The biggest social and environmental crisis to come in coffee-producing countries will be in Africa – it is the ‘new form of colonialism’, and it involves multi-national corporations buying up land for their own use, with insufficient regard for the rights of local people.
The warning was made in at a recent meeting at the Salone del Gusto, the immense exhibition in Turin devoted to the slow food movement, where three high profile players found themselves in a face-to-face debate in front of an audience. They were Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food movement; Daniel Katz, founder of the Rainforest Alliance; and Giuseppe Lavazza, whose brand has recently doubled its ethical-sourcing initiatives with new projects in Africa and Brazil.
The meeting was intended to simply mark the latest stage in Lavazza’s Tierra brand project, in which the company creates alliances with farming communities which supply the coffee for its Tierra product, but does not just go down the conventional route of giving agricultural advice and helping out with local social facilities. Instead, it puts the farmers into a position where they are certified according to Rainforest Alliance criteria, and are able to sell their produce at a premium price on the general international market. The farmers are not tied into Lavazza in return for the help they get, although a commercial relationship continues. They become autonomous producers, in a stronger trading position than they were previously.
The first Tierra project has resulted in coffee-growing communities in Peru, Honduras and Colombia becoming autonomous, and Lavazza has now created new projects in Brazil, India and Tanzania. It was the last of these which provoked the Slow Food movement to warn of what is likely to happen in Africa.
Slow Food is an international movement founded by Carlo Petrini in 1986. Although it was started to protest against a McDonalds branch at a historical site in Rome, it now works to preserve traditional and regional cuisine and encourages sustainability in food farming – essentially, it has a political agenda which is against ‘globalisation of agricultural products’, and thus all multi-national corporations.
Its attitude was left in no doubt with the meeting’s introduction to the founder of the Rainforest Alliance, Daniel Katz – he was announced as ‘the man who decided to talk to the enemy… the big corporations we all find repulsive’.
The way to handle the big corporate brands, Katz told Lavazza, is in creating relationships – the word ‘alliance’ in his organisation’s name was not accidentally chosen.
“I was 26, just out of college, when the whole world was watching the problems with the big corporations. I was holding a banner saying ‘stop’, when I realised that I was not going to stop anything that way.
“I decided to build bridges. You can burn bridges all the time against those you disagree with, but often you will find that you have to rebuild them.
“Today, the big corporations have become dinosaurs – they are still playing their own game, by themselves. But the way the world is moving, customers can now influence the moves of corporations – social media now moves so fast that everyone knows right away when a corporation is not transparent.
“We are working on the ground, and that is the way to build a world for future generations. Lavazza has seen that building these alliances is the only way to have a planet that continues.”
The brand has a history in this, Giuseppe Lavazza told him. It was in the 1930s that his great-grandfather first realised that conventional ways of dealing with coffee farmers was not sustainable, although the term was not in use at the time. His company became unusual in Italian roasting companies in going out to origin.
“We realised that we were a candle in a darkened tunnel, but we were convinced we could change the rules of the game. We established Tierra as a profitable dimension of slow food, and we invested in a long-lasting vision to develop projects to improve living conditions in these countries, to create communities autonomous enough to become ‘entrepreneurs’ who could make best use of the resources of their area.
“In Tanzania, we work with about 750 farms, for 3750 people. We have already implemented training alliances to improve productivity, but we know that in these alliances, we have to be patient. You have to keep in touch with the local people, because the first years of any project are spent making relationships with farmers who are very reticent about having relationships with people from outside!
“We have implemented some new methods, and have brought in some new species of fruit trees for shade, and we are now concentrating on living conditions. We have begun to dream of extraordinary new phases which should inspire entrepreneurs… but you need a great deal of patience, because the rules of entrepreneurs are not always right! This is a way in which we believe we can change the lives of a lot of people with what is relatively little for us.”
It was the reference to Tanzania which caused Carlo Petrini to issue his general warning about the position of coffee farmers in Africa.
“We always talk of ‘sustainable’ and ‘certified’, which are very beautiful words,” said Carlo Petrini. “Even multi-national corporations who are far from being ‘sustainable’ now use those words. So we need people to know the realities of ‘sustainable development’… because when the big corporations start talking about it, you realise the words may be out of control!
“Development that just makes a brand a profit is not right – we have seen ‘development’ which left farmers so poor, they had to eat their own coffee.
“Development that makes profit and allows a farmer to survive is different – only when a company imposes concerns upon itself, and makes them its own as its own practice, that makes it a recognisable virtue.
“Africa is now subject to a new form of colonialism, from large multinationals which come to the country and buy land to produce things for their own countries. Overnight, these lands are sold or leased elsewhere, and farmers lose their land. This new form of colonialism is worse than the last – that cocoa farmers have never tasted a chocolate bar says everything.
“Eighteen million hectares have been lost to the farmers, and we must stop this land-grabbing. We cannot leave these situations to develop, as these people are friends of ours. If we want to be friends, we have to return ownership of land to the growers. If we can do that, we will build stronger friendships.
“Be aware that what happens to Africa in the near future will be important for the entire planet. When we began stealing land mass, we didn’t realise how many Africans would die or come to the Mediterranean – we are now paying for that. We are treating Africans like animals and beasts again.
“We have a responsibility for Africa – we need more projects like Tierra. The first time that Lavazza came to us to talk about coffee, I said ‘leave the commodity exchange, and go and talk to the growing communities’. Tierra slowly turned into their prototype of this, and this has turned into an extraordinary opportunity.
“The economic crisis is an opportunity for change. Lavazza’s decision may be the first to be followed by others on a long and difficult road.”