Film Is Behind-the-Scenes Look at Fair Trade Coffee

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A new film called Black Gold follows a group of Ethiopian, "fair-trade" coffee growers as they try to make a living. Farai Chideya talks with Tadesse Meskela, a representative of the Oromio Coffee Farmers' Cooperative Union and a subject of the film.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

There are some things most people do everyday: brush their teeth, start their day by washing up, and for some of us a cup of coffee is an absolute must. But we don't always think about where our cup of java comes from or who makes the sacrifices to grow it.

Now a new documentary called Black Gold explores how coffee farmers in southern Ethiopia are fighting to get a fair wage. And it follows a tenacious union leader named Tadesse Meskela. He joins us now from WUWM in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Thank you for joining us, Mr. Meskela.

Mr. TADESSE MESKELA (Representative, Oromia Coffee Farmers' Cooperative Union, Southern Ethiopia): Thank you.

CHIDEYA: All right. So you work for or represent something called the Oromia Coffee Farmers' Cooperative Union. What is that?

Mr. MESKELA: Yes. It's a cooperative union established in Ethiopia by the coffee grower farmers, and it comprise about 114 cooperatives. About 40 percent of the country's consumed in Ethiopia because we are the first country to grow coffee. And the name coffee got its name named after a place called Kaffa in the country.

CHIDEYA: You're someone who travels around the region really talking to farmers about their struggles. And, you know, in one part of the movie you see farmers who can't make ends meet. Going to a feeding center - there's really a lot of poverty. What made you decide that, okay, we've got this great crop, but the farmers need better?

Mr. MESKELA: Well, the reason why I'm just trying to work is because of unfair trade, that farmers are receiving a very low price for the coffee. As you have seen from the movie, they are earning less than half a dollar from a pound of coffee while retailers are making more than U.S.$150. That's not fair. So I'm just working towards improving the price of their coffees so that farmers can live a decent life.

CHIDEYA: In fact, you talked about that very situation to the farmers. Let's listen to a little bit. This is in your language, Oromo, where you're talking to farmers. Let's take a listen.

Mr. MESKELA: Yeah.

(Soundbite of movie "Black Gold")

Mr. MESKELA: (Speaking Oromo)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking Oromo)

CHIDEYA: Tell us what was just going on in that clip. You heard people laughing a little bit and you were talking to them.

Mr. MESKELA: I was asking them what is the price of a cup of coffee in the nearby town. And as they said, espresso cost us 10 U.S. cents. And I was telling them a cup of espresso in the Western world is $2 to $3 U.S. dollars, and they were highly surprised about the price.

CHIDEYA: Right. So it's basically, here in America you might go to any number of coffee chains and pay $3 for a cup of coffee.

Mr. MESKELA: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: And these gentlemen are getting paid less than 50 cents for a kilo bag, which is about 80 cups of coffee. Now, you know, there's a bigger issue that's explored here. It's not just about coffee. It's about how trade is negotiated between Africa and Western nations. And it's also about subsidies that Western nations, including the U.S., give farmers. Tell us a little bit more about how you see that situation.

Mr. MESKELA: We are trying to just get a better price for our produce, because products which are coming from the poor countries are all getting very low price. And also there are barriers that - they have to pay taxes or tariffs (unintelligible) for the price. And the quality standard is also very high, which the Third World countries cannot meet. And the other thing is even to bring it to the Western world, products here are mainly subsidized by the government and the farmers will just continue growing the product. So if we try to bring this product to the (unintelligible) of the world, they can't compete with producers here because of its price.

CHIDEYA: I want to learn a little bit more about you. You know, in one scene in the movie you show us the cows that your wife keeps, and you talk about how up until the age of 18 you were helping your family with farm animals. And then you went away to university, but you decided to really come back to the issue of farming. Why is that?

Mr. MESKELA: If all people in the developing country who have never been to school can go to school, everybody can be a doctor, a scientist or can support his family. And I'm very much interested to share my views of the people in my country to the other world that they're desperate. And I like that kind of life because I grew up with my families. My families are the first people to send their children to school in that community. And so I'm happy in just what they have done.

And I have to change the life of the farmers, which are - who are living in that country and also in my communities just by improving their lives. I'm sure that in the coming 10 or 15 years we are going to have schools in every village. And we will have the possibility of bringing most of the kids from the coffee areas to the school under the - will be engaged in other activities. And they will work more on environmental issues and keep the environment a very good place.

CHIDEYA: Well, Tadesse Meskela, thank you very much.

Mr. MESKELA: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: That was Tadesse Meskela. He represents the Oromia Coffee Farmers' Cooperative Union and is featured in the documentary Black Gold: Wake Up and Smell the Coffee.

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