"Black Gold" illustrates coffee farmers' plight

By Oxfam America
Abera Tola, Oxfam America's Horn of Africa Director, and Tadesse Meskela, manager of Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union, stand near drying coffee destined for the fair trade market in the US and Europe.

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If you haven't checked out "Black Gold," the acclaimed documentary that takes a look at the multi-billion dollar coffee industry and the poor farmers who cultivate the beans, you still have a few more opportunities.

"Black Gold" will go to DVD, and air on the PBS show Independent Lens, this April. It's also still playing in theaters and at special free community screenings organized by Independent Television Service.

"Black Gold" follows Tadesse Meskela, manager of Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union, as he travels the world looking for a better price for his farmers' coffee. Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union, an Oxfam America partner organization since 2002, represents more than 100,000 farmers, who despite back-breaking work, watch their profits rise and fall depending on the fluctuating price on the world market.

"There is no coffee which is as quality as this coffee, but we are getting a low price," Meskela says in the film. "Our main aim is to bring more money into the coffee growers' pocket."

Throughout the fall and winter, Oxfam co-sponsored the promotion of "Black Gold" in more than 75 cities and towns across the country. Hundreds of volunteers turned out to support coffee farmers by handing out information at screenings and gathering thousands of signatures for the Big Noise, Oxfam's petition to Make Trade Fair.

Telling the coffee farmer's story

With great candor, Meskela uses "Black Gold" as a platform to describe the situation Ethiopian coffee farmers face. When the price of coffee hit a 30-year low in 2001, farmers struggled to feed their children and send them to school. Some quit farming. Others began growing the more profitable chat, a local narcotic banned in the US and Europe. Malnourished and forced to travel long distances to accept foreign aid, some farmers saw no alternative but to bring their families to government feeding centers.

The price of coffee has risen over the last few years, but little has changed in these communities. In Ethiopia, country that depends on coffee for about 40 percent of its export revenue, farmers make as little as three cents for every cup of coffee sold in the United States or Europe. Meanwhile, multinational coffee corporations collectively rake in as much as $80 billion each year, according to the film.

British film makers Nick and Marc Frances use Meskela and the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union tell a larger story about poor countries that struggle to benefit from global trade. The film highlights the many corners of the coffee industry, from the Ethiopian growers who cultivate the best coffee in the world, to the NY traders who set the price, to the Seattle baristas at Starbucks who try to meet the high demand.

Oxfam America's coffee work

By working with producers in Ethiopia and Central America, and by engaging in consumer education, political advocacy, and corporate engagement, Oxfam seeks to create a world where small farmers are fairly rewarded for their hard work.

"Oxfam seeks to correct the imbalances of power at the root of unfair trade. This film highlights the vulnerability of coffee farmers and the disconnect that exists between poor farmers and huge profits," said Seth Petchers, Oxfam America's coffee program manager.

"'Black Gold' illustrates the gravity of the challenges facing coffee farmers—but those challenges are not insurmountable if people get involved. We're hoping people watch the film and get inspired to take action."

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