Coffee enthusiasts love to share photos of sweeping mountain landscapes, bright-eyed workers, and rough, earth-covered hands cupping a pile of fresh beans. Those images are real and convey the gentle, inspiring side of coffee growing but there is another side. A very dark, very sinister, very brutal side of coffee growing that too many farmers face daily — and that is what we are talking about today: slavery, exploitation, and dangerous terrain.
Slavery and child labor
Behind those smiling photos of coffee harvesters is the dark, demeaning reality of indentured servitude, slavery, and child labor. Brazil, the greatest coffee producer in the world, built much of their industry on slave labor. While legally abolished in 1888, slave labor and indentured servitude persist on many of Brazil’s larger commercial farms — so much so that the Brazilian Ministry of Labour and Employment started publishing a bi-annual Dirty List in 2003. The Dirty List publicly “names and shames companies found to be profiting from slave labor”1. In other areas along the bean belt, farmworkers, while not outright slaves, are controlled through debt peonage, a form of servitude where individuals are forced to work off a debt.
Slavery may be the most abdominal issue on coffee farms but it is followed closely by child labor and exploitation. While larger farms strive to provide onsite educational or vocational schools for children, smaller farms generally lack the funds. The annual harvest takes place high in the mountains and for many farming parents this often means deciding between education (if they can afford it) and supplemental income. For struggling, low-income families, the choice is obvious. According to a 2004 report released by the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour, during the harvest season, approximately 40% of Honduras’s workers are children. This fact sheet went on to note that children as young as 6-years old often work 8-10 hour days, harvesting and processing coffee in hazardous conditions ranging from dangerous levels of sun exposure to agrochemicals poisoning2. While this report focused on Central and South America, these statistics can likely be applied to other growing countries in the bean belt. To add insult to injury, working coffee children worldwide only make a pittance, a mere fraction of what the adults make… and may lose a limb or their life doing so.
While I would like to say child labor is the worst a free farmer will face, it simply isn’t true. Behind the idyllic pictures of pristine farms and perky pickers lies a much darker, deadly, reality for coffee workers: civil war, landmines, and gangs. Many of the world’s top coffee growing countries, including El Salvador, Colombia, Peru, and Ethiopia have suffered horrific, prolonged civil wars. While civil war impacts an entire nation, the coffee growing regions of these countries shouldered an exceptionally high percentage of the conflict — mountains and borderlands (prime coffee growing areas) were often contested by warring factions and commandeered by guerilla fighters. Many of these wars lasted for years and while tensions have subsided, the wars’ devastating legacies, including violent gangs, discrete artillery, and hidden landmines continue to threaten coffee growing communities. Deadly gang activity / control and lawlessness run rampant on the mountains and while most farmers take great precautions to protect their communities, violence, intimidation, and murder are far too common. In areas where violent activity has abated, such as in the forests surrounding Lake Kivu, landmines and discarded artillery make it dangerous and difficult to get harvested beans to processing facilities. According to the Polus Center for Social and Economic Development, “10 of the top 14 coffee producing countries are plagued by landmines and other remnants of war… Colombia, the world’s third-largest producer of coffee, is considered the most heavily mined country in the world3.” While there is little we can do as purchasers to curb the violence or clean the land, we can honor the courage and perseverance of coffee workers by acknowledging their realities and paying a fair price for our beans.
If you are horrified by what you’ve read today, I’m sorry and I’m glad. I applaud your compassion! No one likes to think of their morning cup as the product of maiming and exploitation. The good news is, it doesn’t have to be. Know who you are buying from. Learn about your roaster. Learn about the farm and worker conditions. Ask questions — if enough people do, it may literally save or improve someone’s life.
2Bitter Brew: The Stirring Reality of Coffee
3Conflict along the coffee belt
Coffee vs gangs: Would-be criminals become coffee entrepreneurs
Slave labor found at second Starbucks-certified Brazilian coffee farm
Landmines a Long-Lasting Threat to Farmers in the Coffeelands
It is disturbing, One of the other disturbing things (at least with chocolate, and I think with coffee too) is that the companies relying on child labor are reallllllyyyy slooooooooow to change their ways.
Hi Brendan, it is disturbing! Coffee has really cracked down on it and many of the top farms really try to provide educational opportunities for youth. It is definitely a challenging area to tackle but we felt it was important to bring it up. Thanks for your feedback.
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