- Coffee and FlowersRecent Research on Commodity Chains, Neoliberalism, and Alternative Trade in Latin America
There has recently been a small boom in both academic and popular writing on commodities. These works are often written as a way to explore and contextualize the neoliberal globalization of the past several decades. But there are many different ways to approach commodities. In a critical review of the genre, the literary scholar Bruce Robbins asks, “Looking through a commodity to the human relations behind, what exactly should one see? Capitalism? Class? Culture? The state? After all, what is the right way to describe a commodity?”1 There has never been a single answer to this question, of course. For a half century, many Latin Americanists have framed accounts of commodities and global trade using structuralist analyses, such as dependency theory and world-systems theory. More recently, however, they have also started using newer academic tools, such as versions of the global commodity chain, an approach which, according to its advocates, allows for a more “flexible and empirically satisfactory model with which to explain global trade” than does world-systems [End Page 268] theory.2 This approach also shifts attention to the chain as a whole, rather than emphasizing production or consumption alone. Partly as a result of this change in emphasis, there are no a priori assumptions about where power is located along the chain.
Academic innovation also reflects profound changes in the commodities studied and in the human relationships behind them. The process of neoliberal globalization that began in 1980 has profoundly changed the world of commodities in Latin America, as it has elsewhere. In response to these changes, commodity producers in Latin America have been forced to innovate. Some have taken up new crops—in just one generation, for example, Latin America has become one of the world’s leading exporters of cut flowers. Catherine Ziegler explores this new commodity chain in Favored Flowers: Culture and Economy in a Global System. Other producers have been involved in the construction of new kinds of commodity chains. The coffee commodity chain, in particular, has long been a locus of innovations in production, trade, and consumption.3 Specialty coffees (“yuppie coffees”) became popular in the 1970s and 1980s.4 More recently, some coffee producers have experimented with so-called ethical commodity chains such as fair-trade and certified organic coffee. In a pioneering article, Robert Rice characterized ethical coffees as an attempt to restructure “from below.” At the time, he noted, these small coffee producers “face stiff challenges—both internal and external to their group.”5 Gavin Fridell’s Fair Trade Coffee, Daniel Jaffee’s Brewing Justice, and María Elena Martínez-Torres’s Organic Coffee use a range of the theories described herein to assess how well coffee producers have navigated these challenges so far and to consider how (and whether) ethical coffees offer a model for generating more broad-based development.
Fridell seeks to situate fair trade within the broader context of the global economy. His goal is to create a theoretically informed exploration [End Page 269] of fair trade as a tool for development, drawing in particular on a Marxist and Polanyian understanding of capitalism and trade. Fridell makes an important and useful distinction between the fair-trade network and the fair-trade movement. The fair-trade movement of the mid-twentieth century consisted, in Fridell’s view, of national and international commodity agreements, price stabilization schemes, and trade rules that regulated commodity trade to promote fairer global trade. The International Coffee Agreement...