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Is Coffee Production in the World’s Poorest Countries Ethical?

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    The underlying principle of the Rainforest Alliance is based on making the World a better place. The work this charitable organisation carries out is intended to conserve biodiversity and ensure sustainable livelihoods.

    The Rainforest Alliance tackles a range of pressing issues, including farming, wildlife preservation, the conservation of forest, climate change and human rights. One of the areas in which the body is heavily involved is the sustainable and ethical production of coffee. But if recent reports are to be believed, the organisation is falling short in some of its primary objectives.


    Underpaid Workers Could Be Putting the Coffee in Your Cup

    Reports in the Brazilian media are shining a light on some rather dubious labour practices on coffee plantations endorsed by the Rainforest Alliance. The organisation’s monitoring systems, according to several media outlets, is failing to spot glaring irregularities in operations.

    Among the issues being flagged include workers having their pay wrongly docked, which is resulting in many coffee plantation workers receiving less than Brazil’s minimum wage. In addition, investigations have uncovered evidence of workers being hired on a casual basis — without due process, registration or medical check-ups.

    Workers at Monte Verde in Carmo de Minas complained to their local union that deductions from their pay were being implemented due to absence. The workers claim these absences were falsified in order to save the farm owner money. The fact that the national minimum wage in Brazil is just £181 a month demonstrates just how badly coffee workers are being treated.

    Fairtrade Coffee Isn’t Always Fair on Workers

    Another organisation that purports to support ethical farming around the world is Fairtrade. But there is evidence to suggest that any differences Fairtrade status make on the lives of workers in the World’s poorest countries are minimal.

    Fairtrade incentivises growers to ‘dump’ poor quality beans in the Fairtrade pile, as they are guaranteed to secure a minimum price in the World’s markets. However, consumers are now wise to this, and there is now a widespread belief that Fairtrade means inferior. And in many cases, this is absolutely true. Retail buyers therefore avoid the coffee, and turn to uncertified growers with a reputation for quality.

    Both the Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade have both failed to ensure that the workers at the bottom of the pile have their quality of life improved through branded certification programmes. Economists at Harvard University concluded that most of the benefits from such schemes were reserved for skilled workers and plantation owners.

    It’s also true that very little Fairtrade certified coffee comes from the World’s poorest countries. Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania have very few Fairtrade certified farms, so the impact of the scheme is minimal in the very countries that need it the most.


    What Can You Do to Make Coffee Production More Ethical?

    If you want to ensure that your cup of joe is sustainable and ethically produced, my advice is not to take a Rainforest Alliance or Fairtrade logo at its word. Instead, look for coffees that are directly traded between farm and retailer. This might require a little research, but you should be able to identify exactly where you coffee comes from.

    Search for the specific coffee plantation on the Internet, and check that it works to protect the environment and uphold basic human rights. If you can’t find anything, this is probably due to one of two reasons: the coffee you’re drinking hasn’t been sourced directly from the farm; the coffee producer isn’t too worried about ethical production.

    Both Fairtrade and the Rainforest Alliance reward increased production, but this is exactly what we should be avoiding. By restricting coffee production, the basic principles of economics dictate that the price each grower receives for each pound of coffee will increase.

    So the next time you select a coffee, do a little research into it. Where does it comes from? What are the conditions like for workers on the plantation? What measures are taken to ensure production is sustainable and environmentally friendly? Buy more of your coffee from specific farms, and you can be reasonably sure that you’re doing your bit for ethical production.


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