By Greg Shea

The specter of colonialism haunts current environmentalist discourse. Colonialism is, among many things, insidious; it is the mold from which contemporary global economic and political dynamics were cast. Recently, it crawled out from the shadows and reared its head in The Catalyst. This is an opportunity to shine a light on how the parameters of colonialism and imperialism frame a plurality of modern thought with a hidden hand. 

This article engages with a piece written on the environmental impacts of the coffee industry. I want to be absolutely clear; I do not think the author of the article mentioned above outlined the piece in this way consciously. I firmly believe the author was doing well-intentioned and much-needed work to combat climate change. The article is simply a jumping-off point for the issue at hand, core concerns being the negation of historical context, coffee as a monolithic industry, and a privileged, commodity-based answer.

The article takes issue with deforestation to increase arable land and the resultant increase in erosion, the detriment to biodiversity, the worsening of soil quality, the use of chemical fertilizers and pollution of the land and waterways. I too take issue with such destruction. These non-sustainable practices and resultant damage are a product of the Global North. Coffee, the fruit, is almost exclusively a product of the Global South, a product of countries historically colonized and exploited by imperial forces. 

Colonizers took both the people and the land hostage with no regard for preservation. Arable land was expanded through deforestation, and production increased through non-sustainable practices. Sustainable practices already existed in places where coffee cultivation and consumption preceded colonialism; it would have been rather self-defeating for an indigenous population to render their own land useless. In areas where coffee cultivation was introduced with colonialism, the traditional crops and methods of the area were pushed out. This left entire regions reduced to the capability of producing essentially one crop on a large scale: coffee. 

Post-colonization, these regions were still set up for coffee. People knew how to farm it, and the infrastructure was still there. However, the knowledge and infrastructure were primarily geared towards the destructive cultivation methods introduced under colonialism. Imperial control and demand for coffee production have maintained unsustainable practices since the days of colonialism. The people working the land are stuck with a system geared for destructive farming, increasingly unusable land, and an economic barrier to more sustainable practices. 

Part of this economic barrier is the contrast in the value of coffee, as a fruit, and coffee as the processed and roasted bean. In addition to taking away control of the land, colonizers also removed native people from the processing of the fruit into a roasted-and-ready coffee bean. In most instances, green coffee was, and is, taken out of the countries that produce the fruit to typically wealthier nations with the infrastructure to process the raw fruit into a profitable commodity. 

Currently, much of the land used for cultivation is still owned by multi-national corporations, the corporate descendants of colonial control. These foreign-based companies dictate the destructive use of the land. The Global North keeps the profits and restricts the economic ability of countries in the Global South from switching over to sustainable practices. It takes a lot of money to change the infrastructure of a nation.

Native populations do not want to be left with unusable land stripped of all value by foreign imperial interests. Coffee as an industry is, however, not a monolith. It is too easy to disavow the coffee industry as a whole for unsustainable farming practices, but we must remember why these practices are in play. We should not be scolding historically colonized and exploited countries for the problems and practices introduced by colonialism and maintained by modern forces of imperialism. 

As you might have guessed, I like coffee a lot. As you also may have guessed, I have a keen interest in dismantling issues of social and economic inequality and oppression. Behold, there is a way forward besides advocating for matcha, an increasingly inaccessibly priced product that can barely meet current demand and can only be cultivated in a small subset of mountainous regions in the already relatively small country of Japan. I’m just going to take a hard stance here and not even consider a fruit and veggie smoothie to be a contender for replacing coffee, as suggested. 

I mentioned above that coffee as an industry is not a monolith. Many in the orbit of the coffee industry have been working to free cultivation from imperial control. Because the first half of this article is rather depressing, here are two exceedingly paraphrased and shortened success stories of taking back the reins and treating the earth right. The story of Kenya and coffee mirrors the described model above. After decolonization, small-lot farmers started joining together to form cooperatives to avoid being bought out. There are many co-ops, but let me tell you about this one. Located in the Kirinyaga region around the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro is a group of 634 farmers who not only joined together in land ownership, but also the ownership and running of the Karani Washing Station — the name of their co-op. The co-op is 60% women and one of the best economic opportunities in the region. Additionally, they wash the beans with recycled water from the nearby river, as well as employ a host of other sustainable practices. 

On a more up and coming note is the current effort to revive coffee in Yemen. Super-fast history and context time: Yemen was the original worldwide exporter of coffee out of the Port of Mokha; Yemeni beans were very chocolatey; Moka originates from imitations made by adding bits of chocolate to brews made from other beans. Side note aside, coffee production has drastically declined in the last hundred years, instability has made the prospects of exporting slim, and farmers were economically pressured into growing khat, a drug that, while illegal to export to most countries, was profitable domestically. The problem: khat isn’t that profitable for the farmers and is a highly water-intensive crop in a country running out of water. A few years ago, 40% of the country’s water supply was going to khat production. A Yemeni-American has been working to switch over khat farms back to coffee in a model similar to the Karani washing station. He provides knowledge on sustainable practices and small, interest-free loans to help farmers escape from debts to loan sharks. Farmers are organized into co-ops with strict standards for sustainable and organic methods with additional requirements, including that co-op boards be comprised of at least 50% women. Thanks in large part to the effort of Mokhtar Alkhanshali, farmers are earning far more, and the earth is better off for it. 

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