Though I have never been a coffee-drinker, the ideological and symbolic weight of coffee has not escaped me. With caffeine for the office worker and flavor for the distinguished upper-class palate, coffee's appeal stretches across many socioeconomic categories and occupies a unique register of social and professional life. And yet, as with most commodities, I find myself on the consumption side of the chain. A privileged position, to be sure, since the production of coffee has long been associated with labor exploitation, environmental damage, and human rights abuses. This widely publicized underside of coffee production, which has lead to the emergence of fair trade and organic labels for coffee, now leads me to ask about the viability of labeled coffee in the wake of the ongoing Zapatista struggle for indigenous rights in Chiapas, Mexico.
[...] Furthermore, Starbucks obligates producers to sell their coffee through Starbucks-affiliated importers which, in this case, turns out to be the largest Mexican coffee marketing corporation, AMSA (of the Omnicafe-Atlantic Coffee group), which engages in decidedly non-equitable commercial practices. It is easy to forget that with the entry of a major international corporation into fair trade networks, relations between campesinos, small buyers, and certifying organizations change dramatically. The promise of greater demand for this coffee, then, is matched by the danger of losing sight of the founding principals of equitable, personal relationships between buyers and sellers. [...]
[...] University of California, Berkeley. Murphy, Ellen Contreras. Selva and the Magnetic Pull of Markets: Organic Coffee Growing in Mexico.” Grassroots Development 19:1, pp 27-34. Mutersbaugh, Tad. Serve and certify: paradoxes of service work in organic- coffee certification. Society and Space 22 (2004) pp 522-552. Renard, Marie-Christine. Quality, Regulation, and Power. Journal of Rural Studies 21 (2005) pp 419-431. Roseberry, William. The Rise of Yuppie Coffees and the Reimagination of Class in the United States. American Anthropologist 98:4 (1996) pp 762-775. The [...]
[...] The Danger and Promise of Growth In discussions of the viability of fair trade coffee, the question is often asked, such products really compete, survive, or make a difference within rights-neutral capitalist regimes of production and exchange?” The question is an important one in that it calls attention to a larger economic and political powers with which labeled coffee contends. However, I think that the question too quickly posits a monolithic and impersonal Capitalism without paying attention to the contingent and tenuous quality of capitalist hegemony. [...]
[...] I argue that Zapatismo offers robust principles for labeled coffee to follow, but also that organic and fair trade cooperatives “talk back” to Zapatista conceptions of rights in challenging and productive ways. Strong relationships matter, and this may be the common denominator of the many reasons to remain hopeful. Though I began this essay by mentioning that I do not drink coffee, it seems appropriate to end it by admitting that it is never too late to start. WORKS CITED Appadurai, Arjun. [...]
[...] In the case of organic and fair trade coffees, the quality criterion takes precedence over price in a particularly pronounced way. Because of this asymmetry, we must pay attention to the discourse of “quality” through which such coffee is given form, and the material effects that this discursive mode generates. What we learn is that “quality” often operates as a tool of exclusion, but that new organic ideas of quality can undermine its exclusionary effects. A primary observation is that while some aspects of quality inhere in the coffee itself, this quality is highly mediated and elaborated by marketing discourses. [...]
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