Volume 85, Number 6

December 2010

GI Joe? Coffee, Location, and Regulatory Accountability

Webster D. McBride

Geographical Indications (GIs)—product labels indicating places of origin when the quality of products are linked to their geographic origin—have long been a hotly-contested domain of international trade among nations in the developed West. Recently, a literature has emerged evaluating the prospects for developing countries’ use of GIs to bolster their agricultural sectors, but the empirical economics of GIs remain poorly understood. This Note approaches the issue from a different angle. The rhetoric that attends discussion of the economics of developing-nation GI implementations often makes reference to nonpecuniary, “softer” benefits of the GI phenomenon—in particular, its pro-local counterbalance to the multinational forces commonly perceived to dominate the global marketplace. This Note seeks to scrutinize this aspect of GIs’ impact on developing-world producers by assessing the political, institutional, and cultural dynamics that the international GI regime fosters. To ground my inquiry in an analytic framework, this Note employs metrics derived from the Global Administrative Law (GAL) project spearheaded by Benedict Kingsbury and Richard Stewart. Specifically, this Note asks whether the institutional dynamics that GI protection fosters among developing-world coffee farmers have the effect of promoting or obstructing regulatory accountability as measured by GAL’s three main principles: participation, transparency, and review. In theory, the implementation of a GI product specification should empower developing-world coffee producers by fostering their regulatory involvement and civic organization, facilitating collective management of their joint reputation, and offering access to mechanisms by which they might hold opportunistic actors accountable. This Note concludes, however, that the practical realities are unencouraging because states without preexisting and well-developed institutional infrastructures have difficulty corralling powerful actors seeking to exploit GIs for private benefit.