Coffee: Slavery, Destruction and Shortage

What Coffee Drinkers Must Know

Marina Martinez
Dec 3, 2018 · 5 min read

Coffee is one of our everyday products that appear in the 2018 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor worldwide.

The list also shows that labor and human rights abuses are currently taking place in 17 coffee-growing countries, mostly against vulnerable coffee farm workers and their families.

Child and forced labor— The Human Cost of Coffee (Photo: The Weather Channel‏)

An in-depth investigation of the world’s largest coffee-growing nation, Brazil, discovered children and adults working under “conditions analogous to slavery” in some coffee farms. The investigative report revealed that these workers often are exposed to health and safety risks, including for using toxic pesticides, lacking protective equipment, and for living in poor conditions at coffee farms. And yet, their work is seriously underpaid, as usually “less than 2% of the retail price” goes to the coffee farmers, according to the DanWatch report, what makes them unable to afford a decent living.

An example of farmworker housing in Central America coffee farms, where families live during harvest season (Photo: Miguel Zamora/Daily Coffee News)

These work conditions are terribly unfair and sometimes illegal — but it’s happening in the plain sight of major coffee retailers.

Two giant coffee companies, Nestlé and Jacobs Douwe Egberts, admitted that coffee from Brazilian farms where slavery-like labor conditions were discovered may have ended up in their supply chains. Yet they claimed not knowing the names of all farms and farmers that grow and supply the coffee they sell.

Slave labor evidence was also found at a Starbucks-certified Brazilian coffee farm, although the company says it hasn’t bought coffee from that farm in recent years.

These cases show that labor abuses can be occurring even in coffee farms “certified” and prized for commitments to sustainable practices.

The Starbucks boss, who oversaw the growth of the coffee chain from 11 outlets to more than 28,000 and to a share price increase of 21,000% (Photo: Ted S. Warren/AP)

Nevertheless, there is another bitter side of how coffee is being produced worldwide.

Chopping down trees and burning land in tropical forests is the conventional and most widely adopted method for growing coffee.
But as demand for the product increases, more native forests and wildlife habitats are destroyed to make way for new and expanded coffee farms.

Rainforests are cleared to make way for coffee farms (Photo: Mesoamerican Development Institute)

In spite of that, coffee companies found a way to increase even further their harmful impacts on nature: by making throwaway coffee pods.

Critics and authorities have warned that coffee pods packaging usually is made of plastic and aluminum materials that make it difficult to recycle, which in turn end piling up in landfills or polluting waterways.

Keurig Green Mountain leads today the billionaire and fast-growing coffee pod market in the U.S.— with its popular “K-Cups” — a product that has raised concerns over its high environmental and health-related costs to society.

“In 2013, Green Mountain produced 8.3 billion K-Cups, enough to wrap around the equator 10.5 times.” — Maddie Oatman, Mother Jones publication

Your Coffee Pods’ Dirty Secret (Photo: Mother Jones)

However, the heavy burdens being placed on environmental and human resources — by conventional production practices — are now threatening the global supply of coffee. In fact, we might be running out of coffee.

According to the latest World Coffee Research report, over half of the land suitable for growing coffee worldwide is expected to be lost by 2050, as nature is degraded and the climate changes.

Coffee industry faces critical threats (Photo: George Steinmetz/TIME)

The global coffee industry faces many difficult challenges today and in coming years, including the reduced availability of land and labor, shortages in the supply from key origins, altogether with rising production costs and volatile market prices.

But if the industry does not take steps to overcome such issues in due time, it will not only affect the likes of coffee drinkers and retailers, it will threaten the lives of almost 125 million people worldwide that depend on coffee for their livelihoods.


So what can any of us do to help safeguard a sustainable future for coffee farmers and the coffee industry?

First, consumers can pledge to drink certified coffee —from brands that transparently commit to fair trade and eco-friendly production standards, and to ditch the wasteful coffee pod machines.

Examples of certifications in coffee (Photo: Belco)

Secondly, consumers can ask companies in the coffee sector — including “certified” retailers — if there are any cases of labor abuses and/or environmental damages rooted in their coffee supply chain. If they say yes, ask what they are doing to solve it; otherwise, choose a different brand.

The U.S. Department of Labor has recently developed mobile applications to help people in finding information about consumer goods produced with child labor, forced labor, and human trafficking around the world.

What can you do to help ending labor conflicts and other abuses (Photo: ILAB)

Finally, citizens can demand that local and international authorities take effective measures to ensure the coffee industry’s compliance with sustainable and ethical practices, as they are supposed to be looking out for our common good.


Thanks for reading!

Marina Martinez

Written by

Global sustainability researcher. Writing about the controversial relationships among People, Nature, and Economy.

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