Orlando Sentinel -- KFAR SHMARIAHU, Israel -- People around the globe down 8 billion cups of coffee a day. Drip, perk, filter, black, espresso, sweetened, decaf, latte, dark roast, instant, ground, freeze-dried, flavored, organic, demitasse -- coffee drinkers are passionate about their preferences. But until this year's film Black Gold, few were passionate about the desperate poverty of farmers who grow the precious beans. Few were even aware of it. The documentary insists everybody in the world who drinks coffee has the power to affect that poverty.
The low-budget movie has exploded as a sleeper in film festivals and movie houses, picking up steam as it goes -- from Seattle to San Diego, Toronto to Tel Aviv, Belfast to Brooklyn, Rio to Rome.
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Now it is affecting the epicenter itself: Starbucks Coffee Co. During filming, the company refused to talk to the directors. After Black Gold began to attract audience attention, they were invited to company headquarters. Now public pressure aroused by the film may have helped trigger the recent conciliatory visit to Ethiopia by none other than the CEO of Starbucks. Starbucks disputes Ethiopian plans to trademark the names of coffees named for its local regions, proposing a lesser form of protection. Compromise was not reached, but this publicized gesture shows that a small independent film can ignite public consciousness to the point that an international giant feels shaky about its good-guy humanitarian image.
A cup of coffee priced under a dollar is a bargain, yet Ethiopian farmers receive less than 4 cents for every pound they grow, and the take-home pay of workers who hunch over, manually sorting beans for eight hours, comes to 50 cents. Eighty percent of Ethiopians live on less than $2 a day.
With every new harvest, bone-weary farmers hope against hope that the product of their labors will yield enough to take them from living on the edge of despair. The cooperative they have formed seeks to route profits away from conglomerates and middlemen and back into the hands of impoverished growers. Even a documentary needs a hero -- Black Gold's is the modest representative doggedly traveling the world to sleek coffee fairs, handing out samples from Oromia Coffee Farmers' Cooperative Union, certain that if buyers will only try it, the quality of the product will speak for itself.
The Ethiopian coffee union is one of hundreds of international grass-roots cooperatives for agricultural products that sell as much outside the New York Board of Trade as possible. Four corporations that do deal there dominate the world coffee market, even though it may be news for many to hear these familiar names associated with coffee: Kraft, Procter & Gamble, Sarah Lee and Nestle. None acceded to the directors' requests to participate in the movie.
In light of growing public awareness, these corporate giants have agreed to devote a small share of their products to "fair trade" coffee. Whether or not this is a window-dressing public-relations bid to deflect criticism, as the film directors assert, it is a significant step toward spreading revenues to the growers.
In the Sidama region of Ethiopia, from where Starbucks buys some of its coffee, many farmers can no longer afford to grow the crop. Famine is spreading, and children starve.
Dusty farmers of the coffee cooperative sit around a table beating their heads against the figures to try to scrounge enough funds to build a school so their children will not be doomed to repeat their lives. They fail.
After the screen goes dark, audiences ask what they can do. In the open audience session after Black Gold premiered at Utah's Sundance Film Festival, one viewer pledged $10,000 to build that school. In a much more modest way, I vow to do my part. Every time I go to a coffee store, I buy only fair-trade grinds, whatever is in stock.
It takes effort to find coffee marked "Fair Trade," although more is becoming available to the mainstream consumer, from Peace Coffee in Minneapolis to Ilan's in Israel, and around the globe through Ben & Jerry's ice creams. It's not a case of paying more to do the right thing, because fair-trade coffee is not priced higher; the money just reaches other destinations.
But as time passes the impact lessens. I get lazy. When I can't find free trade where I happen to be grocery shopping, I revert to picking up other brands, fooling myself by saying, "Next time."
News of the Starbucks visit to Ethiopia has rekindled my determination not to neglect the small power I possess. Imagine that power multiplied by 8 billion cups a day.
Helen Schary Motro, who teaches at the Tel Aviv University Faculty of Law, is author of "Maneuvering between the Headlines: An American Lives through the Intifada." She wrote this commentary for the Orlando Sentinel.