Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Book #6: 힘말라야의 선물

As a coffee drinker and a sucker for the romance of the Himalayan footballs, this Korean-language book (Gift of the Himalayas) was an easy read for me. The book is about coffee farmers in the Nepal Himalaya. A crew from the Korean TV station EBS lived in the village for 80 days to film a documentary called Himalaya Coffee Road. The book documented their experiences.

The book is as much about the lives of the farmers themselves as about their coffee farming. It follows a handful of families, describing their lives, their hardships and the reasons by which they decided to grow coffee in their remote villages. It's worth noting that growing coffee in Nepal, as you might know by having never heard of Nepali coffee, is not a big industry.

One of the most interesting sections in the book is where the author asked the farmers what coffee was used for. The responses ranged from "don't you eat it like corn?" to "I've never had it, so I don't know" to "it goes somewhere overseas, but I don't know where". I'm not sure how plausible it is that someone in the twenty-first century hasn't heard of coffee, particularly considering that all of them were literate adults who had gone to school at least until middle school, but that's what selective quoting is for.

Growing coffee was an interesting way to create opportunity in a village hours or days from a paved road, one where many men left to seek work in comparatively wealthy India or even as far as Dubai. The book points out that even in a subsistence-oriented village, some families did not have enough to eat, and few had the money to pay for education past middle school.

The money from coffee was used for buying school uniforms and supplies, paying school tuition and giving men working overseas a reason to return to their village. The coffee was bought by a Korean fair-trade co-operative, which persuaded them to produce it organically. If you're particularly interested in finding this coffee at a cafe in Seoul, click here.

Organic, fair trade coffee has become a trend in Seoul cafes. Caffe Bene, now the largest of the many chains of coffee shops in Korea, sells a cup of brewed organic coffee for 7,500 won, or about $6.75 Canadian. If you adjust for the purchasing power of the won, however, it's like paying about $10 for one cup of brewed coffee.

As much as I support anyone trying to make an honest living in a developing country, I don't know that fair trade is the method to accomplish this. The reason that coffee prices are low for farmers is that there are simply too many people producing too much coffee, in contrast with, say, gold. This isn't to say that treating developing countries more equitably will not help, nor that unfettered free trade will solve all their problems.

While people will pay high prices for coffee out of the goodness of their heart, large-scale sustainable development of any kind hasn't worked on this method. China, the best and most current example of hundreds of millions of people being pulled out of poverty, didn't get there by asking people to pay extra for iPods and Nikes because they were made by people in less-than-idyllic working conditions.

Koreans themselves know that the path to development was paved with hard work and, yes, generous helpings of well-used foreign aid. A small-scale co-operative targeting relatively wealthy, kind-hearted people willing to pay an extra dollar for coffee to help Nepali villagers send their children to high school can work, but it won't work for all of Nepal.

I remember reading in my Lonely Planet travel guide that while the well-trafficked region of the Himalayas I visited (the Annapurna massif) was reasonably well-off by the standards of the Nepali countryside, the same could not be said for the more isolated peaks in eastern Nepal. I had no problem finding someone to break 100-rupee (worth about $1.50) notes while trekking in the Annapurna region, but Lonely Planet advised that carrying 5-and-10-rupee notes in eastern Nepal and other less-visited rural areas was probably a better idea.

All of us would benefit from realizing just how astonishingly poor parts of the world can be and, consequently, just how astonishingly wealthy most of us are. That's not to say that you're necessarily happier than someone in a developing country, but that it would help us to shelve some of our more egregious complaints ("why can't my $800 iPhone do ____?").

Bearing in mind our wealth and the poverty of others would also help us retain some wonderment at the world in which we live. A great deal of adolescence and adulthood are spent steeling ourselves to the wonder in the ordinary, mundane aspects of our lives. Not only would focusing on this wonder, such as the mountains and the endless crowds of Seoul, make us happier, but it would also help us better understand what we see everyday.

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