Coffee, Land, and Water

California Wonders and Crises

Credit: Mark Sweep / WikiCommons

California never ceases to amaze me. Case in point is wine. In about 40 years, the state has gone from being a marginal producer to becoming the fourth-largest producer in the world, just below the big three: Italy, France and Spain. It competes with them in quantity and quality, and its wines already have a well-earned place in the cellars of experts. Thanks to the existence of certain favorable eco-geographical enclaves (cool nights, gentle breezes, abundant sunshine, and, of course, water) California is already growing its own coffee: It is considered to be of very high quality and is offered as a local product (in tune with the growing “locavorism”).

Matt Kettmann’s article, “Can California Correct Coffee?” makes some assertions that in my opinion could result in generalizations that obscure the contribution made by many small producers of coffee in those “distant and exotic” third-world countries. As he points out, coffee is mostly grown in “the tropics where the water is free, land is cheap, and labor is cheaper.”In this regard it is very important to consider that indeed, much of the coffee we consume is produced in such a way that “makes the perfect poster child for global inequality.” But there is more than that in the international circuits of production and consumption of the aromatic.

Just to mention a few cases in Mexico: the Union de Comunidades Indigenas de la Region del Istmo (UCIRI) in Oaxaca, the Union Majomut, or the Zapatista producers in Chiapas. These organizations produce high quality organic coffee and export it all over the world. They are largely made up of small farmers who cultivate on average from two to four acres of land. For these farmers, land can be anything but “cheap.” For many, it has cost them their lives to defend it against the harassment of powerful landowners. There, labor is anything but “cheap,” producers invest enormous efforts to produce an aromatic that satisfies the demanding palates of consumers in “rich” countries — us — and water, likewise, is anything but “cheap.” Indeed, in the tropical regions where coffee grows, it rains abundantly. In addition to trying to control the water coming out from the seasonal rains and prevent it from sweeping through the coffee plantations, they must protect their crops from excessive rainfall and from the unfortunately more and more frequent hurricanes, which affect the coffee-growing regions with special intensity.

In effect, much of the coffee is produced under conditions of great exploitation for many of the people who work in its production. But it is also true that there are groups of producers that strive to produce a better coffee, with the best possible environmental methods, seeking that the product of their work is fairly remunerated for the good of their families and their communities. Many of them produce under certifications of sustainable and fair production, and it is not strange that the price of their coffee could be higher than that produced in large plantations. In other words, it is worth paying a little more, contributing to the conservation of the land and the fair payment to those who cultivate it.

On the other hand, without detracting in any way from the merits of coffee farmers in California, it is fundamental to keep in mind that one of the Achilles heels of California’s productive economy — in which agriculture is a major factor (and coffee is not neutral in this matter) — is access to water.

We are on the verge of what some scholars call a true “watercide.” It is not just a matter of paying for the substance, it is not a matter of capital availability, it is a matter of maintaining the viability of the existence of our communities in our state of wonders. Unfortunately, there are no uncomplicated solutions to the water shortage and what’s worse, we don’t seem to understand it. And this is only if we consider the issue of water. Consider the issue of labor: Who will harvest the fruits from which the coffee bean is obtained? Will they be fairly compensated?

In short, California continues and will continue to surprise us with its wonders, but it could also strike us with its unsolvable — until now — multiple crises (water, labor justice, housing, pollution, inequality, and so on.


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