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Black Gold

May 4th, 2006

Saturday, April 29 – TORONTO, CAN. Like Spedina Street, I’ve grown familiar with the Bloor Theater which is north of Kensington Market and through a cozy residential neighborhood in the throes of gentrification called “The Annex.” A ten minute street car ride or thirty minute walk, it’s one of the venues for the Hot Docs Documentary Film Festival.

With Paddy’s media pass I chose my first film, Black Gold, which is about coffee, one of the world’s most traded commodities, second only to oil. The film makers went to Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee, where they found a clear-spoken representative of the Oromo coffee farmer’s union which represents 74 co-ops.

Unlike “Supersize Me” or “Fahrenheit 911,” this film does not vilify easy corporate targets. Instead it tells a story of an agrarian society attempting betterment through the education of its youth; there is a proud scene where a teen walks off to school, his thin books carefully wrapped in clear plastic and held in one hand. Coffee feeds his ten-person family and the hand-grown, hand-picked beans are priced at a 30 year low. He is the only one who can be spared to go to school. Like cocaine in Columbia or opium in Afghanistan, some of the farmers are forced to make an economic decision and grow chat, a narcotic banned in the EU and in the States.

For the Oromo Union the plan is to cut all the middle men out and sell directly to specialty roasters or, even, to roast and package the coffee itself thereby capturing further revenue from a world drinking over 2 billion cups of coffee a day.

With Kraft, Nestle, Proctor and Gamble, and Sarah Lee dominating the world market, the Oromo Union is struggling to get itself onto the market. Footage in the film from the International Barista Competition in Seattle show’s the Oromo representative working the accompanying trade show. This is a place where the more expensive Fair Trade Coffee fits in; just like rain-forest saving ‘organic shade grown coffee’ that conscientious consumers buy, fair trade is intended to pass more revenue to the farmer. However, even at these higher prices, it’s not enough to sustain the farmer, which is why the representative was handing out packages of unroasted, washed beans, trying to find clients to sell directly to.

Some statistics to consider, as quoted by the film: 1.6 percent of what Starbucks buys is Fair Trade; 0.2 percent of what Nestle buys is Fair Trade; 7 million Ethiopians receive food aid; Africa’s trade exports amount to one percent of the world market, if it were able to increase that to two percent the revenue would be $70 billion dollars or five times the amount of aid received each year.

One of the biggest questions from the audience was “what can we, as consumers, do?” The answer was to generate awareness, to create a market for Fair Trade by asking for it, and encourage roasters to buy direct from the farms and co-ops.

Visit blackgoldmovie.com, a website to help consumers become educated on the economics of coffee.

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