In his third volume of memoirs, More Fool Me, Stephen Fry dubs cocaine “South America’s glittering granular gift to the global millions”. Between 1986 and 2001, it served as the writer-performer’s drug of enthusiastic choice, snorted in posh gaffs everywhere from Buckingham Palace to Fortnum & Mason and the offices of The Times.
Fry deserves credit for his candour and zest as he tells truths, busts myths and weighs up the “moral” and “medical” dimensions of his indefatigable drug use. Still, he ought to know that – back on the home turf of the white stuff – it remains the gift that goes on giving.
Anyone lucky enough to travel in beautiful, welcoming Colombia – one of my destinations of choice, for a host of strictly non-granular reasons – tends to acquire a pretty jaundiced view of celebrity coke confessions. Under Bogota’s grey skies, a year ago, I walked through the flotsam of flags, banners and scattered debris left by protests in the central Plaza Bolivar. Supported by students, Colombia’s small farmers had been calling for a better deal as free-market policies cut their incomes.
In one light, you could have treated this raucous rural uprising – repeated this April, after the campesinos claimed the government had reneged on its promises – as a sign of progress. Lively social movements called for upgrades in protection from a democratic state. No longer racked by ruinous wars against cocaine lords or the – drug-subsided – guerrilla armies that took their place, Colombia could get on with messy, turbulent politics-as-usual.
Would it were that simple. Even 21 years after the killing of narco-baron Pablo Escobar, and 14 years after the US-backed “Plan Colombia” came into force, cocaine still funds the dwindling forces of the Farc armed rebels – although the total area under cultivation has more than halved since 2002 (down from 102,000 to 48,000 hectares, according to the UN drugs agency). First undermined by the Medellin and Cali cartels, then scourged by twin extortion, murder and trafficking rackets with an ideological veneer – organised by the left-wing Farc, and right-wing AUC – Colombia suffers the grievous after-effects of a drug problem that has little to do with its own people’s habits.
Some of those cash-strapped farmers would have forsaken the coca bush only to find themselves shivering in the cold winds of the global marketplace in coffee, bananas and the like. Campaigners have condemned the elimination of coca crops though slapdash aerial spraying with the herbicide glyphosate as “ecocide”. Meanwhile, the state has failed to invest in agricultural reform or land redistribution because the fight against (drug-funded) cartel crime and then (drug-funded) guerrilla insurgency both depleted and distracted it.
Colombians would dispute the claim that Fry repeated on Newsnight: that, with cocaine consumption, “I’m the only person I hurt”. For them, a long line, more of blood than of powder, links the smallholdings of Cauca or Antioquia to the toilets of Soho clubs. Cocaine-driven conflict in Colombia has cost 220,000 lives.The same upheavals displaced about 4.5m people from their homes. A few years ago, former President Alvaro Uribe invited repentant star coke-heads to witness the reality of what Fry calls “the little friend in my wallet”. Another reformed character, Alex James, of Blur, took up the offer and made an illuminating film: The Cocaine Diaries.
Because of the glamour of illegality, a cocaine habit will always attract more notice than an inordinate fondness for Premier Cru claret. Fry would scarcely have presided this week over a book launch screened live to cinemas had More Fool Me disclosed his 15-year surrender to the fatal attraction of chocolate digestives. Yet, viewed from the terrain of the Andean uplands or anywhere else across the global South, drugs don’t look that special. Farmers have to make a living from cash crops. Supply chains, overground or underground, bind them on often unjust terms to consumers in the North.
If costly marching powder still sparkles with the glint of A-list, then perhaps we should use it to throw light on the trade in all the treats and indulgences we crave. Colombia’s cocaine-reduction drive certainly depends on the willingness of cultivators to swap seeds or even choose another line entirely. In Putumayo, some former coca growers have reportedly taken up freelance panning in the rivers. Forget the granular white treasure. The new gold is – gold.
With many commodities, staples and luxuries alike, we share with Fry a reluctance to look too hard into the origin of our pleasures and at the tangled thread of trade that leads from soil to mouth (or nose). Self-righteous spliff-puffers who believe that their beloved herb stands on higher moral ground than cocaine should know about the Vietnamese children trafficked into Britain to work as slaves on cannabis farms.
