TV review: ‘This World’ – ‘The Coffee Trail’ and ‘The Tea Trail’ with Simon Reeve (2014)

We love coffee. We love tea. Where are they from and what is life like for the people who produce them? In these two documentaries for the BBC, presenter Simon Reeve investigates. They’re interesting but also shocking at times.

The Coffee Trail

  • We’re in Vietnam, a leading producer of instant coffee. This crop was introduced under French colonial rule. In Hanoi, Simon is navigating the chaotic traffic on a pink scooter. There are cafes everywhere. He has been told to order ‘ca phe trung’, which turns out to be egg coffee, a Vietnamese speciality. Apparently it’s nice.
  • Coffee is grown in the south, so we head down to the village of Huong Son where coffee is being picked. Surprisingly the berries are red (Simon tries one and says it tastes like a sour grape). Inside each berry are two white beans – the precious coffee beans.
  • The Vietnam War left a deadly legacy in the form of many unexploded bombs in the ground, which are a terrible hazard for people tending their coffee plants. We’re told that more than 100,000 Vietnamese have been killed this way since the war ended.
  • The coffee industry has made some people very rich. In the city of Buon Ma Thuot, we meet Chairman Vu, who owns five Bentleys and ten Ferraris. He started out with nothing. Proudly he shows off his coffee-themed park.
  • Coffee planting has a negative impact on the environment. Forests are being cleared for coffee planting, with elephant numbers decreasing as a result. In addition, the soil is getting depleted and too many chemicals are being used.
  • We briefly leave the country, going to Bangkok to discuss ethnic minority rights with two anonymous men who fled to Thailand after the government imprisoned them, took their land and uprooted their coffee plants. Human rights abuses are happening but they’re hidden and not talked about.
  • Ho Chi Minh City is where the magic happens at the NestlĂ© factory, turning the coffee beans into the good stuff. We’re not allowed to see the whole process because the formula is a secret. We’ve literally followed the coffee trail from harvest to export. Simon concludes that for all its problems, coffee farming has helped many Vietnamese people out of poverty.

The Tea Trail

  • We begin in Mombasa, Kenya. At the market, Mama Asha provides the stallholders with cups of tea and even pours it into plastic bags to take away. Simon goes to an auction where brokers bid for vast quantities of tea… East Africa is actually where most of our tea (‘black tea’) in the UK originates.
  • Tea-growing began in colonial times, when British settlers brought tea seeds over. The horrific Mau Mau Uprising in the 1950s led to Kenyan independence and then many people had their own smallholdings. Simon meets the charismatic Samuel, who explains how to pick tea. The workers are speedy, filling up baskets that they wear on their backs.
  • We cross the Great Rift Valley to meet a few of the vibrant and famous Maasai people. During a tea break, they consider the future. Planting tea is helping them to survive, at the cost of changing their nomadic way of life. Simon is ‘volunteered’ to slap fresh cow dung on to a wall.
  • The roads aren’t safe at night for drivers, as there are bandits around. We pull into a busy truck stop where thousands of people gather – mainly the lonely truck drivers and sex workers. Outreach workers distribute thousands of condoms every night. Many of the women (and their clients) hide from the camera, but Sandra, a single mum of five, agrees to speak. She tells us that she has no other way of supporting her family.
  • Crossing into Uganda, where the main road is not exactly fit for tea trucks, we arrive at the massive Unilever estate. 50,000 people live on the site. The Unilever company retracted its permission for filming, so Simon talks to some anonymous workers. Life is tough for them. They’re paid per kilo of picked tea, claiming the pay is low (whereas the company says there is a good minimum wage). Sexual harassment is common. There isn’t any other work for women in this region, except prostitution. They urge us, the viewers, to keep buying the tea.
  • We see how tea is processed – withered, crushed, chopped, graded, dried, packaged and shipped off to Mombasa. Child labour is evident. The problem is that children have to work if there’s no one at home who can. Young people get trapped in poverty and are unable to get an education. There are projects to improve their lives. One factory owner, Kenneth, has banned child labour on his estate and has funded a school.
  • Simon concludes that there is a dark side to tea but that it’s a livelihood for millions of people. The popularity of tea is assured and the wellbeing of the workers will, we hope, continue to improve.

If you have access to BBC iPlayer, these programmes are available to watch for a year.

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