Same sex relationships are illegal in Uganda, and even outside of Uganda for natives: they can be extradited for punishment back in Uganda. This includes individuals, media organizations, non-government organizations, and companies that know gay people and/or support gay rights. But the newest development seeks to broaden criminalization of same-sex relations. The Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Bill was passed on December 20, 2013, by the Parliament of Uganda.
“The death sentence issue was in ‘a previous version of the bill,’ i.e not part of a previously existing law. The death sentence provision was in a previous version of the bill (the proposed bill in its various forms has come up for discussion in Parliament now and again since 2009) but was removed and replaced with life in prison before it passed through the Parliament finally in December 2013,” says Taylor Mork, owner of Crop to Cup. “‘Homosexual activities’ have been illegal for a long time, prior to 2009. What the new bill adds to existing law is harsher punishment and and other provisions, such as ‘knowledge of and failure to report.'”
Note that while the punishments are most severe in Uganda, same-sex relationships are illegal in many sub-Saharan countries.
Barista Magazine published a terrific essay by Robbie Siron in the June+July 2011 issue about this very topic; specifically, Robbie discussed the ethics of buying coffee from a country that supports anti-gay legislature.
It was hot on everyone’s minds at that time. But then I haven’t heard so much about it recently. So when I saw Crop to Cup’s tweet, I contacted the company’s director, Taylor Mork, with some questions about his goals. He had some great responses that I wanted to share with you here.
“While I’m the one who has posted this up and will try to kickstart the promotion to get it signed by as many coffee professionals as possible, my goal is for it to gain traction so it can be seen as a coffee industry letter – not a letter/petition started by Crop to Cup and signed onto by others,” Taylor told me. “I have a very focused strategy for it (i.e. the wording of the petition and who I have asked and not asked to help promote it), and in order for it to have any affect on the actual situation in Uganda it needs to have the weight of the coffee industry behind it.It can’t just be some small time liberal coffee geek in New York. Coffee is Uganda’s largest export by volume and quantity, so I’m trying to use that as a tool for change. I’m not wasting my time lecturing Ugandans on moralistic/equality issues – not only has that already been done all over the media, but it is also an easy fight for Ugandan Parliamentarians to feel that they’ve won….a very common and easy response to this from many Ugandans is that “this is OUR issue – we don’t want those sinful neocolonialists telling us what is important for our culture, our families, our religion, etc.” Yes, I know that response is completely ridiculous and it could be torn apart in seconds in any debate, but I’m also being practical in saying that that will be their response and I don’t want to set up a situation where they can use that response. Hence I’m trying to take the approach of using coffee (economy, livelihoods, etc) as a tool.
“That said…within social change theory – the sort of “Rules for Radicals” type thinking, the striking point (economic risk) is completely separate from the rallying cry. And that’s where our own personal points of view come into play. I..e you and me – we have a moralistic attachment to this issue, and we are going to harness that attachment onto the striking point to give it weight.”
Taylor: We’ve touched on this issue over the years but never very strongly. Most of it was admittedly just weak social media interaction, and it was reactive…..customers coming to us saying “let’s stop buying Ugandan coffee!” and us responding with “whoa, let’s take a step back and see who that is really going to punish” (small business in the U.S., Ugandan coffee farmers, the Ugandan coffee industry, etc). Over the years we’ve kept track of the issue and have done what we can to promote awareness of the issue, such as trying to support the excellent and heartbreaking film Call Me Kuchu (it was featured at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival here in NYC). That said, our involvement has been pretty weak. With the actual passage of the bill recently (they “snuck it into Parliament” i.e. under the radar of the media) I realized that the situation had become incredibly dire. The only thing “kinda” holding this law back now is the President, who can refuse to assent to the bill. But even then its not guaranteed. With a 2/3 vote Parliament can overturn a Presidential veto. Obviously the international condemnation and the threats from donor countries has not done enough. Who knows if the coffee industry can have any more clout than foreign government donors, but we at least need to make a push. Both we ±as roasters, importers, etc. ”and the country of Uganda rely on coffee beans as our main source of income. That’s too big of a tool to simply leave unused.
Sarah: Does Crop to Cup buy coffee from Uganda? If not, why not? If so, how do the country’s anti-homosexuality politics effect your buying decisions?
Taylor: Crop to Cup has always bought coffee from Uganda, and because we are dedicated to supporting Ugandan coffee farmers and their communities, we would never pull out. I would not want the discriminatory beliefs of some evangelicals and Parliamentarians punish farmers and the country’s coffee industry. The thing is, Crop to Cup was already in Uganda (since 2007 for the company, and since 2003 for me and Jake Elster, the other owner of the company), so we see the value in staying the course with the farmers and exporters with whom we have built strong relationships. My real worry is those who don’t purchase from Uganda already or who don’t have a particularly strong attachment to the coffee origin (whether you’re a cafe, roaster, or importer), since I know just how easy it is to simply buy coffee from one of many other coffee producing countries whose coffee is readily available here in the U.S. or in any other coffee consuming country. It doesn’t take much for a consumer to simply chose another product if he or she feels that the name “Uganda” is associated with discrimination. How easy would it be for somebody to look at Ugandan coffee on a retail shelf, cafe menu or green offering sheet and say “Uganda, hmm, that’s where they arrest homosexuals. No thanks!”
So, to answer that question more specifically: I’m not letting it affect my buying decisions. What I’m really trying to do is ensure that the Ugandan coffee industry and Ugandan farmers are not hurt by the buying decisions of many others – importers, roasters, cafe owners, coffee drinkers ”who, very understandably so, may make a more knee jerk reaction.
Sarah: Why is this an important cause to you personally, as a coffee company?
Taylor: I don’t want to get into that too much since I’d rather that the petition focuses on its strength coming from the coffee industry instead of from a moralistic point of view (for reasons stated early on in this email). That said, I’ve been heavily involved in Uganda for over a decade now. I have both lived and worked there. First on the development/nonprofit side, then on the business (coffee) side. Having studied social change and having always had a strong personal in human rights and economic growth, its just an issue that brings together a lot of factors I care about. I’ve been reading the Ugandan newspapers online nearly every day for about 6 years,even during times when this issue is not being talked about. Admittedly LGBT discrimination issues in Uganda and elsewhere were not an issue I was very knowledgeable on (i.e. anything beyond a basic progressive mentality), but over time it kept coming up in the news (every time Parliament tried to reintroduce the bill). I also realized that there was more that I and my company could be doing for the issue once my wife and I went to the screening of Call Me Kuchu in New York and met some of the individuals who were featured in the film and who had been persecuted in Uganda (along with even some very impressive Reverends and Bishops showing that there are also some religious elements working IN FAVOR of this issue – e.g. http://stpaulsfdr.org/).
Again, here is a link to the petition. Even if you’re on the fence about signing it, I urge you to click the link just to read it. And please, if you have questions about the issue, please post them in the comments section, and we’ll do our best to answer them. If we’re unqualified to answer them, we’ll find an expert who can speak to the inquiry.
Sarah Allen (she/her) is co-founder and editor of Barista Magazine, the international trade magazine for coffee professionals. A passionate advocate for baristas, quality, and the coffee community, Sarah has traveled widely to research stories, interact with readers, and present on a variety of topics affecting specialty coffee. She also loves animals, swimming, ice cream, and living in Portland, Oregon.