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Letters to the Editor

Starbucks should license Ethiopian coffee for farmers

Re: “Ethiopia, not Starbucks, is the one committing atrocities,” by Jordan Capobianco, Mar. 27.

Let me just start off by saying that Students for Social Justice (SSJ) never made Starbucks out to be the so-called “malevolent corporate giant.” What SSJ does question, however, is Starbucks’ assertion that “Everything we do is about humanity.” According to Seth Petchers, the Coffee Program Coordinator of Oxfam America, “If Starbucks is seriously committed to humanity, it needs to change its position and agree to negotiate a licensing agreement with Ethiopia that respects its ownership of its unique coffee trademarks. Starbucks has retailed these Ethiopian coffees for as much as $26 a pound, yet most Ethiopian coffee farmers struggle to survive on one dollar a day.”

Wondwossen Mezlekia, an Ethiopian-American Fair Trade activist who writes the blog “Coffee Politics,” – – had the following response to Capobianco’s comment that “In fact, the company is trying to prevent Ethiopia from making a serious mistake.” Mezlekia writes, “This argument finds its roots in the most dehumanizing assumption that Africans better consult their Western ‘masters’ before reaching at their own decisions. The infinitesimal prices that Starbucks pays to the farmers are the serious mistake that needs couching.”

Mezlekia also had instructive words for the flawed comparison made between Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union. He writes, “Ethiopia’s intention is to make use of Intellectual Property laws that have been freely exploited by the West for decades. Trademark is only one part of these laws. The difference between IP and Socialist marketing systems is the fact that the former functions in the free market while the latter in a centralized one. The former Soviet Union had a centrally controlled pricing system, which would not require an IP protection. So, basically, the writer (Capobianco) had it the other way around.”

The Make Trade Fair campaign is not about the transparency or democracy of the Ethiopian government, which, by the way, won’t get a cent from trademarking or licensing: This is a royalty-free agreement, so the argument about this underhandedly benefiting the Ethiopian government does not hold up. And as far as Starbucks doubling purchases from Ethiopia is concerned, this doesn’t even address the core issue: Ethiopian farmers are not asking for charity; they are looking for solidarity. At its heart, the Fair Trade movement is a human rights movement. It’s not about what’s best for the coffee company or the government. Rather, it’s about maximizing the benefit to the farmer.

Salman Khan is a senior majoring in biology and is the president of Students for Social Justice.