"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Sunday, December 04, 2005

'Coffee' a real eye-opener
Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Coffee: A Dark History
By Antony Wild
W.W. Norton, 308 pp, 25.95 dollars

Java junkies, beware. Antony Wild's Coffee: A Dark History is bound to make you think twice about your morning cup, and with good reason.

Wild traces the origin and 500-year history of the spread of the beverage and the crop, their past and present social and economic effects and recent major changes in the industry. In the main, he writes with wry good humor, following his narrative thread down digressive, but informative side alleys. However, his examination of the modern history of coffee is incandescent with moral and aesthetic outrage over exploitative practices that keep many in poverty while ensuring low prices for Western consumers and high profits for multinational corporations engaged in a race to the bottom in terms of taste and quality.

A historian and former coffee buyer widely credited with introducing specialty coffees to Britain, Wild, like the fictional hero of the 19th century Dutch classic Max Havelaar, or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company, is a bitter man, and for much the same reason. While Max Havelaar was a polemic against the injustices of the Dutch colonial system in Java in the 1850s, Wild's book is an indictment of the practices that drive today's multibillion-dollar global coffee industry.

While Wild speculates briefly that it may have been the coffee cherry and not the apple that Eve picked from the Tree of Knowledge, the first recorded consumption of coffee coffee as we know it took place in the 15th century in Yemen by Sufi mystics, who used the drink in rituals. The drink quickly spread throughout the Islamic world, so welcome as an alternative to forbidden alcohol that it became known as "the wine of Araby."

Diplomats from the Ottoman empire brought coffee to the court of Louis XIV in 1669 and the soldiers of the Sultan drank coffee while besieging Vienna in 1683. Coffee and coffeehouses soon swept the continent.

Once the Yemeni port of Mocha's virtual monopoly on the trade was broken, coffee cultivation soon spread to Europe's colonies in Asia and the Americas, where slaves were used in the labor-intensive process, a practice that continued in Brazil until the 1880s. By the 18th century, coffee along with sugar and cotton was the backbone of the colonial slavery-driven export economy.

Wild makes much of the role of coffeehouses in the formation of various groups ranging from the Freemasons to Britain's Royal Society as well as financial institutions including the venerable Lloyds of London, which began as a coffeehouse. In fact, he suggests the Enlightenment may have been nudged along a considerable amount by the caffeination of Europe.

Antipathy toward taxes on tea in Britain's American colonies made coffee a patriotic drink for those seeking independence from the mother country, and the Green Dragon coffee house in Boston, where the Boston Tea Party was planned, was the first headquarters of the American Revolution.

Lengthy digressions on the role of coffee in the empire and exile of Napoleon--one of the deposed emperor's last requests was for coffee--and poet Arthur Rimbaud's later career as a coffee merchant add interest but distract from the punch of Wild's condemnation of the coffee industry.

The United States consumes about a quarter of the world's coffee, importing 75 percent of it from its southern neighbors, a situation Wild contends contributed greatly to the corporate neocolonialism of the 20th century as successive U.S. administrations backed repressive regimes in Latin America as a bulwark against communism and as a source of cheap, labor-intensive agricultural products including sugar, fruit, rubber and, of course, coffee.

Fluctuations in coffee prices resulting from oversupply and occasional crop failures in Brazil, the world's largest producer, were once largely controlled by the International Coffee Organization. It had long been in the interests of the United States to support the ICO to mitigate the poverty and social unrest that could lead to revolution, but with the end of the Cold War the United States embraced a more laissez-faire approach and withdrew from the ICO in the early '90s. At the same time, the U.S.-dominated World Bank and International Monetary Fund extended massive loans to Vietnam to develop its coffee industry, which went from being the world's 42nd largest coffee producer in the 1980s to being number two today.

Wild tracks the consequences of these moves: "In 1991 the global coffee market was worth around 30 billion dollars, of which producing countries received 12 billion dollars, or 40 percent. Current figures suggest that the global revenues from coffee sales are in the region of 55 billion dollars, of which only 7 billion dollars (13 percent) goes to the exporting nations."

He further notes that the spread of coffee cultivation in Vietnam, which grows mainly low-grade robusta coffee used in coffee-blend beverages such as packaged espresso-milk drinks and instant coffees, has followed the same pattern seen in Latin America as indigenous subsistence farmers are driven off their land to make way for coffee-growing sharecroppers.

Wild also mentions the recurring, but unconfirmable rumor that Vietnamese coffee may be contaminated with dioxins from the thousands of tons of Agent Orange chemical defoliant sprayed on the country during the Vietnam War. Another chapter details the hazards of caffeine and the industry's drive to increase the levels of the addictive stimulant in their products while compromising the scientific information available to the public on the world's most popular drug.
Such chilling thoughts, along with Wild's smooth, bold and acidic prose style, make Coffee a book that is sure to keep the reader up at night.
(Dec. 4, 2005)

No comments: