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Coffee and Cinema

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Every day, Anne Macksoud drinks what she calls "an improvised cappuccino" -- dark-roast coffee with frothed milk. When she prepares that beverage, the 63-year-old Woodstock filmmaker grinds exclusively mail-order beans from Costa Rica. This effort is part of her campaign to support Third World farmers while also advocating for protection of the ecosystem.

Ditto for Birdsong & Coffee: A Wake Up Call, the documentary Macksoud recently completed with co-director John Ankele of New York City. "It's about saving the planet," she explains.

Coffee plants thrive in shade at high altitudes. If growers can't earn a living wage, however, the trees are often cut down and the land transformed into pastures for more profitable crops. That, in turn, destroys the natural habitat of migratory songbirds. "This is a global catastrophe," Macksoud contends.

Six years ago, the worldwide coffee market crashed. As a result, growers began receiving less money than ever -- a 150-year low, in fact -- for their product. In the film, Kevin Danaher of the organization Global Exchange points out that some farmers have earned as little as 7 cents a pound, while in the U.S. we pay $11 or $12 or $13 here for coffee.

Around the world, an estimated 25 million coffee farmers are at risk. On camera, Oxfam coffee program manager Seth Petchers talks about "the potential for a humanitarian disaster."

In one segment, two Costa Rican farmers visiting California discover that a cup of black coffee at Starbucks goes for $1.55, a figure that represents 100 times what they make cultivating the beans it took to make the drink. "We're not looking for handouts," says Roberto Jimenez. "We're looking for justice."

Justice is what Macksoud and Ankele have been trying to foster for the last two decades under their production banner, Old Dog Documentaries. Executive Producer Jeanne Fossani says DVDs of Birdsong & Coffee, which premiered recently in Woodstock, are available in Burlington at Borders and the Peace & Justice Center.

"This is the only kind of film we do," Macksoud notes. "And it's really a continuation of Global Banquet: The Politics of Food, which we made in 2001. We have an overriding interest in how U.S. policies affect the poor."

Despite a shoestring budget, Macksoud and Ankele were able to visit Costa Rica for 10 days in late 2004 to observe agricultural developments in the small town of Agua Buena. The region's coffee production had been reduced by almost 40 percent. Native forests were cut down to make way for large-scale pineapple operations run by transnational corporations such as Del Monte.

But some 650 Agua Buena families belong to a cooperative that has partnered with the University of California at Santa Cruz. Students who spent time in the Central American country as interns frequently returned home with coffee in their luggage that they sold, sending proceeds back to the farmers. The kids eventually persuaded their school to purchase all campus coffee, about 400 pounds a month, directly from growers. Macksoud and Ankele chronicle this grassroots endeavor.

Big bucks are at stake. Coffee is the second-most-traded commodity on Earth, after oil. But the fair-trade movement has been burgeoning. For example, 23 percent of the beans imported by Green Mountain Coffee Roasters fit that designation, helping about 800,000 farmers. At the Vermont Coffee Company in Bristol, it's 100 percent; founder Paul Ralston notes in the film that fair-trade coffee costs consumers about a penny and a half more per cup.

Although "that amount of money you wouldn't even pick up from the sidewalk," as Danaher suggests, it means a better livelihood for those who till the soil.

Growers benefit even more through what's known as "fair trade direct," an import movement that bypasses all the middlemen. Beans from places such as Costa Rica can be ordered by phone or online through the Santa Cruz-based Community Agroecology Network.

That's what Macksoud has done since experiencing a caffeine epiphany while shooting the doc. "It changed my coffee consciousness," she says. "I now buy directly from the farmers I met and interviewed. They grow it, pick it, process it, roast it, and send it to my mailbox every month. Each fair-trade sip I take helps farmers, rainforests and songbirds."

During her morning ritual, Macksoud says, "I think about the farmers and their families, about the labor-intensive work that coffee production demands, about the birds that left my feeder last November to find refuge in the trees that shade the coffee I'm drinking."

Visit for more info on Birdsong & Coffee. Check out to order cofee from the Community AgroecologyNetwork.