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12 April 2003

Life in a world of grinding poverty

Article by John Barrett published in the Evening News

As the world’s attention is focused upon the war in Iraq, it is easy to forget the struggle against poverty elsewhere.

In Africa, a combination of bad harvests, bad weather, bad government and an Aids pandemic have left many countries devastated. The effects of globalisation are making a bad situation worse, with farmers finding their crops are worthless in the face of subsidised harvests from the west.

Some commodities, like coffee, have seen a collapse in the market so profound that growers are actually losing money when they sell.

The main reason for my visit to Ethiopia with Oxfam was to highlight the problems being faced by the country following the fall in world coffee prices and to see what impact this was having on the many small producers in Ethiopia.

As elsewhere in Africa, HIV/Aids is also an issue, although infection rates at around ten per cent are lower than in some neighbouring countries.

Our first stop was out in the Rift Valley to visit drought-affected communities and an Oxfam relief food distribution site.

On the way we passed a number of windmills, which had been erected to help pump water from below ground. Most had fallen into disrepair as the initial investment had not been followed up with the required maintenance.

We travelled in two four-wheel drives because the paved road soon turned into rutted desert tracks which would be impassable in any other vehicle, or after rain. We drove in a sea of dust until finally we reached a group of around 100 people who had gathered to pick up their bags of maize.

I asked who looked after the growing number of orphans and was told that they are often taken in by extended families, which are then given extra maize .

The struggle people faced in the desert was made clear when I was approached by one man who had no nose and was left with only a wound in the middle of his face to breathe through. This was the result of his attempt to fight off a hyena which had attacked his goat and then turned on him as he tried to beat it off.

That evening we arrived at Awasa on our way to the Negele Gorbitu Coffee Farmers’ Co-operative. The cooperative has 1383 members and they explained how many farmers receive 100 birr per 100kg of coffee when they sold their product on the open market.

One birr is worth roughly 8p and this buys one kilo of coffee, which produces 80 cups. My quick calculation means that the next time I am in the average coffee shop I will pay more for one coffee than the farmer gets for producing the coffee for 1000 cups.

The normal route of sale for coffee is from the farmer to a collector, then a supplier who will supply an exporter at auction. The coffee then goes to a buyer, who supplies the roaster, who supplies the retailer, who sells it to the public. The co-operative pay the farmer 100 birr and cut out some of the middle men.

After buying the coffee from the farmers they also feed back 70 per cent of the profit from the sale, which can mean farmers receiving more than double through fair trade than free trade. The other 30 per cent is used by the co-op to build up a small reserve and to invest in the community.

When we asked why all farmers did not use the co-op, we discovered that, in order to survive, some had borrowed from loan sharks and had promised to sell their next crop to them at low prices and the capacity of the co-op was also restricted through a lack of investment.

One project the co-op hoped to finance was the purchase of a new washing station which would add value to the crop but required a substantial investment.

We watched as the coffee beans were roasted and then shared a drink with our hosts, many of whom lived in the small huts next to their small farms. Unlike the desert of the previous day we were now in a lush green valley and it was difficult to appreciate how hard a time the farmers were having until we visited their homes.

The small round wooden hut had an earth floor, no water or electricity, and almost no furniture except brush mats for sleeping on.

This was home to a family with nine children who had only a few bags of coffee beans left to sell while the family lived off one staple food called false banana.

One reason for large families was that infant mortality was high and children were also needed to help out during the busy time of year. It did strike me that nine children would have probably driven me into poverty.

I decided to take a Polaroid camera with me so that rather than visitors only taking photographs we would also be able to leave some images of the people we met. I was told this was the most exciting thing that had happened to one group of children who were able to add a family photograph to an empty house.

Our final day consisted of meetings with the Minister for Trade and Industry, the British Ambassador and the Department for International Development representative before a well-attended press conference to explain what we had seen and what we hoped would come out of our visit.

Back at Westminster, I hope to raise the issue of the coffee crisis with other MPs during debate, in questions and at all party group meetings. I also intend to follow up with suppliers in the UK to explore ways of delivering a fair deal to those who supply our local shops.

I will also be able share some of my experiences with a variety of groups when I am giving talks in my constituency.

What the coffee growers need is hope that the present arrangements will change and that a fair deal can be delivered for those who provide one of the basic products most of us enjoy every day.

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This website was established while I was a Member of Parliament. The site content is being kept online as a source of information, but all forms / email have been disabled.