A Lens on Ethiopia

04/09/2007 - 9:57 AM
On April 10th, (and repeated in some cases throughout the week) PBS will broadcast the independent film Black Gold. Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, and the movie highlights the continued importance of coffee to the economic well being of Ethiopian farmers and their families. TransFair is encouraging those with a passion for sustainability and social justice to invite others to view and discuss the film by hosting ‘house parties’.

Coffee is more than just a routine start to our day. For many Ethiopians it is the only source of hard currency to keep them on their land and able to support their families. The rural poverty in Africa is overwhelming, and the movie is in many ways discouraging – there are no easy solutions to the issues. Higher coffee prices would help but are not a panacea to the deeply rooted economic issues facing the continent.

While this may not sound like the recipe for an ideal party, the movie has been described as “A modern day David and Goliath Story” (New York Times), “A beautifully made, provocative and very righteous documentary” (Newsday), and “An Al Gore-style message of hope” (Salon.com).

Part of the movie focuses on the growing passion over coffee in the first world, as illustrated by the Illy commitment to quality, an Italian barista’s passion to match each cup to its drinker, and the enthusiasm that Starbucks' rank and file feel for their company. It is an important first step to see that consumer awareness around coffee can be raised beyond what is cheapest in the can; when crops become commodities, farmers seem to be forgotten in favor of simple global pricing mechanisms.

But how do we translate the enthusiasm that most consumers feel for their favorite brand or local coffee shop into enthusiasm for the people in the regions that produce the coffee? The filmmakers clearly see this as one of the great paradoxes of the global coffee trade. Tadesse Meskela of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union, featured prominently in the film, says “Our hope is one day the consumer will understand what he is drinking . It is not only on coffee, all products are getting a very low price - and the producers are highly affected."

The answer is to take to heart the goals of the filmmakers in making this movie, including questioning our basic assumptions about our consumer lifestyle and its interaction with the rest of the world, and understand how we are inextricably connected to the livelihoods of millions of people. If we can translate some of our passion for brands to an equal passion for third world producers, then we can make a difference.

Meskela has become a passionate globe-trotting advocate of Ethiopian coffee growers. But it isn’t just up to him to create that passion. Watch the movie, promote it to your friends, and convince them to care about the origins of the products they consume.

(Note: please follow this link to find out when Black Gold is playing on your local PBS station.)
04/09/2007 - 9:57 AM
04/09/2007 - 9:57 AM