December 1, 2006

Oromo: Starbucks ‘Dragging its Feet’ over Farmer’s Rights

"Small-scale coffee farmers are economically vulnerable, in part because large foreign buyers are dictating trading conditions" said Oxfam America regional director.

Addis Ababa - International aid agency Oxfam on Wednesday urged Starbucks, the World’s leading coffee roaster, to stop dragging its feet and recognises Ethiopia's right to own trademarks of coffee produced by the East African country.

Welcoming Tuesday's meeting in Ethiopia between Starbucks boss Jim Donald and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Oxfam said Starbucks must now follow up with immediate action to recognise Ethiopia's rights to own the names of its coffees.

"Doing so will ensure that coffee farmers get a fairer share of the value of their crop," said Abera Tola, Oxfam America regional director, adding that after a year of trying to engage Starbucks on trademarks, the company finally sat down to discuss the issue directly with Ethiopia.

Oxfam emphasises that Starbucks' recognition of Ethiopia's ownership of the trademarks could bring enormous benefits to the 15 million poor farmers who depend on coffee for their livelihood.

Ethiopian farmers produce some of the finest and most sought-after coffees in the World, including coffees that have been sold under Starbucks' Black Apron Exclusives line for up to $26 a pound. Ethiopia farmers receive only 5 to 10 percent of the retail price.

Ethiopia is working to gain greater benefits for its coffee growers by seeking control of its coffee names; a move that Ethiopia believes would give Ethiopian coffee farmers a fairer share of the profits in the global coffee trade.

"Small-scale coffee farmers are economically vulnerable, in part because large foreign buyers, such as Starbucks, are dictating trading conditions with their extraordinary market power," said Tola.

"If poor countries are able to obtain trademarks for unique, locally grown products like coffee, they can capture more of the value of their products for the benefit of the people who produce them. This initiative is a significant and innovative approach to alleviating poverty," he added.

For over a year, Ethiopia has sought dialogue with Starbucks about supporting the country's efforts to return more of the price of its coffees in world markets to the farmers who produce them by seeking trademark rights for Sidamo, Harar and Yirgacheffe coffees.

Despite its much-publicised commitment to farming communities, Starbucks has continually rejected Ethiopia's requests to resolve the trademark issue.

No agreement was reached at Tuesday's meeting.

"This is a rights issue and we deserve to have our rights recognised. We strongly believe that trade marking is the way to go," said Meles.

"The right to own our coffee names is the only way that we can preserve our rich coffee heritage. Ethiopia has an obligation to coffee consumers worldwide to protect and preserve our unique coffees."

Legal and intellectual property experts have supported Ethiopia in its approach, expressing the opinion that the trademark and licensing project is a viable solution to the poverty that plagues Ethiopian farmers.

Trademark rights for Ethiopia's coffees have also been recognised in several European countries, as well as Canada and Japan.

"Our coffees are some of the best in the World and although they often sell for two and three times the cost of other coffees, we are getting a tiny fraction of this price," complained Tadesse Meskela, manager of Oromia Coffee Farmers Co-operative Union.

"Our objective here is to return more money to the coffee grower's pocket," Meskela said.

Last month Oxfam launched an international public campaign to encourage Starbucks to engage with Ethiopia directly on the issue.

Over 85 000 people around the world, according to Tola, have joined Oxfam in calling on Starbucks to do right to Ethiopia's coffee farmers and sign the licensing agreement.

Tola said Oxfam and its supporters would continue to work with the Ethiopian government, coffee growers, and exporters to encourage Starbucks to come to a mutually beneficial solution that could make a world of difference for millions of poor people.

Meanwhile, Starbucks CEO on Wednesday made a field visit to coffee farms in Awassa area of Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR) before returning to the United States.