From Coffee to Colonialism: Data Investigations into How the Poor Feed the Rich

Written by: Raúl Sánchez Ximena Villagrán


How we used data to reveal illegal business practices, sustained environmental damage and slave-like conditions for workers in developing countries’ agroindustries.

Keywords: cross-border investigations, agriculture, colonialism, data journalism, environmental damage

At the beginning of 2016, a small group of journalists decided to investigate the journey of a chocolate bar, banana and cup of coffee from the original plantations to their desks.

Our investigation was prompted by reports that all of these products were produced in poor countries and mostly consumed in rich countries.

Starting from that data we decided to ask some questions:

-What are the labour conditions on these plantations like?

-Is there a concentration of land ownership by a small group?

-What kinds of environmental damage do these products cause in these countries?

So El Diario and El Faro (two digital and independent media outlets in Spain and El Salvador) joined forces to investigate the dark side of the agroindustry business model in developing countries.1

The resulting “Enslaved Land” project is a one-year cross-border and data-driven investigation that comes with a subheading that gets straight to the point: “This is how poor countries are used to feed rich countries”.2

In fact, colonialism is the main issue of this project. As journalists, we didn’t want to tell the story of the poor indigenous people without examining a more systemic picture.

We wanted to explain how land property, corruption, organized crime, local conflicts and supply chains of certain products are still part of a system of colonialism.

In this project, we investigated five crops consumed widely in Europe and the US: sugar, coffee, cocoa, banana and palm oil in Guatemala, Colombia, Ivory Coast and Honduras. As a data driven investigation, we used the data to get from pattern to story.

The choice of crops and countries was made based on a previous data analysis of 68 million records of United Nations World Trade Database (Fig. 1.1).

Figure 1.1. Network graph showing world imports and exports of coffee in 2014. Source:
Figure 1.1. Network graph showing world imports and exports of coffee in 2014. Source:

This investigation shows how balance of power between rich and poor countries has changed from the 15th century to present and prove that these crops are produced thanks to exploitative, slave-like conditions for workers, illegal business practices and sustained environmental damage.

The focus of our stories was shaped by the data we used. In Honduras, the key was to use geographic information to tell the story. We compiled the land use map of the country and overlaid the surface of palm plantations with protected areas. We found that 7,000 palm oil hectares were illegally planted in protected areas of the country.

As a result, our reporter could investigate the specific zones with palm plantations in protected areas. The story uses individual cases to highlight and narrate systemic abuse, such as the case of Monchito, a Honduran peasant who grows African palm in the Jeannette Kawas National Park.

This project is not only about land use. In Guatemala, we created a database of all the sugar mills in the country. We dived into the local company registry to find out the owners and directors of the mills. Next we used public business records to link these individuals and entities with offshore companies in Panama, Virgin Islands and the Bahamas.

To find out how they create and manage the offshore structure, El Faro had access to the Panama Papers database, so we used that information to reconstruct how one of the biggest mills of the country worked with the Mossack Fonseca law firm to avoid taxes.

A transnational investigation aiming to uncover corruption and business malpractice in poor countries is challenging in many ways. We had to work in rural areas where there is no governmental presence, and in most cases the reporting posed some risk. We dealt with countries where there is a considerable lack of transparency, where open data is absent, and, in some cases, where public administrations do not know what information they hold.

Honduras and Guatemala were only one aspect of our investigation. More than 10 people worked together to produce this material. All this work was coordinated from the offices of El Diario in Spain and El Faro in El Salvador, working alongside journalists in Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras and Ivory Coast.

This work was undertaken not only by journalists, but also by editors, photographers, designers and developers who participated in the development and production process to develop an integrated web product. This project would not have been possible without them.

We used an integrated scrollytelling narrative for each of the investigations. For us, the way that users read and interact with the stories is as important as the investigation itself. We chose to combine satellite images, photos, data visualizations and narrative because we wanted the reader to understand the link between the products they consumed and the farmers, companies, and other actors involved in their production.

This structure allowed us to combine personal stories with data analysis in a compelling narrative. One example is the story of John Pérez, a Colombian peasant whose land was stolen by paramilitary groups and banana corporations during the armed conflict. To tell this story we used a zoomable map that takes you from his plantation to the final destination of Colombian banana production.

This project showed that data journalism can enrich traditional reporting techniques to connect stories about individuals to broader social, economic and political contexts.

Our investigation was also published by Plaza Pública in Guatemala and Ciper in Chile, and was included in the Guatemalan radio show “ConCriterio.” The latter led to a public statement from the Guatemalan Tax Agency asking for resources to fight against tax fraud in the sugar mill business.


1. (Spanish language), (Spanish language)

2. (Spanish language)

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