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The identity politics of coffee

From the July 2017 issue.

Is coffee the next ethical front of cultural appropriation?

Jeffrey Neilson

Sometimes it’s easy to spot cultural appropriation.

Despite increasing awareness of the potential harm in borrowing symbols, traditions or language from a culture that isn’t one’s own, you can still pick out the oblivious music festival-goer sporting a feathered headdress in the name of fashion.

While Twitter and Instagram are rife with public accusations, the moral dilemma is far more complex than what the kids are wearing at Coachella. According to a University of Sydney geographer, the coffee industry would be wise to take heed.

“For many years people in the specialty coffee industry have shared intimate stories and photos from producers for marketing purposes,” said Jeffrey Neilson at the Specialty Coffee Association’s Re:co Symposium in Seattle last April.

“Sometimes with permission and sometimes without even knowing their names.”

Neilson has spent the past several years studying geographic indications in the Indonesian coffee industry, where an estimated two million rural households are involved in coffee farming.

He found that while they did not improve the livelihoods of farmers, the popularity of geographic indications within Indonesia and other coffee-producing countries raises important ethical questions that could soon change how we look at coffee marketing practices with places of origin.

“Geography is likely to become an increasingly contested moral and political arena in the (coffee) industry in years ahead,” he said.

On the Map
The term ‘cultural appropriation’ hadn’t yet been coined when Indonesia’s economy opened to foreign investment in 1965, twenty years after it gained independence from the Dutch colonial government. But when a Japanese-owned coffee company used cultural imagery from the Torajan people of South Sulawesi to help market a product the local people had been growing for more than 150 years, it did not sit well.

Regardless of the company’s intentions to help the farmer gain better prices and international recognition for their coffee, the appropriation reverberated sentiments of a colonial past in a nation where coffee profits had been systematically syphoned back to the Netherlands for 300 years.

“Many Indonesians felt some sort of moral violation, that their cultural property was being used by others for profit,” says Neilson.

“In this sense it was seen as something of a violation of sovereignty in Indonesia.”

Neilson believes historical experiences such as that of the Toraja are an important consideration when examining the growing popularity of geographic indication registrations in the transcontinental country.

“Current appropriation of cultural property is seen to be continuing these same sorts of wrongdoings that happened in the colonial past,” he says.

The World Trade Organization defines a geographic indication (GI) as a place name or word associated with a place used to identify the origin and quality, reputation or other characteristics of products.

The intellectual property (IP) right that is staking claims in a growing number of coffee-growing regions first emerged from the wine-growing regions of France in the 1930s, when vineyards sought a means to control who could label products with coveted place names such as Champagne or Roquefort.

Coffee was the first product to be registered under the GI system in Indonesia, with similar versions of the IP established in Kenya, Jamaica and Colombia.

While originally intended to shift more value from the sale of coffee to origin, Neilson found GIs did not improve farmer livelihoods. His study examined the Kintamani region of Bali, where the first GI was established, and Bajawa district in Flores, which was thought to be the most effectively functioning GI in the country.

“Despite the high interest in GIs from within Indonesia and some roasters in the broader community, they weren’t having a tangible impact on the life of the farmers based on our theory of change,” says Neilson. “At the end of the day, roasters and consumers didn’t really care about the GI label.”

He believes part of the problem is that roasters couldn’t use GIs as a system to assess the quality of coffee, but instead continued to rely on cupping to determine value. Furthermore, GIs were poorly embedded within the communities. In some areas, less than half the farmers formally registered realised there was a GI set up, and even fewer understood the concept of intellectual property.

A question of morals
Whether it’s the clothes we wear or the food we eat, Olufunmilayo Arewa believes we’re all borrowing in human experience, especially given our increased access to different elements of culture over the Internet. 

So how do we know when borrowing crosses the ethical line?

It’s not easy, admits the law professor and director for the Centre for African Business, Law and Entrepreneurship at the University of California, Irvine.

“When patterns of borrowing fail to acknowledge their sources and compensate them, they can be categorised as cultural appropriation,” Arewa wrote in a 2016 article in The Conversation. “This is particularly the case when cultural flows reflect, reinforce or magnify inequalities.”

Even if no strong legal case can be constructed, Arewa tells Global Coffee Report it is still important to consider context, especially where obvious power inequalities exist.

“In the colonial era there was pretty free taking of material,” she says. “Those attitudes are still present and could make it easier for the marketer to take something from a place that is less powerful. What’s important to focus on is the power asymmetry that may exacerbate something that constitutes appropriation.”

Arewa

While GIs may not be improving a producer’s quality of life in Indonesia, Neilson’s research shows the system may help address some of the moral concerns with cultural appropriation.

“Across these regions and physical geographies, regional cultural identities are very much linked up with the product that’s being produced. GIs are seen partially as a way of promoting and protecting their cultural diversity with their products as much as it is about the value captured.”

But he is still sceptical about feasibility.

“This system of IP imported from France is being applied to the coffee industry and in Indonesia at least, it’s too difficult to implement,” he tells GCR. “It requires these systems of traceability and it requires monitoring of quality that many producers at the moment don’t have the capacity to actually implement.”

Ethiopia tried a different strategy to reclaim some of its most popular place names in 2005.

The country sought trademarks for Sidamo, Harrar, and Yirgacheffe when the popular coffees retailed at Starbucks for US$26 dollars per pound while a farmer’s share was a mere 60 US cents. But after securing a trademark for Yirgacheffe in 2006, the country signed an agreement allowing the US roaster to use the names in places where trademarks did and didn’t exist.

With increased focus on origin to differentiate specialty coffee offerings, questioning how companies use cultural material in marketing may be more important than ever. But Neilson believes it will take a lot more than intellectual property rights to give coffee growers a rightful share.

“Any benefits from GIs aren’t going to come from technocratic interventions,” he says. “They’re going to come from engaging in a moral debate in consuming countries.

“We talk about partnerships and we like to think of ourselves as quite a progressive industry … but whether they’re willing to go the next step and share symbolic quality attributes with producers is perhaps the biggest challenge going ahead.” GCR

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