Grabbing profits, not land: The rise of private coffee buyers in the Jamaican Blue Mountains

Authors: Chris Knudson*, University of Arizona, Zack Guido, University of Arizona
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Agricultural Geography, Economic Geography
Keywords: agrarian, deregulation, smallholders, coffee, Jamaica
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2019
Start / End Time: 1:10 PM / 2:50 PM
Room: Regency Ballroom, Omni, West
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

Jamaican Blue Mountain (BM) coffee receives one of the highest export prices for a commodity of its kind, but the smallholders producing it only get about a 10% share. It was not always this way though. In 1950, the Jamaican Coffee Industry Board (CIB) was established to protect the value of the BM brand – only coffee grown within a specific area can be sold as such – and to support farmers by setting up cooperative societies from which the CIB bought the coffee for export. Until the late 1970s, farmers typically received 50-70% of the export price, while the co-ops got another 10-20%. Despite the success of the industry, though, Jamaica struggled with the global recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s. As a result, over the following decades, the CIB went through deregulation (allowing private buyers to circumvent the co-ops), divisionalization (separating CIB’s regulatory and commercial divisions), and disinvestment (selling off the commercial division). This paper argues that investors responded to the fixed amount of BM land by taking over the government’s role as purchasers of smallholder coffee, in this way capturing most of the coffee’s value. The smallholder farmers served to produce BM coffee while absorbing the risks of the high price volatility and the hazards of hurricanes, droughts, and plant disease. To make this argument, I draw on interviews with smallholder coffee farmers, CIB management and staff, and coffee processors and exporters, and a document analysis of more than 60 years of annual CIB reports.

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