This year, the International Coffee Organization (ICO) has organized the first-ever International Coffee Day, with the goal, in their words, of “celebrating a journey of diversity, quality, and passion.”
Coffee means something very different to every person who has a relation to the industry – coffee might be a hobby, a passion, a professional career, a low-wage job of last resort, a way of waking up in the mornings, a drink to sip with friends, or even a criminal enterprise for money laundering.
For me, coffee was first a window into life in Guatemala, where I moved 4 years ago. Coffee is closely linked to Guatemala’s recent history. First introduced in the late nineteenth-century, coffee fueled the country’s export-oriented economy and enriched a small segment of the elite. Coffee was planted and harvested on land seized from the indigenous Maya, usually by those same Maya who were trapped in forced labor, and it became one of the foundations of wide-spread income inequality that still persists today.
In the mid twentieth-century, coffee was swept up in the cooperative movement that emerged across Latin America. With help of church groups that ascribed to a theology of serving the poor, as well as secular activists, small-holding farmers organized cooperatives in which they could share infrastructure and sell their coffee together, thereby escaping the servitude of low-wage farm labor and gaining access to more profitable markets. After the civil war, during which many cooperative leaders were assassinated or went into exile, cooperatives began to rebuild, this time able to take advantage of changes in the industry (third wave coffee) and technology (low-cost international communication).
I was not a coffee drinker when I started spending time with producers and learning about the industry, but I was intrigued by the ways in which coffee shapes social and economic conditions across the world, as well as how it ties together (for better or for worse, generally both) people from disparate geographic spaces.
Coffee, both as a product with a monetary value as well as the social concept of coffee drinking/craft/spaces, is a medium through which many of the world’s phenomena interact with and affect people around the globe. Coffee can foster exploitation or collaboration, can unify people or pit them against each other. It reflects and depends on wider economic trends, such as how we value and compensate different types of labor, and how where you were born and what education you received affects your lifestyle, your purchasing power, and your way of thinking.
At DLG, our passion is making coffee something inclusive that connects people and improves lives. Whether that takes the form of coffee producers meeting coffee roasters for the first time, or producers learning the techniques to produce the high quality coffee that will bring them economic advantage, that’s what coffee means to us.
We believe that this work can take many forms, such as educating young adults about where coffee comes from, teaching producers the skills and techniques they need to excel, and bridging gaps to bring coffee to more profitable markets. And when this is done right, we see that coffee can strengthen our connection and solidarity with people across the globe.
This first ICD, think about what coffee means to you and others and how you can be a part of a more inclusive coffee industry. Picking up a bag of DLG isn’t a bad place to start.
Andrew Feldman is the executive director of De la Gente.