The Java Jive

November 12, 1999

By Michael Jessen

Switching to java with justice or coffee with a conscience, drinkers of the black brew are deserting its "dark" side. Rather than just asking for a cup of coffee, an increasing number of caffeine addicts are asking for a "just" cup.

Adjectives like organic, shade grown, cooperative, sustainable, fair trade, shade certified, and bird friendly are being applied to coffee in cafes and coffeehouses across North America.

Some people even believe our growing love affair with fine coffee can help reverse an agricultural nightmare that turned one of the world's most benign crops into an enemy of the environment.

Fortunately, the two premier coffee roasters in the Kootenays - Oso Negro in Nelson and Kicking Horse Coffee in Invermere - are supplying discriminating coffee buyers with ethically produced beans that don't harm the environment or coffee workers.

After oil, coffee is the second largest commodity in dollar value traded in the world. It is produced in over 75 countries at an annual rate exceeding 10 billion pounds, providing jobs for over 20 million people. A new coffee tree takes 3 to 5 years to produce its first crop of coffee berries and each tree only produces enough for one to one and a half pounds of beans per year.

Traditionally, all coffee was grown under a canopy of shade trees. The original varieties of coffee brought to the New World centuries ago are relatively intolerant of direct sunlight and require the filtering effect of shade trees to prevent leaf burn. Up to 60 tree species are used to provide shade for the coffee; these species provide nitrogen for the soil and supply fruit or wood for the growers. For coffee, the overstory protects the bushes from the weather and provides organic mulch that cuts down weed species and maintains the quality of the soil.

When Seattle's Best Coffee and Starbucks started a North American coffee craze in the early 1970s, demand for the black beans soared. New sun tolerant varieties of coffee were developed to be cultivated without shade covering. As a bonus, these varieties allowed for more plants per acre and usually produced more prolifically.

But the sun loving, higher yielding coffee plants required chemical inputs and coffee soon became the third most heavily sprayed crop in the world, next to cotton and tobacco. Scientists estimate about 70 percent of the world's coffee is sprayed with synthetic chemicals including Malathion and DDT, long banned in North America.

To help boost coffee production, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) spent some $80 million from the early 1970s to the early 1990s helping growers in Central America and the Caribbean "technify" by replacing older, shade-loving coffee varieties with new varieties that could be cultivated in tightly packed hedgerows.

The same areas that contain some of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world, providing habitat for many of the planet's plant and animal species, were soon home to some of the world's highest deforestation rates. Scientists pointed to the conversion to sun coffee as a major contribution to the deforestation. (With nearly half of the cropland in Latin America devoted to coffee, the preservation and encouragement of shade grown coffee offers an important conservation opportunity.)

In the mid-1990s, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and the Natural Resources Defense Council produced information attributing a decline in migratory birds familiar to North Americans (the Baltimore oriole, the Tennessee warbler and others) partly to the destruction of forests throughout the hemisphere. This loss of shade coffee forest has a big impact on bird populations, with 94 to 97% fewer bird species in sun coffee plantations versus shade coffee areas.

If that wasn't enough to worry about, ownership of large coffee plantations was increasingly consolidated in the hands of a cruel elite. When Toronto Star reporter Linda Diebel visited southern Guatemala in 1997, she described what she saw this way: "It's a brutal place of working children, starvation wages, bonded labour, threats and intimidation, bone-breaking work and far too many deaths from easily preventable, and treatable, diseases."

Steve Coats, executive director of the Chicago-based U.S.-Guatemala Labor Education Project, says North American consumers have often unknowingly benefited from systems of economic injustice in countries like Guatemala.

"That's only going to intensify in our global economy," says Coats. "But there's a growing movement to get companies to take responsibility. People are beginning to insist on corporate responsibility in the global economy. Consumers are realizing their power."

Vancouver film-maker David Ozier's documentary "Java Jive", which aired last month on CBC Newsworld, showed scenes of coffee pickers being herded by armed guards and being fed like chickens. He also filmed scenes from a small family farm in Nicaragua to demonstrate that coffee cultivation doesn't have to mean exploitation. There the traditional shade-grown method helps an extended family support itself without depending on the kind indulgence of the plantation master.

For all of these reasons, roasters like Oso Negro and Kicking Horse Coffee are taking care to assure themselves their coffee is sourced from small cooperatives that guarantee farmers a set price, is cultivated without chemicals, and is shade grown.

David Griswold, owner of Sustainable Harvest an Emeryville, California organic coffee bean wholesaler, says the demand for organic coffees is growing. "While it still only makes up a small percentage of the coffee sold, organic coffee is the fastest growing segment of the coffee market and is growing by about 18 to 20 percent a year."

