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Coffee in Context: Rwanda

Chris Mock


Coffee is something that I do love. However in that love, there is no ignorance of coffee’s history in the world. And one thing I believe to be true is for coffee to continue moving forward, we must not be afraid to talk about the complex context and history surrounding it. I believe knowing this context is important in understanding and empathizing with people who are growing and producing the coffee. I also believe that these wounds that have been inflicted must be brought to light for them to heal.

I’ve recently have had some Rwandan coffee on my menu, and so to better understand the context of that coffee, I did research and looked into the history of coffee, colonialism, and genocide in Rwanda.

Coffee’s Role in the Rwandan Genocide

Let’s set the scene with some history.

Coffee’s introduction to Rwanda happed sometime around 1905 by some German missionaries when it was briefly a part of the German Empire. Shortly after World War 1, Germany fell and Belgium established colonial rule in Rwanda. During this time, Belgium decides to push coffee cultivation as a means of wealth production for the Belgian ruling class. In 1931, the Belgian colonial government established a system of indirect labor extraction, by using chiefs and sub chiefs to force the local population to build infrastructure for the government and to continue to cultivate coffee.

What was their means of controlling the population for this labor extraction? An age old tactic: by creating ethnic identities, the Hutu and Tutsi.

Before colonial intervention, Hutu and Tutsi were not actual ethnic identities, but were instead social status delineations. In my research, I’ve seen a few different definitions of which group was which. But from all historical accounts, the groups lived seamlessly together. Tutsi’s were generally people in the king’s inner circle and Hutu’s were everyone else, with social mobility to move between the groups being possible.

The Belgian colonial government controlled and created these ethnic groups by the use of the Hamitic Myth. The Hamitic myth articulated Tutsis as “Hamitic”, or “half-european”. This was used to create an ideology of “lordship” and superiority over the Hutu.

This myth was disseminated throughout schools and in 1933, the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi was formalized with ID cards. Land ownership was organized around a new Tutsi aristocracy and Tutsi’s were spared coerced labor. 16 years later, in 1949, forced labor was abolished for a new tax system, however, many Hutus were still forced to work on chief’s plantations in addition to the tax.

The plight of the Hutu’s was highly public and some Belgian nationals wanted to change the economic conditions of Hutus. To do that, they decided to incorporate them more fully into the coffee industry. In 1956, Father Louis Pien established the coffee cooperative Travail, Fidelite, Progres (Work, Fidelity/loyalty, Progress) or TRAFIPRO in Gitarama.

The goal of TRAFIPRO was for Hutus to be able to market and sell their coffee without coercion and control from the colonial government. While it was initially successful, it was located in Southern Rwanda and mainly benefitted southern Hutus. Creating a class and regional divide.

In 1957, Gregoire Kayibanda became the head of TRAFIPRO. He would later become the first president of Rwanda and also use TRAFIPRO to serve as the launching platform for MSM (Movement Social Muhutu). Movement Social Muhutu was the precursor of Parti du Mouvement et l’Emacincipation Hutu (PARMEHUTU) which was a later political party that emphasized Hutu supremacy.

Throughout all of the 1950s the new generation of the Hutu business/political elite emerged and began to challenge the colonial/Tutsi monopoly on economic resources, political power, and military power. In an effort to challenge that power and increase Hutu power, Kayibanda’s circle published the “Hutu Manifesto” which argued all of Rwanda’s problems were because of Tutsis. Here the Hamitic myth was once again used, this time as propaganda against the Tutsis to frame them as foreigners in Rwanda.

1959 through 1961 the Hutu Peasant Revolt/Social Revolution takes place. This marks the end of Tutsi’s societal power, and a year later Kayibanda is elected as president and Belgian colonial rule finally ends.

Kayibanda transforms TRAFIPRO into a state board that purchased coffee from 70 locations. However, he used this new state board to prioritize and favor his associates and completely cut out northern Hutu coffee farmers. TRAFIPRO at the time was seen as responsible for fostering regional bias, corruption, and a climate of terror.

As Northerners were pushed out of business and politics, regional tensions began to rise. Kayibanda, as an effort to keep political control, used Tutsis as a common enemy.

In 1973, Public Safety Committees carried out routine violence against Tutsis. However, in July of that year, regional Hutu tensions came to a front and Major General Juvenal Habyarimana, supported by Northern Hutu elites, seized power away from Kayibanda in a coupe.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, regional and ethnic tensions were lessened, however economic inequalities persisted. Habyarimana abolished TRAFIPRO and began to adopt a “pro-development” Africa mindset. Hoping to bring in outside investment, he created economic reforms known as “planned liberalism”. These economic reforms helped GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and HDI (Human Development Index) rise, but poverty and wealth inequality spread.

