Poverty in that morning cup

Times Staff Writer

Coffee generates revenue of $80 billion per year worldwide, up from a relatively paltry $30 billion in 1990. No doubt this rather astonishing increment reflects the ascendancy of the $4, 16-ounce pumpkin-peppermint-cheesecake McLatte, but it’s also linked to the precipitous decline of the price of coffee in the last five years, which is down 70% from a 1998 high.

In other words, the farmers who grow it get poorer as Starbucks, Sara Lee, Procter & Gamble, Kraft and Nestle get richer, and decline to pass the savings on to you. So, as Nick and Marc Francis’ galvanizing, stealthily devastating documentary “Black Gold” makes clear, the price of coffee in Africa, unlike the price of tea in China, is the result of a global confluence of linked economic and political forces that have nothing to do with the eventual market value of the product itself. Would you like a muffin or a pastry with that?

The second-most-traded commodity in the world after oil, coffee has not only failed to produce “coffee-rich nations,” it has helped to further impoverish poor nations for whom even the tiniest participation in the coffee consumption boom of the last 1 1/2 decades would have meant drastic improvements in the standard of living.


Instead, the unfairly low price of coffee (which is driven down by American and European annual farm subsidies in the neighborhood of $300 billion) makes it impossible for African countries to compete internationally. Ethiopia, which is known as the birthplace of the bean and produces some of the highest quality, most highly prized varieties in the world, recently faced famine. Some not-so-fun facts: A cup of espresso requires 50 perfect, hand-sorted beans to meet the standards of Illy Caffe; an Ethiopian coffee sorter makes half a dollar a day. An Ethiopian coffee farmer makes about 23 cents per kilo of coffee (about a dime a pound), which yields about 80 pricey cups in New York or Antwerp. Farmers are sometimes forced to sell their product for less than it costs to produce, so more of them are turning to the cultivation of a fast-growing, extremely lucrative narcotic plant called chat. Given the picture, it doesn’t take a great imaginative leap to see less famine, more aerial bombing of agricultural fields in that country’s future.

Taken on their own, these and many other dispiriting facts presented in the documentary tell a story as riveting and jaw-dropping as anything currently starring Leonardo DiCaprio. But “Black Gold” transcends both dramatization and the dry presentational quality of a film like “An Inconvenient Truth” by telling the story of Ethiopia’s coffee farmers like the epic tragedy that it is -- complete with lyrical cinematography, a low-key electronic score (by Andreas Kapsalis) that’s somehow moving and chilling at once, and a dashing romantic hero for a protagonist.

Tadesse Meskela is the Addis Ababa-based general manager of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union. In his capacity as representative of 101 Ethiopian coffee farming co-operatives, he represents 74,000 coffee farmers, and he has made it his mission in life to improve their livelihoods. Handsome, dedicated, soft-spoken and eminently serious, Meskela travels the world trying to find buyers willing to pay a fair price for their superior product and ignore the much lower prices established on the New York and London commodities exchanges.

What makes Meskela so compelling is that he looks like a lighthearted man made heavy by the gravity of his responsibility. He stands in stark contrast to some of the coffee industry’s minor but hilariously self-important figures. Comic relief is provided by a Canadian barista psyching himself up before an international espresso-making competition. “I make coffee for a living and I get paid for it,” he says, wiping the flop-sweat (or caffeine-induced clamminess) from his brow.

The manager of the original Starbucks store in Seattle’s Pike Place market gushes about how “so ... special” it has been to touch people’s lives in her capacity as a franchise coffee merchant. The woman in particular is such low-hanging fruit that you’ll worry she’ll graze the ground and bruise, and yet it’s clear she’s within her rights to plead ignorance.

The main villain of the story is the World Trade Organization, into whose power structure the Francis brothers provide an eye-opening glimpse. At the WTO talks in Cancun, Mexico, in 2002, European Union delegates negotiating behind closed doors outnumbered African delegates by the hundreds. Among corporations, Starbucks declined to make an executive available for interviews for the film, as did Sara Lee, Procter & Gamble, Kraft and Nestle.


A fascinating portrait of a dedicated reformer within a fascinating portrait of a country (presented here in a way African countries are rarely presented in film), “Black Gold” is the latest independently funded documentary David to go after corporate Goliaths. “Black Gold” moves at an inexorable pace, painstakingly building a case until suddenly it looms very large and casts an even longer shadow.

“Black Gold.” Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 18 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle’s Grande, 345 S. Figueroa St., Downtown L.A. (213) 617-0268.