Answer to Map #23

Click here for a full-size version of this week’s map.

Back to this week’s map and hints.

Answer: This cartogram depicts the total amount of coffee produced by each country.

One thing that this map makes very clear is that coffee is only grown in the tropical latitudes. Not a single country in Europe appears on this map. The United States appears extremely small, but it’s there—solely because of the coffee grown in Hawaii.

The world’s largest coffee producer is Brazil, which produced 55 million 60kg bags of coffee in 2016. Brazil is followed by Vietnam (25.5 million bags), Colombia (14.5 million bags), and Indonesia (10 million bags). Thanks mainly to Brazil and Colombia, just a bit less than half of the world’s coffee is grown in South America.

The data used to make this map was collected by the International Coffee Organization (ICO) and supplemented by additional data from other sources. The ICO collects data from countries that grow coffee for export, a list that does not include China or the United States, where domestic consumption exceeds the amount produced. Nevertheless, we have tried to find enough reliable data on these countries to add them onto the cartogram.

Another place where consumption exceeds production is Puerto Rico, which was mentioned in Wednesday’s hint. Like many countries in the West Indies, Puerto Rico has good soil and climate for growing coffee. When Puerto Rico was controlled by Spain in the 19th century, it grew so much coffee for export that Puerto Rico was the world’s seventh largest coffee producer. Today, however, Puerto Rico has to import coffee from nearby countries such as the Dominican Republic. There are many reasons for the precipitous decline in Puerto Rico’s coffee industry, but one of the issues that gets talked about a lot is a labor shortage. Experts estimate that as much as 35% of Puerto Rico’s coffee crop rots on the vine because there aren’t enough people to pick it.

Many people who tried to figure out this map said they were surprised by how large Vietnam was. The fact that Vietnam is such an important producer of coffee reflects dramatic changes in the global coffee trade. In 1986, Vietnam produced only about 0.1% of the world’s total coffee crop. But in that year, as the Vietnamese Communist Party began to undo its previous collectivization policies, it also began to promote coffee cultivation. Vietnam mostly grows the Robusta variety of coffee, which is less prized and less expensive than the Arabica variety. As a result, a lot of Vietnamese coffee is processed into instant coffee. Throughout the 1990s, the Vietnamese coffee industry grew by 20%–30% every year; today, about 2.6 million people work in the coffee industry in Vietnam. Growing coffee for export has helped promote Vietnam’s economic growth in recent decades, but it has also been one of the factors fueling the destruction of 40,000 square miles of Vietnamese forests since the end of the Vietnam War.

Some people also wrote that they were surprised to see that Kenya appeared so small on this cartogram. Again, this was a case of people’s perceptions of the coffee industry lagging behind its changing realities. Kenya is indeed an important grower of specialty coffees, and if you go into a Starbucks you’re likely to find Kenyan blends for sale. But Kenya’s coffee production peaked in the 1970s, and the amount of coffee it produces has fallen by about two thirds in the past forty years. The main reasons for this decline were instability of global coffee prices and the dramatic increases in land prices in Kenya’s traditional coffee-growing regions.

This cartogram, therefore, represents a situation in 2017 that may or may not resemble what the situation will be in a decade or more. It is important to recognize that this cartogram doesn’t tell the full story of changing historical trends—it’s just a snapshot of a single moment in time. Perhaps, a cartogram of coffee production created in 2027 will look very different.

Next map: Click here to try out our newest map question.