No, “Coffeeland” by Augustine Sedgewick is not a book about Seattle! Rather, it’s a history tying global coffee production over the past 150 years to overall global development. Sedgewick explains why coffee is “one of the most important commodities in the history of global inequality.” “Coffeeland: One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug” focuses on production in El Salvador and its ramifications.
Historically, land in El Salvador was communal. The primary crops grown by Native people were corn and beans, which provided a basic but healthy diet. After gaining independence from the Spanish, by 1882, the system of communal land ownership in El Salvador was abolished. Sedgewick writes, “Access to land, long a social right, became a market commodity, sold to the savviest buyer.” Land was confiscated and turned into coffee production. The process included the “privatization of land, the militarization of commerce; the strict policing of work and social life,” all biased to favor the new wealthy landowners and punish Native people. As a result, coffee production in El Salvador grew dramatically.
The development of coffee in El Salvador split the country into the rich and poor, which follows the global pattern of the developed versus undeveloped world. Sedgewick provides extensive details of the abuse of Salvadoran people by the coffee barons that not only controlled El Salvador’s land but also the government. When their land was taken away, Salvadorans lost the means to feed themselves. Wages on the plantations came in two parts: money and food. Food was used to manipulate the workers. Laborers made roughly 50 cents a day, plus two meager meals of tortillas and beans. Each person became “a laborer for life.”
Sedgewick writes that the production of coffee in El Salvador was effectively the “production of hunger itself.” “Some planters cultivated hunger through the most direct means available to them – violence and the fear that it bred.” They withheld food if workers didn’t meet quotas. They cut down fruit trees on plantations to keep laborers hungry. They hired lieutenants to enforce their rules through “the constant application of beating, stabbings, machete slashings, and threats of the same.” The rich coffee plantation owners funded death squads to patrol the area and suppress the locals.
“Coffeeland” focuses on James Hill, an impoverished young Englishman, who immigrated to El Salvador in 1889, seeking a better life. In time, Hill married into a local coffee family and took over operations, slowly becoming the country’s “coffee king.” Sedgewick describes, step by step, how Hill used analytics to try and expand coffee production. Hill described his main job as figuring out “how to make other people do the planting and everything else.”
Compared to other planters, Hill’s abuse of workers was tempered — but still outrageous. Hill was not as physically violent as other planters, but he still worked at “feeding his trees and starving his workers, producing coffee and hunger in corresponding amounts.” Hill paid women lower wages than men. He hired their children as messengers and employed older people as spies. “When Hill needed as much labor as he could get from everywhere he could get it, he offered a half ration to children who came to the plantations with their parents, in the hope that he could turn the children’s dependence on their parents into their parents’ obedience to him.” As soon as the harvest was over, Hill fired as many people as possible.
Sedgewick also provides a detailed history of coffee’s expanding popularity in America. Even as far back as the Civil War, Union soldiers “consumed about thirty-six pounds of coffee beans each year, perhaps five cups per day.” Sedgewick describes how the changing composition of the U.S. population, as well as the changing place of the U.S. in the world, turned coffee into a mass beverage. “Coffee was something even the poorest Americans could afford.” Hills Brothers and other famous coffee brands were instrumental in the development of a new way of shopping: supermarkets.
The book includes many tangents, some with such extensive detail that the reader is motivated to go get a strong cup of coffee! Examples include the coffee production process, false advertising in coffee, historic economic trends in coffee, the types of coffees from various countries, the evolution of coffee makers and how “the American grocery business … completely reorganized around coffee.” Sedgewick tells of studies that proved how coffee was a boon to work, letting it become recognized as a “form of instant energy – a work drug.” Coffee breaks became an accepted norm in the American workplace. Caffeine is the most popular drug in the world today.
“Coffeeland” provides a detailed history of the rise of socialism in El Salvador. Workers began to look at socialism as an avenue to a better life. Sedgewick tells the story of the failed revolution of 1932, and how the Salvadoran government, backed by rich landowners, defeated the revolution and slaughtered the people. The killing became “unequivocally genocidal – focused exclusively on self-identified Indians.” Coffee plantations became killing fields; more than 12,000 people were slaughtered.
Revolution sprang up again in the 1970s. The U.S. funded the Salvadoran military and death squads at more than $1 million a day. “The countryside was again transformed into a mass grave for as many as 75,000 people,” and, by 1991, when the fighting ended, a million Salvadorians — one-fifth of the country’s population — had fled their homes.
A key message Sedgewick provides in “Coffeeland” is that we consume products without understanding their true human and environmental costs. Coffee drinkers tend to be wealthier; coffee workers dirt poor. Sedgewick writes that hunger is “the bedrock foundation of all capitalist economies.” In the coffee districts of western El Salvador, chronic hunger still exists in 97 percent of households. Fair trade coffee helps but is not sufficient to remedy the disparities.
As a typical Seattleite with a coffee addiction, I was eager to read “Coffeeland.” I previously didn’t grasp the extraordinary abuse of the Indigenous populations within coffee-growing countries, all to get me my tall drip, no room. It’s easy to ignorantly enjoy the benefits of relative wealth and privilege. “Coffeeland” does a good job at opening those eyes.
Read more of the May 3-9, 2023 issue.