With influx of capital from outside investment and high coffee prices, well-connected political elites, often Northern Hutu, bought up land, shops, and farm equipment and an increasingly large percent of rural population became landless. Between the 1970s and 1980s, Habyarimana continued to prioritize coffee production, increasing purchasing price of coffee from 60 to 120 RwF. This created incentives for farmers and wealthy elites to devote more and more land to coffee growing. The government also outlawed intercropping and restricted fertilizer to be used only for coffee and tea plants.

With more and more land dedicated to growing coffee, farmers began to be increasingly reliant on coffee revenue to purchase food and other necessities. By 1986, Rwanda’s coffee exports made up 82% of Rwanda’s total income. This income was used by ruling elites on luxury goods, payoffs to hold the government together, and the military.

Trouble hit when coffee prices fell, which sent Rwanda into an economic crisis. From 1986 to 1987, Rwanda saw its coffee revenue drop from 15 billion RwF to only 5 billion. This trend continued through 1989 after the ICA (International Coffee Agreement) was not renegotiated.

With all these economic hardships, Tutsi and Hutu tensions began to rise again. These hardships also created large groups of unemployed, who would be trained into paramilitary groups that would end up carrying out the oncoming killings. Over this time Rwanda had also racked up 1 billion dollars in debt, due to paying rural coffee farmers higher rates than the international average. Rwanda then turned to the IMF and World Bank, which had stipulations for the loans.

Starting in 1990, Rwanda faced large economic challenges as well as an oncoming civil war.

From 1990-1992, Rwanda, at the guidance of the IMF and World Bank, devalued its currency. First by 40% then by another 15%. This caused massive inflation. Schools closed and malnutrition spread. Coffee farmers began to uproot their crops to plant food to try to survive.

In October 1990, the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), comprised of Tutsi refugees, invaded from Uganda and civil war begins.

Habyarimana, in an attempt to stay in power, again continued to stoke more ethnic divisions. But the international community put pressure on him to democratize, and in 1991 the constitution was changed to allow for multiparty elections. Fifteen parties emerge, many forming paramilitary groups, all claiming to represent the real Hutu majority.

The IMF and World Bank believed that if Rwanda’s economy stabilized and recovered, their political issues would also stabilize, so they provided millions in loan money to the Rwandan national bank. This money was quickly used by the government on weapons and ammunition, instead of the economy.

On August 4, 1994, under pressure from foreign nations threatening to withdraw funding and aid from Rwanda, Habyarimana signed the Arusha Accords. However, just two days later, his plane was shot down, triggering the pre-planned genocide. (There is no definitive proof of who was actually responsible for shooting down the plane).

In the killings that proceeded, it is said that at least half a million Rwandans were killed.

Now I won’t be so naive as to say that coffee and its economy was the sole direct cause of the genocide in Rwanda. The societal relations produced by the coffee economy intersected, overlaid, reordered, and fragmented existing “ethnic”, societal, personal, and market relationships. Looking at the recent and colonial history of the people in Rwanda we can see coffee as a tool by differing people in power to exasperate the already rising tensions.

The political invoking of ethnicity of Rwanda’s elites would have not be been genocidal without the existence of historically deep notions of ethnicity, availability of stock piled weapons, a contentious political context, and a desperate population willing to commit violence. These various factors did not arise in Rwanda fortuitously, but instead were produced in part through the production of coffee.

When we are able to see the Rwandan genocide in the context of the international coffee economy, we can see that the genocide was both a particular historical event, AND a symptom of the violent transformation from colonial to neoliberal modes of accumulation.

We talk about these events in “historical” terms, but this happened less than 30 years ago. There are many many people alive today in Rwanda who experienced this. So what do we do?

We collectively have a voice when it comes to something we like, i.e. coffee, being used as a mode of oppression, whether it be by the market or a government. Currently, the Rwandan government truly believes that coffee can be the way to continually build Rwanda back up. And I believe it can be too, but we must always be wise and aware of the possibility of corporations and governmental agencies swaying any of that in an attempt to take money out of the hands of the individual growers, and into their own pockets.

For further reading and sources:

Coffee and Genocide
Isaac A. Kamola
Transition, No. 99 (2008), pp. 54-72 (19 pages)

University of Minnesota Holocaust and Genocide Education

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