European and North American companies continue to dominate the economies of fledgling African states. The new word for this is neo-colonialism. It is much the same as informal empire: the invisible empire of trade and influence that had preceded the scramble.”—Thomas Pakenham, The Scramble for Africa.
     Once in a while a film comes along that is a little less like the expected. In all kinds of genres we’ve had some real gems in the last few years. Good Night and Good Luck and The Fog of War looked at the lives and legacies of two extraordinary American men—the reporter Ed Morton and the politician Robert McNamara—and in doing so raised ethical questions that are even more pertinent now: the role of the media and the politics of war. The Corporation examined how exactly the law protects the predatory actions of transnational corporations in their psychopathic quest for ever-increasing profits, with the destruction of the environment and abuses of human rights part and parcel of their modus operandi. Michael Moore’s exposés are well known—so much so that any documentary-maker since Bowling for Columbine cannot escape being compared with him.
     If a documentary can present the facts of a situation that is unsatisfactory and demonstrate how things can be different then it’s empowering the viewer with a choice to do nothing or to participate in some way in positive change.
     One such film shown recently is Black Gold, directed by Marc Francis and Nick Francis, which looks at how a little bean has meant huge wealth and dire poverty, north and south of the Equator. The global coffee industry is now worth more than $80 billion a year, yet coffee-growers in the Third World are becoming poorer, not richer—despite the hopes that “black gold” would bring untold wealth to the economies of these countries.
     First cultivated and made into a drink in the ancient kingdom of Ethiopia, the coffee bean was later brought to Arabia, Asia, Europe and the Americas and is now fast replacing tea as Ireland’s most popular hot beverage. Coffee became a commodity as valuable as gold, and in the 1980s some governments south of the Equator were sold the idea that growing coffee as a cash crop could help pay off their foreign debt. Of course that’s not what happened, and in looking at the situation in Ethiopia the film-makers show how and why not.
     This film brings us on a journey from farming co-ops in rural Ethiopia to elegant coffee-houses in northern Italy, stressed New York office workers guzzling take-away coffee from Styrofoam cups, and, most tellingly of all, the 2003 summit meeting of the World Trade Organisation in Cancún and the New York stock exchange, where coffee prices are fixed daily.
     Sitting in a café afterwards, I looked into my coffee cup, and the kaleidoscope of images from the film made it seem that choosing to drink coffee is in itself a political decision. Why am I drinking coffee? What would I drink if coffee—and tea—had never been brought to these shores?
     I thought of the quiet, back-breaking work of the farmers, the buyers, the frenetic excitement of the barrista competitions, the madness of the traders at the stock exchange—all to put a hot drink into my cup, whose slightly bitter taste never lives up to its delicious aroma; an addictive hot drink, with no known benefits to health whatsoever but one that many of us believe we can’t get through the day without.
     Two friends had seen the film with me, and, talking over what we’d seen and got from the film, we wondered about the cultivation of cash crops and possible alternatives. Coffee, tea, cocoa, chocolate, sugar—all grown as cash crops, with no nutritional value and all highly promoted and advertised in our culture; all addictive yet accepted as part of our daily diet. Along with cotton, all have links back to the slave trade.
     The coffee-growers in Ethiopia are not slaves, yet they are enslaved by a system that keeps them living below the poverty line, with little hope of escape. The film does, however, illustrate the fact that there is a possible alternative for the coffee-growers. By joining the union of co-ops they get a better market for their coffee, because the union bypasses the big buyers, such as Kraft, Starbucks, Nescafé, Procter and Gamble, and Sara Lee, by promoting their coffee at trade fairs and aiming at the smaller coffee companies, including Fairtrade.
     Getting a few cents more per kilo for their coffee can mean the difference between being able to send their children to school and not. The question is, are we prepared to pay perhaps a euro or two more for fair-trade coffee, as opposed to the main brands we’ve grown up with?
     There are two main problems with documentaries of this sort. One is that the viewers are left feeling that there is no way the situation can be remedied; but that is not the case with this film. Another problem is that the people affected are often portrayed in a one-dimensional manner as victims, with their innocence or simplicity being an obstacle to any change for the better. The people who suffer the consequences of injustice are rarely given the opportunity to speak to the camera, so that in the end the viewer feels little connection to them.
     Black Gold is different in this respect. To “join the dots” in the coffee industry, the film-makers travelled with a man called Tadesse Meskela as he visits coffee-buyers in London and mans a stall at a coffee trade fair in the United States. He is the representative of the Union of Coffee-Growers, and in the film we see him meet the members of the coffee co-ops, explaining how the union splits the profits equally between all member co-ops, to be used for social projects: clinics, schools, etc.
     In one memorable scene the members of the co-op discuss how best to spend their money. A vote is taken, and a school is to be built. The mood is dynamic, the decision is applauded with warmth, and it’s clear that there is hope for the future.
     Throughout the film Ethiopians from various walks of life are interviewed. A farmer’s son explains with controlled anger how he will never grow coffee, having seen his father toil for nothing; a reporter from the Ethiopian newspaper Fortune covers the breakdown of WTO talks in Cancún; an aid worker points out that continuing dependence on foreign aid is having a demoralising effect on the people and that trade, not aid, is the answer.
     The grim example of one farmer’s lot rang alarm bells. He told how he had taken the difficult but inevitable decision to destroy the coffee trees he had spent years cultivating and replace them with a bush that produces leaves that are used as a narcotic, called chat. Third-World economies are increasingly dependent on the growth and sale of narcotics, such as opium, coca, and marijuana. The irony is that as long as they remain illegal in the west, control over profits remains with the Third World farmers who have been left with no other option. “A hungry man is an angry man,” sang Bob Marley several decades ago; and the anger of the representatives of the poorer countries is all too evident when they are interviewed in Cancún.
     This is a film that does much to connect two very different worlds and points to possible solutions, and the figure of Tadesse Meskela emerges as an example of what’s needed: vision, determination, energy, and, as his wife says, love. “He loves his farmers, and he works hard to get a good price for their coffee so they can improve their lives.”
     The makers of this film have set up a web site ( that provides information on related campaigns, such as last year’s lobbying of Starbucks to allow Ethiopian coffee farmers to trademark place-names that have given their name to a variety of Ethiopian coffee beans.


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