consuming coffee with a conscience

What may look like a brilliant product or the commitment behind the product, as my denomination (United Reformed Church) celebrates its 50th or its jubilee, may offer us more than cups of coffee. The advertising straplines would make you believe that ‘kingdom coffee’, with scriptural warranty from Matthew 13:44, is indeed like some hidden treasure worth selling all you have to purchase the find. It is, of course, coffee with a conscience as it has the ‘fair-traded” brand of which the URC has been an unflinching supporter. So, dig deep into your pockets to purchase your bags of ‘kingdom coffee’ and be assured that ‘every sip will make a difference”. It’s pure heaven. If you wish to stay in heaven do not read further.

As we sip the ‘pure arabica’ jubilee blend from Honduras, with its crown and cross crest and perhaps indulge in exorcising our conscience of our part (knowingly or unknowingly) in the economic inequities around us, it may be that this URC jubilee coffee can afford us an opportunity for some critical ponderings and connecting with historical ‘whitewash’ as we remember, commemorate, and celebrate?

sword and crown

Let us begin with the emblem on the package. I am curious about the background of this. Perhaps those more knowledgeable may come to my rescue and edification as I cannot locate the story behind the concept. In heraldry the crown is an emblem of victory, sovereignty, and empire. The link with coloniality and colonial imaging is clear. And even scriptures, church, and liturgical symbolism use the language of victory, kingdom, and crown. And its significance as the decoration of the ultimate level of rank and power makes bearing the crown a great honour. The sword can also symbolise victory and justice, though rarely the latter. What is usually passed over is how the sword has been used to subjugate, terrorise, and annex peoples and their lands. Perhaps a ploughshare would have been an excellent alternative. And if there is anything need selling or dumping from the Christian imaginary: it is the Crown!

scriptural warranty

Not insignificant is the bible verse from Matthew (13:44): “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field”. Which brings me nicely to the place where the coffee with a conscience comes from – Honduras. Formerly a colonised place (Spanish), I cannot imagine the Spanish crown fully armed finding that place (with stories of its own history), then selling all they have to purchase it. We know the Conquistadores took it by force! As the narrative goes: when the colonisers landed: they planted the flag of their monarchy (empire) on the soil, then fell down on their knees to give God thanks for giving them someone else’s land, rose up after their brief prayer, drew their swords, inquired about the gold, and then fell on the natives with their weapons. It was as deadly dramaturgy. Theology, Church and Empire were hand in glove in the colonial extractive system. Now, mind you do not spill your coffee with a conscience following my spin.

the land and its people

But back to the location of Honduras and its peoples. Honduras existed long before Columbus and the Spanish ‘conquest (1520), authorised by both Spanish and Ecclesial crowns. Consider doing your own read-up on Honduras, especially the current state of affairs.  Avoid Wikipedia. Do not confuse what was Spanish Honduras with British Honduras (now Belize) though the operative word and habit would have been ‘colonial’. Rich in its multi-ethnic history, Honduras’ Mayan presence (in Copan City) grew and prospered for over 700 years and was on the decline when the Spanish landed. The largest country in Central America in terms of its land mass, Honduras today is among the poorest countries in Central America – low income and uneven wealth distribution. The colonial legacies are not necessarily something of the past. So, take you sip with intentional awareness.

coffee, coloniality and capitalism

As we savour our ‘cuppa’ be reminded that the story of coffee is very much linked to colonial history and capitalism. As the story goes, coffee was first discovered by dancing goats of Kaldi in Ethiopia. Native to Africa this bean was extracted from its homeland and traded through the Middle East, Asia, and Europe before being taken to the Americas by European colonizers. Rising demand called for mass production, and most European settlers responded by establishing coffee-growing estates in their colonies. To minimise production costs and extract maximum profit, many of these estates exploited native labour and chattel enslavement of Africans to work on coffee plantations. It’s impossible to discuss the history of coffee without recognizing racism and the role of colonialism and slavery. Consider reading Max Havelaar or the Coffee Auctions of a Dutch Trading Company written in 1860 by Multatuli (pseudonym). Centred around coffee, it is a trenchant expose and polemical tract in taking on the colonial mercantile and capitalist system. This volume should be read alongside the very recent book of Prof Hilary Beckles How Britain Underdeveloped the Caribbean (2021). Coffee is linked to wealth extraction in the Caribbean and the Americas and the exploiting of native and chattel enslavement labour.

consuming public and interrogating fair trade

Whether, coffee, tea, cotton or sugar the value added to these products lies in the consuming country. For coffee the bulk of the profits are in the hands of those who (and the places they are located) roast, package, sell, and consume. As you smell the aroma and sip, ask yourself the question: from colonial time to now (even with fair-trade) how great is the change (if any)? The producers still export the raw commodity with no control over market and pricing. Extractive capitalist exploitation continues to rule as the ‘pricing’ is dictated from the consuming countries. What is interesting is to do your own research on why such brilliant quality coffee produced in a place like Honduras or Jamaica is hardly consumed locally, that the people there cannot afford to drink it?

While fair-trade may be an attempt to break the pattern, we should also ask critical questions of the model and other efforts. Mills and exporters may become located in countries that produce coffee but do investigate where ownership lies. Is it the case that the producers/growers would enjoy more income when prices rise? And do not forget to pay heed to high interest-rate from borrowing/ taking loans to ensure the viability of their (the local producers) livelihood? And ask whether the extra we pay for fair-trade coffee benefit the people who harvest the beans (the workers) or the grower/producer? The ’extractive capitalist’ model has many (dis)ingenious ways to plunder and recolonise. I used to joke with my Dutch friends that to start a coup in the Netherlands, one had to only ban coffee and coffee breaks. I was reminded of this by a recent piece noting that we should consider why employers give us free doses of caffeine at workplace, with space, place, and time to enjoy. Is it because they love and value us? Not really. They have calculated the cost: with our ‘coffee fix’ they can and will extract more from us. So sip wisely and justly with eyes, ears, and minds very wide open.

© caribleaper March 2022

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