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Could Coffee Eliminate Borders?

ROME, Mar 30 2012 (IPS) - A diverse blend of coffee is going to pervade the city of Milan in 2015. World producers will come together to show, exchange and market their coffee in a global alliance without geographical-based membership.

A coffee berry picker in Busia, Uganda, one of the biggest coffee producing nations in the world.  Credit:  Wambi Michael/IPS

A coffee berry picker in Busia, Uganda, one of the biggest coffee producing nations in the world. Credit: Wambi Michael/IPS

The Expo 2015, scheduled to run from May 1 – Oct. 31 in the Northern city of Milan, Italy, will focus on food and nutrition. Titled “Feeding the planet, energy for life”, the Expo aims at stimulating and leading a global discussion on the challenges linked to food production, safety, availability and nutrition.

Along with the usual exhibition spaces built by participating countries, the Italian Expo will introduce thematic spaces meant to gather within the same architectural project a number of countries sharing a common theme.

Coffee producers have already met in Rome, where delegates of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Honduras, Kenya, Nicaragua, Uganda, Colombia, Vietnam and Indonesia discussed how to build a shared space at the Expo.

“The ‘cluster’ approach is an innovative model of participation in an Expo, and it is the first time that it is (being) applied,” Filippo Ciantia of the International Affairs Department for Expo 2015 told IPS.

According to Ciantia this approach will give equal dignity to all participating countries, despite their political or economic weight. “In past (Expos), countries that were not able or didn’t want to run their own autonomous space – which (requires) quite a big investment – were put in joint pavilions, geographically grouped, so you had the African space, the Asian space, and so on.

“But the world has changed and we want an Expo that reflects the 21st century. The voices and experiences of developing countries – especially on a theme like ‘feeding the planet’ – are essential for success. Gathering countries around a thematic issue will allow the Expo to really address the issues of agriculture, nutrition and sustainable development (from) a global perspective,” Ciantia said.

“Nutrition is a key issue for both the developing and developed world and we think that this inclusive approach can be positive for participating countries and for visitors who can learn about the different ways of producing coffee, for example in Guatemala and in Uganda.”

Coffee is just one of the thematic clusters of the Expo, the others will be rice, cocoa, legumes, oil, seeds and fruits, cereals and tubers, and spices.

Delegates showed enthusiastic reactions. “The cluster concept demystifies geographical boundaries, it is a very powerful concept,” Tom Buringuriza, commissioner general of the Uganda section, told IPS. “It is a new way to break some of the barriers we had.”

Buringuriza said the participating countries fully agree on the concept of the joint work. “It is a shared view, I would not be here if we didn’t believe in it.”

He explained how African countries have been working to find ways of breaking down boundaries. “ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) and SADC (the Southern African Development Community), for example, are attempts to federate, to break the boundaries, to emulate the big federation of countries like the U.S. and (groupings) like the European Union, though you know geographical boundaries are already planted into people’s minds.”

The clusters’ approach can erase blocks, Buringuriza said. “To find Uganda at the same table as Honduras or Guatemala on the common theme of coffee is so important…we can all learn how to add value and improve export, and find ways to come together as a strong unit, you need to be part of a bigger family. It’s exactly what we are trying to do in Africa – in East Africa we are coming together as the East African community (Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi), we are having common tariffs, we are talking about a common currency, we are talking about free movement of labour, we are meeting regularly.

“The (obstacle) to federation has always been geographical boundaries, now this innovation of using a common product eliminates those blocks, and this is what coffee is going to do for us,” he added.

“In this room we have 70 percent of the world’s coffee producers,” Ciantia said. “Even those who are less known, like Uganda, which is one of the biggest coffee producers in the world. We want to give dignity, participation and visibility to small countries and developing countries.”

Beyond the marketing and investment opportunities, delegates see in this kind of work a cultural and learning opportunity. “This approach is very useful,” Josephine W. Gaita, Kenyan Ambassador to Italy, told IPS.

“Our county produces coffee and every country has got various methods to do that. In participating in a cluster they have the chance of learning from each other the best practices, you have information and research there to improve your techniques and make sure that the coffee you produce is better.”

“Of course, learning from each other and sharing our experiences also means looking for people who can invest in the same sector, and marketing is an important aspect too.”

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