Review: Augustine Sedgewick’s ‘Coffeeland’ – The Atlantic

Review: Augustine Sedgewick’s ‘Coffeeland’ – The Atlantic

Filling those cans of Hills Brothers coffee involved a few different forms of brutality. Because growing coffee requires a tremendous amount of labor—for planting, pruning, picking, and processing—a planter’s success depends on finding enough people in the countryside willing to work. The essential question facing any would-be capitalist, as Sedgewick reminds us, has always and ever been “What makes people work?”

Chattel slavery had provided a good answer for Brazil’s coffee farmers, but by the time Hill arrived in El Salvador, in 1889, slave labor was no longer an option. A smart and unsentimental businessman, Hill understood that he needed wage labor, lots of it, and as a son of the Manchester slums, he knew that the best answer to the question of what will make a person work was in fact simple: hunger.

There was only one problem. Rural Salvadorans, most of whom were Indians called “mozos,” weren’t hungry. Many of them farmed small plots of communally owned land on the volcano, some of the most fertile in the country. This would have to change if El Salvador was to have an export crop. So at the behest of the coffee planters and in the name of “development,” the government launched a program of land privatization, forcing the Indians to either move to more marginal lands or find work on the new coffee plantations.

Actually the choice wasn’t initially quite so stark. Even the lands newly planted with coffee still offered plenty of free food for the picking. “Veins of nourishment”—in the form of cashews, guavas, papayas, jocotes, figs, dragon fruits, avocados, mangoes, plantains, tomatoes, and beans—“ran through the coffee monoculture, and wherever there was food, however scant, there was freedom, however fleeting, from work,” Sedgewick writes. The planters’ solution to this “problem”—the problem of nature’s bounty—was to eliminate from the landscape any plant that was not coffee, creating an ever more totalitarian monoculture in which nothing else was permitted to grow. When a chance avocado tree did manage to survive in some overlooked corner, the campesino caught tasting its fruit would be accused of theft and beaten if he was lucky, or shot if he was not. Thus was the concept of private property impressed upon the Indians.

In Sedgewick’s words, “What was needed to harness the will of the Salvadoran people to the production of coffee, beyond land privatization, was the plantation’s production of hunger itself.” James Hill did the math and found that workers showed up most promptly and worked most diligently if he paid them partly in cash—15 cents a day for women and double that for men—and partly in food: breakfast and lunch, which consisted of two tortillas topped with as many beans as could be balanced on them. (The local diet became as monotonous as the landscape.) Hill thus transformed thousands of subsistence farmers and foragers into wage laborers, extracting quantities of surplus value that would be the envy of any Manchester factory owner.


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