Ashanti Coffee: How Far Away Troubles Affect Us

The lead story in the Economist this week is about Zimbabwe, about how its economy has descended into chaos, how gangs are rampaging through the country and how production of crops and goods is at levels not seen since before WW2. These stories can be shocking, but for us in North America they are distant from our daily lives and do not affect us directly.

However it is surprising how complex and big, global issues can hit you at the local level. A few weeks ago, while buying a coffee in a warming hut at the top of Blue Mountain, a minor ski hill overlooking the small town of Collingwood Ontario, I noticed signs describing it as Ashanti Coffee. TreeHugger loves supporting local green initiatives, and looking it up I found that:

"Amy & David Wilding Davies grow coffee on eastern facing slopes in the Chipinge region of Zimbabwe in beautifully rich red soils. They have made the effort to maintain 50% of Ashanti in its natural state for conservation of the indiginous forest....The 250 full time employees and their families are housed on the farm in traditional houses with additional communal cooking facilities and running water. The welfare of their employees and families is important to Amy & David. All employees and their children are fed a hot meal each day at lunchtime. Amy & David were awarded 'Coffee Growers of the Year' for 2003 in Zimbabwe." Furthermore they remit a percentage of their sales back to the people living in rural districts;"Every year the children, parents and teachers come from Maundwa Primary School to pick coffee and raise money for their many needs. Ashanti donates 10% of their picking totals back to the school as well as a percentage of all our yearly sales."

I continued looking for information about Fair Trade and certification of what they were doing, and found nothing. Fair trade is geared to the small grower and the co-op, and I thought that it might not work for a private grower. I contacted them and manager David Brennen replied:

"The short answer is that it's a bit of a square peg - round hole situation. Although we use responsible practices that parallel those of the Fairtrade movement and similar ethical organizations, our grower direct business model doesn't really fit into the Fairtrade structural framework.

We don't really fit on the grower side because a Fairtrade grower must be either a smallholder farmer who is a member of a licensed coop, or a commercial operator whose labour force is economically disadvantaged or marginalized by the conventional trading system.

We're neither, since we're not a smallholder, and since our labour force isn't economically disadvantaged or marginalized. We already operate in a socially and economically responsible way that meets and in many ways exceeds the substantive objectives of leading ethical organizations.

We don't fit in the Fairtrade importer and roaster categories because we don't buy coffee from anyone – we grow, import and roast our own coffee, and no payment changes hands between any roasters, importers or producers. "

I wanted to learn more before I wrote about this. After all, I keep promoting Fair Trade, and here is the outsider, dare I say white farmer, setting up in Zimbabwe and is this something that I can support? It got far more complex. I learned from the Mail & Guardian that:

A white commercial farmer was chased off his land in Zimbabwe and the manager of a coffee plantation was beaten up by gun-toting men, the owners of the properties told Agence France Presse (AFP) on Thursday.

Allan Warner, a South African farm manager, received 12 stitches on his head after he was beaten up by a group of about 15 armed men at a coffee farm near the town of Chipinge, in southeastern Zimbabwe.

"We were on the farm on Wednesday morning when we were attacked by a group of militia armed with a Uzi automatic gun," said coffee farmer David Wilding-Davies.

"Shots were fired and a farm manager was attacked with a steel pipe, resulting in him having to get 12 stitches," Wilding-Davies, a Canadian investor who bought the Ashanti coffee farm in 2000, told AFP by telephone.

And it turns out that Amy and David, owners of Ashanti, did lose their homestead and the custodial properties. David Brennen responded again:

"Title to these properties remains unchanged and court orders are in place directing possession to be returned to David and Amy, so from a legal standpoint at least, we control the properties.

However the reality on the ground is different. Possession of the homestead was seized last year, putting David and Amy out of their home, and the existing court orders are essentially unenforceable due to the political situation.

We have this year's coffee crop off the custodial property and in transit to Canada now, giving us assured production for this year. A manager is working a reduced portion of the remaining custodial property, but future coffee crops are uncertain due to seizure of large tracts of the best land, and the very unstable political climate.

The farms that are taken are essentially stripped of everything that will produce a quick cash return for the new possessors, and rapidly degenerate into a state of neglect. As a consequence, production of some of the best East African coffee has been lost."

Amy and David are looking for new land in more stable parts of Africa, and hope to re-establish themselves. I have erased a dozen cliched endings about the flavour of tears and will only say that when I drink my Ashanti coffee tomorrow in the snowbound hut at the top of Blue Mountain, it will taste very different. ::Ashanti Coffee

Tags: Coffee | Fair Trade

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