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The Connoisseur’s Book of Indian Coffee

Planting times

Elite Clubs of India

By Aparna Datta

The crash in global coffee prices in 2000 resulted in two anomalistic results in the years following. The first was the posting of record profits by the coffee roasting and trading majors, and the second was the near total destruction of the economic status of the coffee grower especially the small grower around the world. This and the fear of large scale human and environmental degradation in producing countries led to fierce criticism of the coffee roasting and trading majors by influential NGOs characterized by the stinging Oxfam International Coffee report in 2002.

Fearing a public relations disaster and a consumer backlash, some German trade interests with the blessing of the coffee roasting majors developed what would be for them a largely painless, costless social and environmental initiative that would have the combined effect of blunting NGO criticism, salvaging a damaged reputation, and transferring the entire responsibility of operating the initiative to the hapless producer while at the same time keeping their own costs and bottomlines intact. This brilliant plan was the Common Code for the Coffee Community or the 4C.

The conditions enumerated in the code to be followed by the grower for the protection and improvement of human and environmental standards in his area are almost limitless. Some of which are yet to be fully adopted in some developed countries due to cost constraints. The auditing and verification framework for compliance by the grower is designed to be watertight and foolproof. There would also be a meticulously planned method of tracing the coffee beans from the field to and up to their receipt by the importer / roaster.

Conversely there is not a single verifiable condition placed on buyers / roasters in this code. If anything there are fallback or mitigating clauses to protect them from any adverse fallout of the code.

The code had the effect of dangling tow mirages, one in front of prying and disapproving and a concerned consuming public. And the other in front of the coffee framer. The first was that of a group of socially committed corporations and entities in the consuming world committed to high human and environmental practices for sustainability in the coffee chain. And the second mirage hung in front of the grower was the possibility of obtaining higher prices in the future for those who signed on and took on the burden of the significant cost of complying with all the elements of the code. The possibility, but never the guarantee. Because to provide one would be to explicitly accept the responsibility of sharing the cost of adopting and maintaining the sustainability practices laid out in the Code. This was probably never their intention in the first place.

Knowing that the chances of enforcing the code through statutory multilateral trade bodies like WTO was never an option because of the patently one-sided nature of the Code and the plethora of non trade issues bundled into it, the framers of the code sheathed it in the velvet glove of optionality while hinting at the iron fist of eventual enforcement by Governments in consuming countries.

Predictably it drew sharp adverse reactions from most producer bodies and countries, and resulted in a scathing indictment of the place by the ICO. But disturbingly instead of giving pause for a reappraisal of the code, if anything the designers and movers of the plan seem intent on expediting its adoption.

Producer countries and bodies must be aware of the effects of this Code as designed on the coffee grower in the world especially the small grower. Coffee roasting, trading and buying entities must not be permitted to ram inequitable, costly and un-remunerative programs down the throats of already suffering growers threatening their sustainability and their sustenance. Environmental groups must be persuaded to refrain from using major buyers and traders as tools to promote their goals unfairly, knowing that here traders wield tremendous power over farmers. They must work directly with grower bodies and agencies in producing countries to achieve their laudable social and environmental goals.

Editorial published in The Planters’ Chronicle, October 2005
Courtesy: United Planters’ Association of Southern India (UPASI)

PENSCAPE – January 2006



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