Starbucks and Ethiopia: investigative report

by on September 29, 2007

The Sacramento Bee has published an in-depth report by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tom Knudson exploring Starbucks and its Ethiopian relationships.

Of particular interest to C&C readers will be the information on Ethiopia’s Gemadro Estate, the source of one of their Black Apron exclusive coffees. I reported on the Gemadro Black Apron when it was being offered (Starbucks Ethiopia Gemadro Estate: Corporate greenwashing?). One thing I discussed was the extent of the land clearing on the estate and its implications for the environment.

Knudson goes over this point (and many others) in greater detail. He interviewed Tadesse Gole, an Ethiopian ecologist who did his PhD work on the preservation of wild coffee and the author of a study on the environmental and cultural impacts of coffee and tea plantations in Ethiopia, including Gemadro. He found an annual deforestation rate of 12.2% in the Gemadro area, the highest in the Sheka Zone. A spokesman at Ethio-Agri CEFT, which manages the estate, says that much of the land was cleared before Gemadro obtained it, and that conservation practices include reducing erosion by planting grasses and reeds, establishing shade trees over the coffee, and leaving 3,200 acres untouched for wildlife.

Gole countered this by pointing out that many of the plants and trees are not native to Ethiopia, which changes forest composition. Knudson points out confirmation on Gemadro’s web site (which says crops planted there include some from South America, Mexico and India).

Finally, Knudson uncovered the fact that the estate was certified under Starbucks’ own CAFE Practices but that nobody from Starbucks or their certification auditor (Scientific Certification Systems, SCS) had actually visited the estate. The inspector at another firm employed by SCS was fired for poor performance, and SCS would not release the inspection report to the Sacramento Bee. This demonstrates a weakness in certification schemes in general, which often rely on third parties for inspections.

While the article comes down hard on Starbucks, it does offer some pros along with the cons, and admits,

“No coffee company claims to do more for the environment and Third World farmers…In places, Starbucks delivers on those promises, certainly more so than other multinational coffee companies.”

I will add that Starbucks has also been the forerunner in waking up Americans to “specialty” coffee, or at least that there is an alternative to Folgers and Maxwell House. Frankly, every former grocery store/big four coffee drinker that converts to Starbucks is a step in the right direction towards sustainability. And no other company has spawned more converts than Starbucks.

The article is Investigative Report: Promises and poverty. Check out the sidebar: a large aerial photo showing the estate and surrounding area, highlighting areas of forest and development. The article has also been reprinted in its entirety at the web site of the Organic Consumers Association.

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Revised on November 12, 2012

Posted in Retail and specialty roasters,Starbucks

Aaron October 2, 2007 at 12:44 am

Man, you guys do a great job of researching and investigating your topics. Keep up the great work.

Miranda Paul, Worldgoods Fair Trade October 5, 2007 at 6:42 pm

Excellent reporting. This information will be most helpful as a resource in talking about the coffee industry during educational presentations and at our Fair Trade Fundraisers.

At Worldgoods Fair Trade, we're always introducing people who have never heard about fair trade coffee to the wonderful opportunity it presents in being part of a solution rather than blindly contributing to a severe problem by changing your cup.

Keep up the great work!

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