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Following Public Campaign for Trademark Efforts, Coffee Giant Starbucks Signs Licensing Deal that Could Bring Millions to Ethiopian Farmers

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Specialty Ethiopian coffee beans can retail for as much as $25 a pound in the U.S, but back in Ethiopia, impoverished farmers may earn less than $1 a pound for the same beans. Hoping to take more control over marketing and boost prices, the government of Ethiopia tried to trademark regional coffee names. Starbucks, the world’s largest specialty coffee retailer, opposed Ethiopia’s trademarking efforts. In response, Starbucks came under heavy public pressure to sign a licensing deal with Ethiopia. The campaign appears to have worked. Last week, Starbucks and the Ethiopian government released a joint statement announcing they signed an agreement in principle. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: A licensing deal between coffee giant Starbucks and the East African country of Ethiopia is expected to be completed this month that could bring in millions of dollars for Ethiopian coffee farmers. Specialty Ethiopian coffee beans can retail for as much as $25 a pound in the U.S., but back in Ethiopia, impoverished farmers may earn less than a dollar a pound for the same beans. Hoping to take more control over marketing and boost prices, the government of Ethiopia tried to trademark regional coffee names: Harar, Sidamo and Yirgacheffe. Starbucks, the world’s largest specialty coffee retailer, opposed Ethiopia’s trademarking efforts.

In response, the aid group Oxfam International led a public campaign to pressure Starbucks into signing a licensing deal with Ethiopia. Oxfam estimated the trademark plan could bring farmers an additional $88 million annually. The public pressure appears to have worked. Last week, Starbucks and the Ethiopian government released a joint statement announcing they signed an agreement in principle.

Wondwossen Mezlekia is an Ethiopian activist and analyst living in Seattle. He has been closely following this story. He runs the blog poorfarmer.blogspot.com, and he’s a board member for Fair Trade Puget Sound. He joins me from Seattle. Here in New York, I’m joined by Sarah Bender, a worker at Starbucks in Manhattan. She’s an organizer with the Starbucks Workers Union and a member of the Justice from Bean to Cup Campaign. In February, she traveled to Ethiopia to meet coffee farmers growing the beans she brews at Starbucks. We invited Starbucks on the program, but they declined, saying the licensing agreement has not yet been finalized. And we’re also joined by Reverend Billy.

But I want to go to Seattle to talk with Wondwossen. Can you explain what this agreement is and if you approve?

WONDWOSSEN MEZLEKIA: Well, the licensing agreement will give Ethiopia the opportunity to work with the distributors and roasters and retailers, including Starbucks, to promote the brands, the coffee marks, so that consumers identify and recognize the marks. Eventually, in the long run, this will lead to a higher price per pound for the Ethiopian coffee. That was a great success that Starbucks has agreed to sign, even though it’s not signed yet. So it’s a great deal for the Ethiopian farmers, because that will put additional money into the pockets of the farmers.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the importance of coffee for the Ethiopian economy?

WONDWOSSEN MEZLEKIA: The coffee constitutes over 60 percent of the national export — I mean, the export earnings for the government. Over 85 percent of Ethiopians depend on agriculture, and over 1.5 to six million people depend on coffee directly. 1.5 million farmers and their families, including the other distributors, which altogether is 15 million people, depend on it. It is the main generator of the exports earnings for the country, so it — over 60 percent of it.

AMY GOODMAN: Sarah Bender, you work at Starbucks. Why did you go to Ethiopia?

SARAH BENDER: Well, I first became involved with the Ethiopia issue through my union, the Starbucks Workers Union IWW. And the union, as a whole, has always looked along industrial lines, not just focusing on a trade, so from the very beginning we were very aware of — issues that affect us as baristas, like unstable paychecks, just insecurity in general, also affects the farmers where Starbucks buys the coffee from. Recently, with the Oxfam campaign, I guess, against Starbucks on behalf of the Ethiopian government and farmers, we just became more interested, and due to a campaign donation, I was able to go along with the campaign adviser and really do a lot of on-the-ground research about the labor standards going on on these farms.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Dean Cycon into this conversation. He is president of Dean’s Beans, a fair trade coffee roaster. He is a licensee on the agreement that Starbucks is expected to sign. He joins me from Massachusetts. Your assessment of this agreement?

DEAN CYCON: Well, the license agreement is really a way for the Ethiopian government to stop other companies around the world from using the names. A Japanese company trademarked the name “Harar.” Starbucks started to trademark a name that contained “Sidamo.” And the fear was that these companies were trying to privatize the geographic names of Ethiopia, not necessarily for the benefit of the farmer, but certainly for the benefit of the companies. So the Ethiopian government made a strategic assessment that this was the best way to go. Legally, business-wise, there are other avenues, but this was sort of the emergency way to stop the companies from owning those names. We are now in the process, through a stakeholders’ committee — we just had a meeting last week of now how to turn that trademark license into an on-the-ground reality that’s going to raise the prices and make sure that that price raise goes to the farmers, nobody else.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did you get involved in this negotiation?

