Nothing new, I live on a biodynamic farm, where people take pride in the fact that it approximates a closed system. Most of what we consume here and distribute in the Hamburg region comes from the farm or from nearby farms and producers. But then, …there is coffee. A staple in our modern way of life, my first drink each morning. I have tried to go without it for a short while, but life is just not the same without coffee. To my surprise Hamburg is sprinkled with coffee roasters; rooted in a long tradition, Hamburg, and nearby Bremen being harbor towns, Hamburg grew rich from the coffee trade, the source of a drink with a reputation of contributing to alertness and its energizing effects. The first coffee house in Hamburg opened in 1677 and from Hamburg and Bremen coffee was introduced across Germany during the 18th century. 

Staying in tune with the biodynamic way of life, I opt for slow coffee. I use my pour over filter in which I first put my freshly ground beans. Today Hamburg houses a number of so-called ‘third wavers’, coffee consumers and manufactures who like to consume, enjoy and appreciate high quality coffee as an artisanal food. The third wave movement seeks to disrupt the commodity-focused trade of low prices and standardization and instead focuses on quality, unique flavors, and equitable relationships. My current batch of beans is called El Moreno, grown by the Perez family in Guatemala, the label says, roasted by Elbgold in Hamburg. I love its chocolate, nutty flavor.beans

I look into the coffee grounds that are left over after my brew, a beautiful light brown color, apparently, containing enough pigment that it can be re-used as dye or ink, turning fabric coffee colored, ink enough to write a little story. 

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Coffee consumption is so widespread across the human population, that we take its availably for granted; its history reads so matter of factly, that we easily ignore the dark side of human relationships related to its manifestation. 

Although it is hard to pinpoint where and when the first coffee was consumed as a beverage, its tradition stems from the Islamic world for sure, and first evidence of coffee trade is from Ethiopia to Mocha, in present-day Yemen in the 15th century,  where the coffee brew was used as a kind of spiritual intoxication.

Introduced first in Europe through Muslim slaves on Malta in the 16th century, devotion to the coffee drink quickly spread northward, the first coffeehouse on mainland Europe opened in Venice in 1645, its steady popularity was even expressed by Johann Sebastian Bach in his Coffee Cantata composed in 1735.

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But it is the Dutch who turn the coffee story dark. In 1616 Dutch merchant, Pieter van den Broecke, allegedly obtains some of the closely guarded coffee bushes from Mocha, from where he took them to the Botanical garden in Leiden. The Coffea arabica bushes thrived and were so the beginning of the coffee cultivation in the Dutch colonies in the East and West Indies, the VOC (Dutch East India Company) quickly emerging as the main supplier of coffee in Europa. 

Whereas other Colonial powers were in the ‘missionary business’, saving souls as their cover-up for atrocious behavior, the Dutch boosted themselves as savvy traders, inventors of the stock exchange, but maybe they were best at public relations. Up until this day they have been rather successful in maintaining an image of decency, whereas their source of capital is build on widespread slavery in Asia and the Americas, direct and indirect. 

The story of Capitalism, although in principle based on wage labor and voluntary exchange, is not one of fair trade, but of exploitation. Although the current historical account of my home country downplays or even ignores this aspect, more likely, as written by Pepijn Brandon, is that “Dutch merchants were involved in global slavery from the sixteenth century onwards and remained so until the 1860’s, as the last European nation to formally abolish slavery in its colonies. The price of coffee is high, maybe not in monetary value anymore, but certainly in human suffering.

Unfortunately, coffee beans remain associated with colonialism, slavery, and other forms of forced labor, ever since it started with the first Dutch plantations. With increasing global markets, cultivation was taken up by many countries in the latter part of the 19th century, in almost all cases it involved large scale displacement and exploitation of indigenous peoples, for instance in Guatemala, the government forced indigenous people to work on the fields, a practice that continuous until today.

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I stare down my coffee cup, and imagine the way of the bean. My Elbgold roasted beans originated in Guatemala, bought by me in good faith that  the beans are sourced from small families who are paid a fair price, a living wage. It is hard to know what goes on. 

The world’s coffee industry is once more in crises. Due to global warming affecting plant growth and  a surplus production from Brazil, the current price of coffee crashed to their lowest price in over a decade, and rapidly from 220 in 2015 to 86 dollar cents per pound today, not enough for growers to make a living. It has forced many farmers, especially from Guatemala to give up their fields, and as a result are now forming the single largest source of migrants attempting to enter the United States through its Southwest border. It is a very dangerous way to cross and apparently worth the risk, but many die in the desert. The Sonoran desert, Tohono O’odham’s original lands, where until recently their farms used to grow from the alluvial fans. Current U.S policy has changed that and made the Sonoran desert a more barren and dangerous place, cutting down of saguaro cacti in border lands to put up wall. Desecration, a cultural and environmental disaster. Crimes against humanity, there are many, but somehow all connected. 

As for coffee beans, It is time we pay up. 

Brandon:  http://www.historicalmaterialism.org/blog/dutch-capitalism-and-slavery 

https://foodispower.org/our-food-choices/coffee/

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/26/us/border-wall-cactuses-arizona.html?searchResultPosition=1