A whale of a price for a cup of coffee

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The Independent Online
Back from Kenya clutching a pack of its Blue Mountain coffee. I know it's not the real thing, but the nectar from Jamaica is horrendously expensive (up to pounds 30 a pound) - and therein lies a tale. A whale tail.

Fifteen years ago, the hottest environmental issue was whether to ban commercial whaling. The decision was due to be taken at the 1982 meeting of the International Whaling Commission in, of all places, Brighton's Metropole Hotel and both whalers and conservationists were pushing countries to turn up and vote. Or not. For as the nations assembled by the seaside, Jamaica - one of the strongest conservationist voices at the commission's last meeting - was unaccountably absent

Well, accountably actually. Japan, the whalers' leader, had done a deal with Jamaica, agreeing to buy up almost its entire Blue Mountain coffee crop, at a huge premium, for the indefinite future. Prices soared.

In fact, the conservationists had the votes for the ban anyway. But the environment still paid. With prices so high, more and more of Jamaica's Blue Mountains were cleared for growing coffee. Partly as a result, the country has been felling its rain forest four times as fast as the world as a whole. And it lost 400 million tons of soil to erosion during the 1980s alone as the protective tree cover disappeared.

! HERE and now, in London, a series of confidential meetings is well under way between Labour's leaders and the heads of seven of Britain's leading environmental pressure groups, including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Last Wednesday they saw Gordon Brown; next Wednesday they were due to meet Tony Blair for the third time, though this has now been postponed for the Wirral campaign.

Some of the green leaders tried to persuade Blair at their last meeting that the environment is a vote-winner, as it was in the US election. But he retorted, instead: "Sell it to me because it is right." The greens and Brown discussed ecological tax reform, lowering taxes on labour (such as income tax or national insurance) and raising them on pollution. Stephen Tindale, director of the Green Alliance, says the meeting was "very constructive" and the shadow Chancellor endorsed the concept in a speech in which he pledged not to increase income tax.

Coincidentally, tomorrow's attempt to bring down the Government centres on an environmental issue - BSE. It's a bit rough for Labour to be targeting Douglas Hogg ("all hat and no cattle" as someone said) when a much bigger culprit sits alongside him in the Cabinet - the celebrated Environment Secretary, John Gummer, who was at the ministry of agriculture almost all the time when disaster could have been averted. But BSE, born of an ideological attachment to deregulation and consistently putting profits before people, fuelled by complacency, and wrongly blamed on Europe, is as good a symbol as any of the Conservative record. And it would be only fitting, after all, if Thatcherism was brought down by mad cow disease.

! SPEAKING of Mrs Thatcher (if we must) one or two readers have written in after my piece on Sir Crispin Tickell a couple of weeks ago to say that her much hyped transformation into a green goddess resulted not from his wily intervention but from the giant Green Party vote in the European elections. Alas, this is one of the more enduring myths of environmental politics. Mrs Thatcher announced her conversion in a speech at the Royal Society in September 1988, while the Euro elections took place nine months later, in June 1989.

The truth is much more intriguing. At the time of her speech, some of her familiars told me that she feared a rise in the Green Party vote. This looked to me like prime-ministerial paranoia; there was no sign of movement in the party's low standing in the polls. I was wrong. It proved to be one of the best examples of what Chris Patten once called her phenomenal ability to spot "the first stirrings of an issue in the groin of the Sun reader".

! GREENPEACE'S action in installing solar panels on the roof of the Department of the Environment on Friday reminds me that when the Department was set up over 25 years ago its then head, Peter Walker, wanted it to have a snappier, four-letter-word title. But the Prime Minister, Ted Heath, put his foot down when he realised that the pushy Mr Walker's suggestion would mean that he would be entitled - Kim II Sung-style - Secretary of State for Life.