DEAN CYCON: I’ve been involved with Ethiopian farmers since 2001, when we brought in the first organic fair trade coffee from Ethiopia into the United States. We have been doing well-building and advocacy work in Ethiopia with the co-ops since that time. I was asked — one of the first people asked to sign the agreement about a year ago. I looked at it and, frankly, didn’t like it and negotiated with the government for several months on how to improve the language to ensure that the farmers receive the benefits.

I’ve recently been satisfied that that’s going to happen, and I signed. I then got a phone call from Starbucks saying, “What happened? We thought you were against this? Why did you sign it?” And I told them that I felt comfortable that this was going to benefit the farmers and, more importantly, since the stakeholders were a room full of exporters, importers, government people and a few small farmers, I felt it essential that the farmers have allies at that table. And so, I urged Starbucks: Sign on, sit at the table, let’s move on forward on this together.

AMY GOODMAN: Wondwossen Mezlekia, how can you be sure that the Ethiopian farmers are going to benefit and not the Ethiopian government?

WONDWOSSEN MEZLEKIA: Well, the coffee sector is now — currently it’s a private sector without the direct involvement of the government to control the prices. The other assurance that I have is the stakeholders’ group, which includes both distributors and retailers, including Starbucks. Well, in that case — and the farmers representatives, especially the ones that are organized in cooperatives, their representatives will be in the stakeholders’ group to manage the trademark. So, basically, if the price of coffee increases, since it is going through a private sector, private distributors and exporters, the price per found for the farmers will definitely increase, because of the market factors there.

AMY GOODMAN: Many say the public pressure on Starbucks helped force them into the licensing agreement. Activists from the Ethiopian community, regional fair trade coalitions, university students, consumer groups all got involved. Perhaps the most vocal of public campaigns was the one started by Reverend Billy, the founder of the Church of Stop Shopping. He took his campaign to the doorsteps of Starbucks coffeehouses. With his choir in tow, Reverend Billy launched his Sidamo Prayer Campaign in February in front of the Starbucks at Astor Place in Manhattan.

REVEREND BILLY: This is the beginning of a campaign of a struggle that will result in a basic shift in the policies of that multinational union-busting corporation we have across the street. They are confronted with the devil, the devil in the form of a mermaid that has no nipples! Amen? Hallelujah! We will walk across the street and drive the demons out of that cash register! They’re trapped in an economic situation that comes straight from Davos, comes straight from the WTO, comes straight from the World Bank, comes straight from Starbucks! Will you come inside with us?

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Billy being taken out of a Starbucks coffeehouse here in New York. Well, Reverend Billy joins us now in our firehouse studio. You were arrested?

REVEREND BILLY: Yes, not long after the cash register exorcism was completed. I spent the night in the Tombs at Starbucks’s insistence, and I witnessed the phone call come from Starbucks to the precinct house.

AMY GOODMAN: Why have you focused on Starbucks?

REVEREND BILLY: Starbucks, Sister Amy, is — we have to break their dream. The globalized economy is held in place by the retail presence of these chain stores and these big box stores in the Western developed countries, in the United States in particular, and that fastening on our psychological reality in our communities, that dominance of how we think of going about our regular day, that has to be broken. We have to crack that dream, walk through the crack and give people information about what this company is really doing.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your assessment of this agreement? Though it’s not final, it has been signed.

REVEREND BILLY: Oh, we’re ecstatic in the Church of Stop Shopping. We think this is just wonderful. It is an emergency. Anybody who’s seen the Black Gold movie, which was brought to New York by the fair trade activists here and Equal Exchange from Boston, it’s children starving. It’s an emergency. You know, we kind of lift up into our policy kind of rhetoric. It’s just malnutrition. It’s people unable to raise their families.

AMY GOODMAN: Sarah Bender, you work at a Starbucks here in New York, but you were fired from Starbucks, as well. Can you talk in the last minute we have about your union organizing efforts and what’s happening with Starbucks?

SARAH BENDER: Yeah, to go along with what the reverend said, there’s a whole myth that Starbucks created that it uses to sell its products at a very high price, and that is, they’re a different kind of company, they’re very socially responsible, they treat everyone that works for them, from their baristas to their farmers, really well, but the reality is that no baristas are allowed full-time status, which means getting hours is like a lottery, which means your paycheck is really unstable, very similar to the Ethiopian farmers, where the price of coffee is dependent on the stock market, which is constantly going up and down, and they have no idea what their paycheck or salary is going to be at the end of the season. So there’s a lot of — like the reverend said, a lot of information that needs to be spread about the reality of what it’s like to work for Starbucks.

AMY GOODMAN: You were fired, but you got your job back?

SARAH BENDER: Yes, I was fired from what we believe was my union organizing activities. When we held about a year work of community protest and worked with lawyers in the National Labor Relations Board, eventually Starbucks reached a settlement with the NLRB on our behalf, reinstating me, as well as another barista, and regaining our rights to wear our union pins, because they were sending people home for that, threatening people, intimidating, harassing.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to have to leave it there, but I want to thank you all for being with us, Sarah Bender, Reverend Billy. I want to also thank our guest in Seattle, Wondwossen Mezlekia, as well as Dean Cycon of Dean’s Beans.

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