Economic woes are not just causing hardship in Brazil, they are igniting an exodus. In the country that produces the most coffee in the world, prices are driving some coffee farmers to move to higher altitudes or closer to the equator in the name of higher yields. To make matters worse, the cost of production is rising with Brazilian workers demanding higher wages, and prices are falling even further with high yields across Brazil flooding the market. In Brazil, and around the world, volatile markets are damaging the lives of small farmers.
India’s coffee industry faces an enormous labor shortage. Market forces are pushing would-be rural farmers into cities at an alarming rate, hurting the farmers who are being left behind. The biggest coffee growing states in India rank at the top of the list of farmer suicide rates in India, a telling sign of the economic conditions facing growers in states like Kerala and Karnataka. While this tragedy is underway in Southern India, ironically, Starbucks is quickly expanding their business in India, opening 75 stores in 3 years, as of 2015.
In Indonesia, coffee prices have become so uncertain that many farmers have started growing citrus instead of coffee. Citrus is less profitable, but prices are more reliable for most families who rely on their farms for 30-40% of their income. For farmers who rely only on coffee for income, the situation is more dire: they are only able to afford the most basic items and struggle to provide. At the mercy of merciless market forces, coffee farmers in Indonesia face an uncertain future.
Even with the coffee boom in Kenya, farmers still suffer. In December of 2012, thieves armed with machetes attacked a Kenyan coffee factory and depot, killing 11 and depleting valuable coffee reserves. Legally-obtained coffee fetches high prices in Kenya, but just one kilo (roughly two pounds) on the black market can easily be worth as much as a regular farmer will make in a week. The incentive the black market provides has given way to a litany of crime and looting across Kenya’s coffee country. In just three months, from November 2015 to January 2016, more than 300 bags of coffee were stolen in Kenya’s central region. Kenyan coffee farmers, already struggling with poverty, face further hardship from these raids.
Colombia, where coffee has been the number one export crop since 1860, is not exempt from international market forces. Ever since the great recession, coffee prices have dropped steeply. In 2013, costs of production outstripped revenues by 40%, igniting protests across the country. Colombian coffee farmers face increasingly intense competition from places like Indonesia, Central America, and East Africa, which drives down prices, upsetting farmers accustomed to the high and stable ones of the 60’s and ’70s.
Last year, Vietnamese farmers were forced to hoard their yields when prices slid far below their expectations, hoping for a future upswing. Though stocks were at a record high, uncertainty in the market has put substantial pressure on farmers to replace their coffee crops with other, more marketable ones, like pepper or durian. For small farmers, the startup costs of changing crops would be a huge setback to socioeconomic progress Vietnam.
In 2001, coffee hit a 30-year low in Ethiopia. Many farmers faced great difficulty just affording food, and turned to government feeding centers. Others started growing chat, a narcotic, to survive. What is more, these farmers make only 5 to 10 percent of the retail price off of their crop; in the end, Starbucks’ and other competitors’ strategies to stay competitive cut the thinnest slice of revenues to the farmers who grow their product.