Postcards and the History of Coffee Cultivation

Coffee pickers on East Java.

Coffee pickers, East Java, early twentieth century. Postcards also show the prominent role of women (and children) in coffee picking. Often, the images show people in idealized poses, wearing formal, traditional garb. While this image is clearly posed, otherwise it looks like the photographer simply found some people picking coffee and asked them to pose where they were. This group appears to a mother with her three daughters.

The coffee plants in the photograph are also of interest. Another card from this series indicates that this is Quillou coffee. This is another variety of C. canephora; the best-known variety of this species is Robusta coffee. My source books disagree on the origin of this variety; some have it coming from Uganda, while others suggest the Gabon or Cameroon. It was introduced to the Dutch East Indies around 1900; breeders there developed improved selections. The Quillou variety was not as widely planted in the Dutch East Indies as the better-known robusta. But it was later introduced to Brazil, where it is known as Conilon.

On ugliness and beauty in the coffee industry: thoughts from East Coast Coffee Madness 2017

 

 

This week’s East Coast Coffee Madness in Montreal was energizing. The speakers spoke engagingly about the current state the industry, from plantation to cup. I’m still processing some of the things I heard there, but there is one theme that really stood out — the intertwined issues of beauty and ugliness.

One of the speakers, Adam Pesce from Reunion Island Coffee, discussed beautiful images that we often see in cafés; the lavish photos of farms nestled in beautiful landscapes, or portraits of happy farmers cupping ripe red beans in their hands. The coffeelands of Latin America are indeed beautiful beyond belief. But as Pesce pointed out, this beauty is deceptive. He reminded the audience “we have made coffee look beautiful, but there are also ugly parts.” And these days, this is more true than ever. Farmers — even those who produce specialty coffee — are often struggling to break even, much less earn a good livelihood. And on top of “stubbornly low prices” that plague the industry, farmers are also grappling with climate change, which has disrupted coffee farming in many different ways. Other speakers at the conference described these and other forms of ugliness in all steps of the coffee industry.

On the other hand, if unquestioned beauty is a problem, unremitting ugliness can be toxic. This is something that I’m sure will resonate with almost everyone. At times, the news is almost unremittingly and uniformly grim. I am often dispirited by the volume of stories about catastrophe that come across my Facebook and Twitter feeds. This ugliness is, of course real. But one of the other speakers, Hanna Neuschwander from World Coffee Research, offered a more constructive vision of beauty. Not one that masks the ugliness, but which motivates and mobilizes people to deal with the ugliness and make the world a better place.

Neuschwander reminded us that “beauty holds our attention.” She spoke about the work that World Coffee Research — is doing to develop new varieties of coffee that are resistant to major diseases and pests; breeders are also making efforts to develop varieties that are adaptable to climate change.” Without minimizing the ugliness of the current situation, she told a beautiful story (illustrated also by a lovely video that offered a measure of hope — something more than unremitting despair. And Pesce, too, spoke not just of ugliness, but also of concrete things that people in the coffee industry could do to improve sustainability in the coffee change. We heard beautiful stories from Janice Nadworny on beekeeping as a way to help impoverished farmers diversify their incomes, and from Laila Ghambari on how to address discrimination in the coffee industry.

The challenge we have to grapple with is how to speak about and confront the ugliness in various parts of the coffee industry. Too much ugliness — even if true — produces nothing but despair. Beauty, in the form of compelling stories like the ones presented at the meeting, offer us a measure of hope.

Coffee Maps — Global Distribution of Coffee Rust, 1952

Coffee Areas of the World In Relation to Rust DiseaseThis is a lovely map published in 1952, by the United States Office of Foreign Agricultural Relations. At the most basic level, it is a snapshot of a slow-moving global crop epidemic. The coffee leaf rust (caused by the fungus Hemileia vastatrix) had first appeared in epidemic form in Ceylon in 1869. From there, it had spread through the Indian Ocean Basin and the Pacific. In the face of the Coffee Leaf Rust, coffee planters in Ceylon abandoned coffee cultivation in favour of tea, for which the island is now famous. The disease also devastated the coffee farms of Java, then another of the world’s major exporters of arabica coffee. Planters there switched to other crops, or (in some places) began cultivating robusta coffee (C. canephora, var. Robusta), a rust-resistant coffee that had recently been discovered in the Belgian Congo. Robusta helped in the recovery of many rust-wracked coffee zones, especially in the humid lowlands of the Indian Ocean Basin and Africa. But this rust-resistance came at the expense of quality; robustas did not have the same cupping quality as arabica. Robustas were usually used as cheap fillers in blended coffees. So this map shows not only the distribution of the rust, but also (approximately) the global distribution of arabica and robusta coffee in the mid-twentieth century. A few enclaves of arabica production in the Eastern Hemisphere did survive — especially in Kenya, Ethiopia, India, and Sumatra. But virtually everywhere else in the East, robusta prevailed.

In the early twentieth century, the rust gradually began to move across Africa, from east to west. And it became apparent that the vast fields of arabica coffee in the Americas were at risk from the coffee rust. It is also a warning to the coffee growers of the americas. The rust finally did appear in Brazil in 1970; by 1985 it had reached almost every coffee-growing region in the Americas. While it was seldom as catastrophic in the Americas as it had been in Ceylon or Java, it has been a chronic problem for coffee farmers in the Americas ever since.

Coffee, Philately, and Identity — Brazil

Stamp issued in Brazil, 1938, celebrating the country’s position at the world’s largest coffee producer. It depicts a branch of a coffee tree with ripe red coffee fruit in the foreground, a sack spilling green (processed) coffee in the background, and of course the “Cafe do Brasil” on another sack. Ironically, perhaps, at the moment this stamp was issued Brazilian coffee production was a problem. It was producing more coffee than the world markets could absorb, and so in the 1930s the country began burning surplus production in order to keep prices up.