March 31, 2011

An Ethical Cup of True Brew

An aromatic cup of Peruvian coffee will get Gillian Gibson through her day. But as she sips, she is ever thinking of how the coffee beans were grown and trying to deal with her conflicting thoughts about what so many coffee shops tell us is fairly traded.

“Is fair trade coffee really fairly traded?” asks the 25-year-old history master’s student. “I want to question and break the taboos about development in Latin America or Africa.

In many respects,” says Gibson, who is writing a thesis on coffee co-operatives in Peru, “development is a neo-colonial enterprise and it’s a model that needs to be revisited.”

Gibson discovered Oxfam Canada archival material dating back to the 1960s while she was working on a fourth-year research essay on African history. “It became obvious to me that there was something wrong with development practices.” recalls Gibson.

“Prior to the 1960s, haciendas were in place in Latin America. Then OXFAM began a coffee co-operative initiative.” As Gibson examines the transition to co-ops in Peru, she becomes more disillusioned with our notion of “development” and she questions an idealism that would impose Western knowledge and Western economics onto others. “I’m not convinced we should be there helping, telling them how to raise their coffee,” she says.

It became obvious to me that there was something wrong with development practices

“The only people who fall under fair trade practice are the workers in the co-ops. There are lots of migrants coming down from the Andes, who are getting less than minimum wage.”

Peruvian coffee co-operatives were at the core of Oxfam Canada’s work 40 or 50 years ago, says history professor Dominique Marshall, who is one of Gibson’s instructors.

“Ideally,” adds Gibson, “I hope to offer recommendations to groups like Oxfam.” Fair wages, she says, need to extend beyond the co-ops to the migratory workers and the costs involved in sustaining the coffee-growing industry should be covered.

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