Even if you take nothing stronger than tea, be aware that the owners of Tetley – India’s Tata group – have faced worker protests and a damning report from Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute alleging oppressive conditions at the APPL plantations in Assam (not themselves a source of Tetley). If you say it with flowers, then in both Kenya and Colombia the trade in air-freighted blooms has been subject to scathing critiques for its exploitation of pickers. As for smartphones, they contain tantalum capacitators that use the mineral coltan – the notorious “blood diamond of the digital age”, whose extraction helped to fuel a great war in and around Congo.
And so on… So must the truly ethical consumer simply follow Voltaire’s advice and stay at home to cultivate the (vegetable) garden? At any rate, hand-wringing guilt does no one any good – unless, like Fry, you have the wit to make rueful entertainment out of your mea maxima culpa. But just because we cannot fix everything does not mean that we can fix nothing.
When it comes to our legal highs, globalised markets do make it easier to forget the blood, sweat and tears that may lie behind every little pleasure. But they also amplify the power of consumers. After all, consumer pressure, allied to political activism, helped to end the Atlantic slave trade two centuries ago. Bristol blue-glass pots bore the legend: “East India sugar – not made by slaves”. No trendy fashion item has ever done more good than Josiah Wedgwood’s anti-slavery medallions. Their chained captive asked “Am I not a man and a brother?” No doubt people sneered then about PC gestures.
Conscience does add a little to the shopping bill. But today the Fairtrade sector is worth more than £1.5bn annually in UK sales. It covers more than 4,500 products. The scope of conscientious consumption grows. Last year’s collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh, which killed 1,133 garment workers, belatedly revealed a willingness among high-street fashion buffs to contemplate the sweatshop misery that ensure rock-bottom prices. Primark, one of several brands that sourced clothes from Rana Plaza, responded fast to protests with short-term aid and long-term compensation. Others dragged their feet.
Initiatives such as the Labour Behind the Label campaign now try to hold retailers to account and agitate for a clean-up of the garment supply chain. M&S came out well from its latest survey on wage levels; Asda and Sainsburys failed to respond.
Consumer curiosity, and criticism, can prick the corporate conscience. Nestlé, for long a target of censure and even boycott over baby formula milk, has emerged on top in Oxfam’s Behind the Brands scorecard of company behaviour. In an age of instant access to data, global firms live or die by reputation. However, refrain from self-congratulation. Whenever we crave a taste or toy enough, wilful blindness still reigns. In Congo, coltan-driven massacres have never provoked the outcry of a century ago over the genocidal exploitation of rubber workers there. In the 1900s, inspired by the investigative zeal of Roger Casement and that forgotten hero E D Morel, the Congo Reform Association closed down King Leopold of the Belgians’ deadly fiefdom. Nothing like that has happened over the conflict minerals from the region that power our cherished gadgets now. Off the screen, out of mind.
Stephen Fry should have paid more heed to the chain of suffering and danger that put that charm-enhancing powder in his pocket. But, as you read his memoir on a tablet or discuss it on the phone, spare a thought as well for the network of labour that served to build that – not only in the mines of Africa, but the assembly plants of China, too. Check out, for instance, the controversial record of Foxconn in Shenzhen. After food, clothes and beverages, could electronics become the latest battleground over ethical sourcing and corporate responsibility? As yet, we have scarcely hit the “on” button with that.
Back to the Colombian highlands, where we can already do our bit for farmers in the areas once widely sown with illicit crops. This year, a US Congressional report singled out Asprotimana coffee from the Huila province as a success of the “Productive Products Programme”. Asprotimana, cultivated in 22 villages, carries a Fairtrade premium that has paid for schools, a hospital and even a resident agronomist. In the UK, Union Hand-Roasted Coffee distributes it. You can find other Colombian Fairtrade coffees in major supermarkets. So don’t get mad at Fry’s snorting delight. Brew for change instead.Reuse content