Black Gold: A Coffee Film That Has Starbucks Scared

Treehuggers have probably heard about fair trade coffee, but many aren't familiar with it – and even more don't quite know what fair trade means, or why it's necessary. Despite the fact that a coffee crisis has been financially devastating coffee growers around the world, even as western corporations make a lot of money from coffee sales, the problem still doesn't get much coverage in the mainstream media.

Luckily, Black Gold's hit the theaters. This documentary puts the paradoxes of coffee trade under a glaring, illuminating light. The film juxtaposes how the coffee drinkers of the western world gladly pay $3-$5 for our high-priced espresso drinks, fattening the bottom lines of our corporations — while the crushingly poor farmers producing those yummy espresso beans barely make ends meet.

The hero of the film is Tadesse Meskela, an Ethiopean man who travels all over the world, trying to get the farmers he represents a better price for their coffee. We see him at trade shows, trying to find new buyers by giving out samples. We see him at the Ethiopian coffee auction, pointing out which big corporations are represented by who. And we see him talking to, getting opinions from, and participating in the decision-making for coffee co-ops in Ethiopia.

As you can imagine, Black Gold has Starbucks – which tries to sell itself as a conscientious company – very scared. After all, some of the starving Ethiopians shown in Black Gold are people who rely on the coffee trade – and live in the very region that Starbucks buys coffee from. Marc Francis and Nick Francis, the filmmakers, say that once the film hit Sundance, Starbucks people attended every screening in full damage control mode. Soon afterwards, Starbucks flew Tadesse out to Seattle for a showy weekend conference, during which Starbucks promised to up its purchases of African coffee.

If you're as old as some of us are, you'll remember seeing images of starving Ethiopians in the news in 1984. What's shocking is that this happened again in 2003. In fact, Nick Francis, one of the filmmakers, said things seemed worse this time around in some ways. Back in 1984, coffee farmers had been somewhat better off, and were able to lend some help their fellow citizens. But in 2003, some of the coffee farmers themselves were starving.


Black Gold doesn't provide any clean or clear solutions – Those are up to the viewer to find. And the film won't answer all the questions you might have about fair trade or world trade or many of the other questions you may have. Instead, the film points to some of the underlying problems that are creating the coffee crisis: unfair farm subsidies of western countries, skewed negotiations at the WTO, the aid provided to African countries in lieu of fair trade.

If you're a coffee drinker, this film's a must-see. And if after watching it, you want to get more involved with Black Gold and fair trade, check out this list of actions you can take.

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