Responding to the detrimental effects of sun coffee, international agencies like Conservation International and USAID have begun promoting shade. The World Bank is financing a shade coffee project to promote biodiversity in heavily deforested El Salvador. By going organic, USAID's small farmers in Haiti, El Salvador, and Nicaragua have tripled their incomes.

All Kicking Horse fair trade coffee is organic. It bears the logo of Fair Trademark Canada, the Canadian member of the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO), a fair trade label movement with a proven independent certification and monitoring scheme that also fair trades tea, cocoa, sugar, honey, and bananas.

Elana Rosenfeld and Leo Johnston, owners of Kicking Horse Coffee, traveled the world researching coffee and the art of roasting beans before settling into a quaint building in the Columbia Valley district of Invermere and marketing their product in 1996.

The two visited Japan recently in preparation for marketing teas in addition to their dozen blends of coffees that have original names Grizzly Claw, Kick Ass, and Z-Wrangler. Their coffee travels as well, finding its way to the store shelves of the Thrifty store chain on Vancouver Island and to the Kicking Horse Café in The Hague, capital of the Netherlands.

Lorill Ireland, who works at Kicking Horse, says an increasing number of specialty coffee drinkers are aware of the problems with certain coffee.

"More people are switching to organic," she says. "People are concerned with their own health, that's an issue."

Oso Negro coffee beans are purchased from Royal Coffee, another Emeryville, California wholesaler that regularly sends its sales associates on trips to coffee growing countries to guarantee it is sourcing the best possible beans. (Check out the company's web site at for some truly hair-raising tales of their trips.)

Jon Meyer, Oso Negro's owner, says Royal Coffee supplies fairly traded, shade grown coffee from Guatemala, Peru, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Nicaragua.

"Shade grown and certified organic plantations account for close to 85 percent of our green bean volume," says Meyer, who with Anne Fletcher now roasts two tons of beans a month. "Fairly traded coffee represents approximately 40 percent of our volume, up from 10 percent when the business began five years ago."

Meyer says the percentages will grow as support for fair prices for farmers grows.

"One of our support strategies is to retail these coffees for the same price because the price difference is so little and we see no reason to charge the consumer extra," adds Meyer, who is often seen delivering his product by bicycle in Nelson.

Jim Tales is the new owner of Goldrush Books and Espresso in Rossland and he says he currently knows little about the origin of his coffee beans. The manager of Common Grounds Café in Castlegar admitted a similar lack of knowledge.

"It's only the consumer that will promote awareness and bring about change," Meyer concludes. Or as Kicking Horse Coffee says, "Life's too short to be drinking the wrong cup of coffee."

ONE SMALL STEP - Support shade coffee growing farmers by doing what you already do - buying coffee. You have an opportunity to make a difference by re-orienting your everyday consumer habits. Be aware that most canned coffee sold in supermarkets is made from low-grade robusta beans that come from large technified plantations. Ask questions about your favourite brand in your supermarket. Does it have a fair trade label? Make your views known to the store manager. Try to convince co-workers to buy fair trade, shade grown, organic coffee to serve at work. Berkeley mayor Shirley Dean has announced an initiative to would require the city of Berkeley to purchase only organic coffee produced under fair trade conditions. Let your politicians know you want Ottawa to make the rights of working people and environmental standards a priority in the global economy, especially as we sign more sweeping trade deals.

Oso Negro coffees are sold throughout the West Kootenay area from Rossland to Nakusp to Kaslo and the East Shore. You can contact Oso Negro by e-mail at or telephone 1-877-BeanGuy or 352-7761 in Nelson. Kicking Horse Coffees can also be found in many locations in the East and West Kootenay, including the Kootenay Co-op on Baker Street in Nelson. It is also available by mail order. Kicking Horse can be telephoned at 1-888-CUP JAVA or e-mailed at Kicking Horse also has a web site at An on-line e-zine about shade grown coffee can be found at the Ecology Store web site at The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center report "Coffee, Conservation, and Commerce in the Western Hemisphere" can be found at Global Exchange will be bringing their fair trade coffee campaign to the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in late November. Their web site is TransFair USA has curriculum ideas for teaching students about fair trade coffee at Fair Trade Online was developed by Fair TradeMark Canada to offer information about the fair trade movement. It can be found at Coffee facts and figures can be found at two web sites: and An excellent article by Jennifer Bingham Hull entitled "Can Coffee Drinkers Save the Rain Forest?" appeared in the August 1999 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. It can be found at

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