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The Connoisseur’s Book of Indian Coffee

Planting times

Elite Clubs of India
Fair and square: Acknowledge the origin if the cup is good

By Aparna Datta

It’s not just the caffeine content in tea and coffee that’s causing discomfort these days. For consumers who like these beverages for their refreshing, pick-me-up qualities, the guilt trip being laid on is more like a put-me-down.

“There’s poverty in your coffee cup” was the theme of an Oxfam campaign rolled out in 2002, which pointed a finger at the “Big Four Roasters” – Sara Lee, Kraft, Procter & Gamble and Nestle – for buying nearly half the world’s coffee crop and making huge profits. Some three years on, the coffee crisis has hopefully played itself out, with coffee prices on the international commodity exchanges currently on an upswing. In the meantime though, various Fair Trade labeling systems, such as TransFair, Café Direct and others, have taken root and developed a consumer franchise. In the bad old “coffee crisis” days fair-traded coffees were pegged at around US$1.25 per lb for regular and around US$1.40 per lb for certified organic beans. The question is: in the current bull market, do the premiums for fair trade and organic remain? Fair trade and organic certifications are obtained and paid for by growers who conform to prescribed standards; they are obliged to maintain these benchmarks irrespective of market price fluctuations. So, is the system of brownie points itself sustainable? If there is price sensitivity at the consumer’s end, will retailers reduce their margins so that price premiums to producers can continue?

Another bitter aftertaste is evoked in two recently published books on tea. Sample this blurb from the book jacket of Roy Moxham’s “Tea: Addiction, Exploitation and Empire” (Constable, 2003) “…Intrepid and eccentric British planters opened up hundreds of square miles of tea. Over one million workers were moved to the plantations, like slaves, bought, sold and stolen. When the British lost their Empire, they retained control of much of the world’s tea business, and high profits and low wages still flourish in the time of the tea bag, multinational tea brands and supermarket strangleholds. The British addiction to tea endures. Nor are they alone: tea is now easily the world’s most popular drink, the ultimate comforter and salve for every woe, even immortalized by poets. Yet behind its wholesome and refreshing image lies an extremely violent and murky past, one entertainingly, though often chillingly exposed here for the first time.”

The book “Green Gold – The Empire of Tea” by Alan Macfarlane & Iris Macfarlane (Ebury Press/Random House, London 2003) takes an insiders view of the industry - Iris Macfarlane spent 20 years in Assam as a tea planter’s wife – and presents a multi-dimensional understanding of the evolution of tea cultivation, trade and consumption around the world. Indeed, it’s a balanced view, bringing in a range of voices. The authors make a point about fair trade: “Tea has been an enormous boon for many countries in the world. It should not be beyond the wit of richer nations, and India herself, to ensure that a fairer amount of the profits made from it, as well as from oil and gas, be returned to the people who work in Assam. Extreme actions and boycotting would put the jobs of hundreds of thousands of very poor people at risk. Yet, fair trade, with profits going to producers, should be examined closely in relation to the plantation commodity. Just as it is being examined as a way of improving conditions in the production of cocoa, coffee, rubber, cotton, sugar and other tropical plantation crops, so the considerable profits in tea, and the pleasures of the drinker, should be benefiting the tea labourers much more. It would only seem fair that some of the wealth generated by green gold, which has hitherto flowed elsewhere, should help the people of Assam.” (Page 252).

A related issue is that South Asia is off the map as far as major fair trade and eco labels are concerned: such labels are emerging as instruments of market access, and serve as risk management tools for large retailers. Rainforest Alliance and Conservation International, besides TransFair and Café Direct prefer to concentrate their efforts in Central and South America, occasionally Africa. Organic certifiers such as Skal, IMO, SGS and Naturland are more active in South Asia, but the conversions/certifications are closely co-related to market demand. The Ethical Tea Partnership currently does not have uniform coverage across all tea producing countries. The Common Code for the Coffee Community has had a lukewarm response from producing countries, primarily because buyers are non-committal on the recompense for the enhanced standards.

Labels and certifications work well for single origins and estates, but it’s unclear how the criteria get applied in the case of blends, generally preferred by coffee roaster-retailers and packet tea companies. When it comes to the crunch, would buyers opt for ethical, more expensively produced coffee or tea over bags/cartons of similar quality, available at a bargain, because certain ethical standards were not mandatory? The question being asked is how certain teas, for instance, can be termed ethical, when the prices paid by buyers are below the cost of production at the growers’ end? In some cases, it appears that concessions are being made on traditional quality parameters for the sake of being politically correct.

Western consumers who choose to buy only on the basis of labels and certifications run the risk of missing out on teas and coffees from South Asia that combine quality as well as ethical values. Fair trade labels apply to farmer cooperatives; coffee plantation companies in the corporate sector are not eligible, despite conforming to or even exceeding social preconditions.

The fact is that the organized tea and coffee plantation sector in South Asia has pretty decent social standards. The history of plantation development by the British is relatively benign: Assam was rather more difficult, but the experience in South India was peaceful and ultimately led to positive economic and social outcomes. Post Independence in 1947, British planters in India simply walked away: they sold out, and left the assets to locals to maintain and develop. India has a remarkable piece of legislation in The Plantations Labour Act (1951) that protects workers and ensures fair wages, perquisites, workers’ rights and job security, besides stating norms for housing, educational and medical facilities. Inevitably, such measures also push up the cost of production, and make India less competitive vis-à-vis other tea and coffee producing countries with fewer welfare obligations. If there are delinquent estates, it is more due to individual cases of poor management, rather than pervasive neglect or exploitative practices.

Two books published by the United Planters’ Association of Southern India (UPASI) should set the record straight as far as tea and coffee plantations in South India are concerned. “A Planting Century – 1893-1993” by S Muthiah (Affiliated East-West Press 1993) and “Planting Times – Selections form Planting Opinion and The Planters’ Chronicle” (Macmillan India 2004) contain archive material spanning some 200 years – with little evidence of violence or forced labour, and with plenty of agreeable insights into the plantation industries.

In sum: identify the origin, the source, i.e., country, region, estate, if the quality and ethical standards are acceptable, based on a fair assessment of intrinsic values. Chances are such declarations, indicating buyer-seller affiliations, would encourage transparency and the benchmarks for the entire tea and coffee sector would improve. And the consumer will be delighted to imbibe a guilt-free cup.

PENSCAPE – April 2005



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