Directed and Produced by Marc Francis and Nick Francis
77 minutes, 2006,
Official Selection of the 2006 Sundance Film Festival
Black Gold asks us “to wake up and smell the coffee,” to face the unjust conditions under which our favorite drink is produced and to decide what we can do about it. The film traces the tangled trail from the two billion cups of coffee consumed each day back to the coffee farmers who produce the beans. In particular, It follows Tadesse Meskela as he tries to get a living wage for the 70,000 Ethiopian coffee farmers he represents. In the process Black Gold provides the most in-depth study of any commodity on film today and offers a compelling introduction to the “fair trade” movement galvanizing consumers around the globe.
After oil, coffee is the most actively traded commodity in the world with $80 billion dollars in retail sales. But farmers make as little as three cents for every cup of coffee sold in the U.S. or Europe. Most of the rest of the money goes to the middlemen, especially the four giant food conglomerates which control the coffee market. Black Gold sits in on the coffee auctions in Addis Ababa, London and New York where the fate of the coffee growing nations is decided.
In Ethiopia, for example, 15,000,000 people are dependent on the coffee industry; 67% of its foreign trade is in coffee. Between 2001 and 2003, when the price for coffee hit a 30 year low, farmers could no longer feed themselves, famine spread and feeding stations had to be established throughout the coffee region. School teachers went unpaid and many farmers, in desperation, tore out their coffee trees and replanted their hillsides in chat, a narcotic widely used in East Africa.
Black Gold explains how international commodities markets are rigged against the nations of the global South. Developed countries like the U.S. subsidize agricultural products, flooding the market with low-priced goods, while demanding that poor countries remove tariff barriers and open their markets. We watch the 2003 World Trade Organization summit in Cancun collapse as the African, Pacific and Caribbean countries walk out over the demands of the developed nations.
Tadesse Meskela, the representative of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union in Southern Ethiopia, seeks to circumvent the global commodity exchanges by tirelessly traveling the world selling premium grade coffee directly to coffee roasters who will pay more for his high grade product and who support the idea of paying farmers a living wage. He returns the profits to the cooperative members who use the extra income to build the schools and infrastructure needed to develop their communities.
At the Cancun conference, one African delegate explains, “Trade is more important than aid.” Seven million Ethiopians are dependent on aid and Africa exports a smaller percentage of world trade today than 20 years ago - only 1%. If that figure only doubled it would represent 70 billion dollars, five times the amount of aid the continent receives.
The filmmakers of Black Gold, brothers Nick and Marc Francis, have said their purpose was “to make a film that forced us, as Western consumers, to question some of our basic assumptions about our consumer lifestyle and its interaction with the rest of the world. And in so doing, we wanted to challenge the way in which the Western media bombards its audiences with an overload of de-contextualized images depicting poverty in Africa with no link to our own lives.”
After seeing Black Gold coffee will never taste the same again. A sip of cappuccino will remind viewers of the farmers who grew the beans and of their own power to pressure corporations where it hurts most – the bottom line. The film reminds us that ordinary citizens can influence trade, environmental and human rights policy, voting with their dollars for a more equitable relationship between the global North and South.
In a unique and collaborative effort, Oxfam America has partnered with California Newsreel to promote Black Gold, to provide film viewers with opportunities to learn more about the international coffee crisis, and to take actions that address the plight of the impoverished coffee farmers in Ethiopia and other coffee-producing countries.