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Do You Know Where that Latte Came From?

15 May 2006

Have you ever wondered whether some small gesture on your part could make a difference in the lives of people in say…Africa, Asia or The Caribbean? I am not referring to the few coins many of us drop in the donations jar at the checkout counter of our favorite corner store. I mean an everyday activity you perform so routinely you don’t even ponder its implications; something like buying a cup of coffee, reading your favorite magazine or watching a TV show.

I have thought about this topic extensively over the years. But recently, a series of events I attended revived those thoughts and strengthened my belief in our power as citizens and consumers of what I call The Rich World.

First, I went to see the documentary Black Gold at Hot Docs a few days ago. Black GoldNorth America. Through coffee, the filmmakers (British brothers Nick and Marc Curtis) expose the disparities between the wretched lives of the coffee farmers on one hand and the plush latte-sipping existence of the average North American consumer and investor in the $55 billion coffee industry. In Black Gold, the specific case of Ethiopia , (the birthplace of coffee) is examined. We meet the farmers who plant the beans; hard-working, valiant men whose smiling and determined faces do not match the helpless, pathetic ones in those World Vision commercials (more on that later!). These farmers have to wait four years to harvest their coffee beans and hope to gain a paltry 87 Cents per kilogram. But when you know that a single kilogram of coffee can yield over 20 double-doubles at your favorite Tim’s, you start wondering what part you’re playing in the exploitation of those farmers and how much of your hard-earned dollars contribute to the fattening a few CEOs and middle managers’ banks accounts. deals with the journey of coffee beans, from their farms in Africa to our coffee cups in Europe and

A few days ago, I also attended a benefit concert for War Child Canada at El Mocambo on Spadina. During the evening, a War Child Canada representative reiterated this point about the interconnection of our lives by mentioning a substance called Coltan.

Coltan, according to the editors of the website cellular-news.com is “short for Columbite-tantalite. It is a metallic ore comprising Niobium and Tantalum, found mainly in the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). When refined, coltan becomes a heat resistant powder, metallic tantalum which has unique properties for storing electrical charge.” And because of these unique qualities, coltan is used in the manufacture of cell phones, iPods, MP3 players, PlayStations, Xboxes, and capacitators used to regulate the electrical charge in computer chips.

Coltan is mined in Canada and the US as well, but close to 80% of the world’s reserves are found in the DRC and over 60% of the coltan used around the world comes from Congo . Mining of Coltan (and of other minerals period) is in part fueling the conflict between the different factions in the DRC. That conflict by all accounts has killed over 3 million people in addition to the usual “collateral damages”; wildlife devastation, destruction of traditional ways of life and child labor to name a few.

Are you depressed yet? There is more…

On May 4th, CBC Radio’s morning show “The Current” reported that the Canadian Pension Plan (CPP), our national piggy-bank which controls over $90 billion of our assets is a major investor in many questionable companies like:

o    Raytheon, one of the leading weapons manufacturers in the US and producer of cluster bombs

o    Halliburton, embroiled in controversy in Iraq and other places for “over billing the US government”

o   Lockheed, another weapons manufacturers and supplier of “private contractors to the US government”, many of whom were embroiled in the tortures that took place at the Abu Graib prison in Iraq

o   SNC-Lavallin, a Canadian company based in Quebec which through one of its subsidiaries provides bullets to US troops in Iraq .
So just when you started feeling really smug about the decision of our federal government not to get involved in the War in Iraq, that same government decides that you, the taxpayer must profit from that war.

And finally last Saturday, CNN aired a special on celebrity culture that our own Jane Nteyafas wrote about in a recent article. From that show, I drew the following lesson: ultimately, we the consumers fuel the celebrity machine: we buy the magazines, we watch the TV shows, we visit the websites that publish stories about Bennifer, TomKat, Jessica Simpson, Lindsay Lohan, and every other so-and-so’s sex life. This demand keeps publicists, image consultants and paparazzis in business, some of whom are now asking up to $250,000 for sets of pictures about certain “high-profile” celebrities.

The world is globalized; we hear the expression quite often, but sometimes we fail to grasp the extent or some of the negative ramifications of these entanglements. And even when we do, we are always confronted with the same basic question: What can we do about it? Not much, we sometimes conclude and that conclusion leads us down the road to apathy.

The first thing to do in my view is to shy away from simplistic impulses. These problems confronting our planet will not be solved simply through our meager tax-deductible donations to some charitable organization, nor will they go away because we “adopt an African child” through World Vision or wear a colorful plastic bracelet. These issues have been with us for many years and very little has intrinsically changed as a result of these small gestures. These are solutions nevertheless, but short-term solutions that instantly gratify, while allowing us to avoid thorough examinations of the larger issues. As many of the previously described situations show, these problems exist because we the consumers continue to buy certain products and because we do not, for the most part, make demands on the companies that manufacture those products, or on the banks that invest our money or the governments that we elect to represent us.

We contribute a small percentage of our incomes to “charitable causes” while the larger part goes to investments in products and institutions that while sustaining us, create, exacerbate or contribute to the degradation of the lives of others in areas of the world we sometimes cannot even find on a map. Ultimately, only a collective decision to vote with our wallets will have any significant impact on governments and multinationals. The Fair Trade movement and the British “No Blood on my Mobile ” movements are just some recent examples of citizens taking action. We can choose to get involved.

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