Worldwide coffee is a massive industry but most coffee farmers, the majority of whom live in developing countries, struggle to make a modest living from their crop. On average, coffee farmers receive only 5-10 per cent of the final retail price. Fierce competition among growers, due to pressure from the multi-nationals, has led to price reductions and undercutting. This leaves growers with no safety margin when the supply drops or bad weather hits. Poverty, human rights abuses and low life expectancy rates are commonplace amongst coffee farmers.
In general, coffee pickers, migrant workers and farmworkers are the most vulnerable groups involved in coffee production. Moreover, they have traditionally not been included in the coffee industry’s sustainability efforts.
In 2012, the U.S. Department of Labor discovered widespread labor violations in coffee farms in Hawaii. Violations included “failures to pay workers minimum wage and overtime, exploiting migrant workers, illegally hiring coffee pickers as independent contractors, and exploiting children as young as 5 years old to pick coffee cherries.”
Farmworkers commonly face unsafe working conditions in coffee fields. For example, not having the right protection equipment for work is very common, especially outside of Brazil. Having to bring your own rain boots, improvised ponchos (using plastic bags), and even your own machetes is very common. In coffee fields where you can find snakes, spiders or fire ants in many places, not having the right equipment can be a tremendous hazard for workers. In addition, not having the adequate training and protection when applying pesticides is a major challenge for farmworkers. I visited a coffee farm in Brazil where workers had been properly trained in pesticide application and had all the right equipment. A few of these workers told me that applying pesticides was the worst part of the job. Even when you have the right training and equipment, pesticide application involves significant risks to the workers’ health. Not having the necessary individual protection equipment and training creates very hazardous situations for farmworkers in coffee.
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Farmers have been positively encouraged to replace their traditional and supposedly inefficient farming methods with the higher yielding technique of sun cultivation, which has resulted in over 2.5 million acres of forest being cleared in Central America alone to make way for coffee farming in this way.
Deforestation trends are serious throughout the coffee producing lands of Latin America and remarkable biodiversity values are at stake. Latin America’s tropical forests are critical ecologically for purposes of protection of atmospheric dynamics, water quality, wildlife species, as well as economically.
Contamination of waterways also pose serious environmental threats from the processing of coffee beans. Largely irrespective of how coffee is grown, discharges from coffee processing plants represent a major source of river pollution. Ecological impacts result from the discharge of organic pollutants from the processing plants to rivers and waterways, triggering eutrophication of water systems and robbing aquatic plants and wildlife of essential oxygen.
Traditional coffee is often integral to agro-forestry systems in which tree species are cultivated together with coffee and other agricultural commodities. This cultivation of coffee relies on much lower chemical inputs than industrial plantations due to the other plants reducing the susceptibility to pests.
However, sun cultivated coffee often employs intensive pesticides and chemicals that present serious health and ecological concerns. The World Resources Institute (WRI) carried out a recent study that reported extensive human exposure to pesticides in Latin America and elsewhere in the developing world. The correlation between increased nitrogen fertilizer application and the widespread removal of shade cover from Central American coffee plantations is evident, with these heavy synthetic fertilizer inputs contributing to increasing contamination of waterways and aquifers.