Coffee Cultivation

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Coffee Cultivation

Coffee (from the Arabic qahwa, "that which prevents sleep") is second only to oil as a legally traded commodity, with annual global retail sales at roughly seventy billion dollars.

The Rubiaceae (a large family of plants) Coffea arabica, Coffea canephora (robusta), and Coffea liberica require moderate temperatures, which are found in the tropics between 650 and 1,600 meters (2,133 and 5,249 feet) elevation; rainfall in the neighborhood of 1,500 millimeters (59 inches) per year; and shelter from wind, sun, and tropical downpours. Virgin jungle soils are optimal. Coffee is sensitive to drainage; too steep a slope results in fast runoff of nutrients, too little the danger of drowning. While these conditions are reasonably common in the tropics, they seldom are found together with the labor resources necessary to make coffee cultivation commercially profitable.

Coffea arabica probably originated on the plateaus of central Ethiopia. Originally cooked from green beans, by the late thirteenth century it was brewed from roasted and ground coffee beans. Coffee was used as a stimulant or aphrodisiac. Although the export of fertile coffee seeds was forbidden by the Arabian ruler, by the mid-seventeenth century the seeds had been brought to southern India.

It was the Dutch East India Company (1602–1799), however, which pioneered large-scale exploitation. Smuggling of plants to Java (an island in present-day Indonesia) in the late seventeenth century made possible a thriving agro-industry so indelibly associated with the island that Java became synonymous with coffee. This first flowering of the coffee industry was an amalgam of a mercantile system atop a feudal one.

The Dutch East India Company sold coffee on the open market in Europe, but obtained its goods by dictating price, quality, and quantity to Javanese potentates. The latter came increasingly to resemble feudal lords, complete with ownership of land, hereditary rights, and absolute control over their subjects. At the end of the nineteenth century the leaf disease Hemileia vastratrix harried Java and destroyed coffee cultivation in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) as well.

In 1723 a French naval officer, Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, brought a seedling to Martinique, an island in the West Indies, from which much of the world's coffee derives. A few years later, in 1727, coffee spread to Brazil, where it thrived. At the end of the eighteenth century, Brazil's largest customer had become the newly independent United States of America, which was destined to remain the world's largest and most consistent coffee market. Although overshadowed by the combined consumption of the various European nations, Europe's not infrequent upheavals caused sharp swings in consumption.

By 1810 Brazil was exporting some 40 percent of the world's coffee, a figure that remained at 70 percent throughout much of the late nineteenth century. However, with the abolition of slavery, the Brazilian coffee industry was threatened by a scarcity of labor. The coffee barons of São Paulo made concerted efforts to obtain free labor through recruiting southern Europeans on short-term wage contracts. The drive to assure sufficient labor, coupled with the need for scarce capital, led the plantation owners to cooperate in improving transportation, finance, and export activities.

Brazil's coffee cultivation remains extensive. Scarce resources of labor are applied to seemingly unlimited virgin forest lands, which are abandoned after exhausting their soils. The situation with regard to both land and the spin-off to other areas of development was similar in the second largest coffee-producing nation, Colombia, where manpower requirements differed sharply. There, access to land, temporarily or permanently, was granted as part of wages. This in turn led to the establishment of smallholder production, eventually resulting in conflicts between landlords and tenants. The situation is roughly similar to developments in Central America, although with an ethnic twist.

African production of robusta (Coffea canephora) returned to the world scene only in the twentieth century. Begun in the English colonies of East Africa (Kenya) in the 1890s, it subsequently spread to Central Africa (Congo, Cameroon, and Angola) and finally to Liberia and the Ivory Coast. Robusta is disease resistant and thus has replaced Coffea arabica in South and Southeast Asia. It is also more tolerant in that it can be grown at lower elevations without shade trees. Moreover, robusta is a cheaper coffee that is used to blend with better-tasting arabica, as well as for instant coffee, both characteristic of the U.S. market in the wake of World War I.

Common to most coffee-growing nations is the extent to which basic socioeconomic features—ownership of production, access to land, class conflict, and racial differentiation—were shaped by the coffee industry. Despite the fact that production systems have ranged from plantation slavery (West Indies and Brazil) through quasifeudal modes of production (Java, Ceylon) and rural proletariat (Colombia, Central America) to authoritarian regimes (Uganda, Angola), the majority of the world's coffee is now produced on smallholder plots. Thus, some 70 percent of the world's total coffee production derives from plots of fewer than twenty-five acres, which gives employment to as many as twenty million individuals.

see also Java, Cultivation System.


de Graf, J. The Economics of Coffee. Wageningen, Netherlands: Pudoc, 1986.

Dekker, Edward Drewes (Multituli). Max Havelaar: Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company (1860). New Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1987.

Hoadley, Mason C. Towards a Feudal Mode of Production: West Java, 1680–1800. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1994.

Pendergrast, Mark. Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How it Transformed our World. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Thurber, Francis B. Coffee, from Plantation to Cup: A Brief History of Coffee Production and Consumption with an Appendix Containing Letters Written During a Trip to the Coffee Plantations of the East, and through the Coffee Consuming Countries of Europe. New York: American Grocer Publishing Association, 1881.