A cup of coffee contains its own history, and it begins from the soil. Each coffee bean goes through the long journey of being planted, grown, handpicked and processed by hands unmapped throughout the industry chain.
Ever since the colonial era, coffee beans have been hailed as a prime commodity—yet the lives of people who provided them remain in anonymous silence to this day. The European public, for example, were largely oblivious of how coffee farmers and workers in the Dutch Indies suffered due to Cultuurstelsel, a forced planting system imposed by colonial rulers in the mid-19th century.
In 1830, the then-Dutch government implemented a system in which 20% of village land had to be devoted to export crops, such as coffee, sugarcane, rubber and indigo. Alternatively, peasants had to work in government-owned plantations for 60 days a year. To establish firmer control, the Dutch created networks with local feudal leaders and administrators, allowing them incentives and bonuses from trade.
In reality, more than 20% of the land was used for export crops, and peasants worked for more than 60 days a year in government plantations to surpass export targets. While these exports allowed the Dutch East Indies to turn huge profits and made local feudal middlemen rich, the system caused famines and epidemics as the peasants lost were deprived of land and resources to plant their own food crops, such as rice.
In 1860, the Dutch writer Eduard Douwes Dekker—under the pseudonym of Multatuli published a realist novel entitled “Max Havelaar: Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company” that shed light on the inequality present throughout the coffee trade chain, and of wider colonial exploitation.
Globally, the coffee industry has been categorised under three distinct models, or “waves” of how the commodity is traded. The first wave began during the early 20th century, when the Industrial Revolution enabled the mass production of commercially-oriented instant coffee—even though this meant that the quality of coffee suffered. The second wave, which began in the 1970s, was proliferated by global chains of coffee shops promoting coffee consumption as a lifestyle and social activity.
And finally, the “third wave coffee movement” was established in the early 2000s. This latest model differs from the previous two in that it demands transparency throughout the entire supply chain, and is conscious of environmentally friendly practices and welfare for coffee farmers and workers.
As a whole, the movement applies two basic principles, namely traceability—which allows consumers to know where their coffee was planted, which farmer or company cultivated it, what post-harvesting process were undertaken, etc.—and fair trade, which ensures consumers that their coffee is the end product of sustainable farming and processing, and that the labourers are receiving a fair wage for their work.
This new awareness of supply chains and ethics has pushed many companies, including global coffee franchises, to explain how their coffee is acquired through ethical trade. Countless coffee shops and producers now provide information to consumers regarding the geographical origins, communities, and character of each type of coffee. It’s a new conscious movement, and everyone, it seems, is on board.
But things are not as simple as they look.
The Karo Lands
“Sustainability is like teenage sex. Everyone says they’re doing it, but in reality, they’re not, and for those that are, they’re certainly not doing it right.”
—Lawrence Woodward, Agriculture Activist and Director of the Organic Research Centre (ORC).
From 2016 to 2017, I visited the Karo Regency—one of the producers of the world-famous Sumatra coffee. I’d been considering the impact of economy and trade for a few years; it was for this reason that I took up documentary photography to explore coffee trade supply chains, starting with the farmers. This approach also allowed me to directly observe how central concepts of the third wave coffee movement—traceability and free trade—have been applied in the Indonesian context.
I met with several coffee farmers who shared their experiences in the field with me. A young farmer named Willy, for example, explained how the price of coffee beans would often fluctuate at some points, while remaining stagnant at other times, depending on supply and demand. But farmers have little control over this dynamic: with little information on the big picture, farmers often have relied on middlemen to determine prices and get access to buyers.
Pak Karo, who produces peaberry coffee, says he’d once been left hanging after his regular buyer in Medan refused to purchase his product because their warehouse was already overstocked. With only one regular buyer, and lacking the knowledge to penetrate broad markets himself, there was little he could do. “I brought the coffee back to my house. I didn’t get any money that day,” he said.
Rejecting this system, Willy has come up with his own rules. “I post-harvest process my coffee, roast and sell it in social media,” he said.
It’s a problem that might be solved if more farmers were like Willy, but not everyone already has mastery of post-harvesting processes and marketing knowledge. For example, freshly picked coffee beans are sold at only about Rp7,500–8,000 (around US$0.50) per kilogram. If farmers could dry their own coffee, the market price of beans would go up to about Rp24,000–28,000 (about US$2) per kilogram; this price would still get even higher if they can carry out other post-harvesting processes themselves and sell green coffee beans to end buyers.
Cutting out middlemen could also mean that farmers take home more of the profit. But with many ill-equipped to tackle the wider market on their own, choosing not to work with middlemen tends to mean selling their coffee beans in traditional markets for a fairly low price.
Cultivating coffee is an art in itself—one that combines both knowledge and intuition accumulated from experience, consistency, and dedication. Farmers need to know a whole range of skills, from understanding different varieties of coffee beans; how to rejuvenate unproductive coffee plants; how to handle different types of pests; irrigation techniques; to basic principles during harvesting such as choosing ripe, red coffee beans over others.
But sometimes even experience isn’t sufficient to deliver high-quality beans. Coffee plants require adequate amounts of water to optimally grow, but the climate crisis has led increasingly to weather conditions that are nearly impossible to predict. Long periods of drought are followed by endless torrents of rain, while pest infestations have become more unpredictable as shifting climate conditions impact the breeding and life cycles of various insects. In the face of these hardships, persistence becomes the paramount factor.
The eruptions of the nearby volcano Mount Sinabung—which have been happening continuously since 2010—have also rendered the process of drying coffee beans even more difficult. The traditional method, which requires directly exposing beans to sunlight, becomes impossible when ash and dust are polluting the air. Farmers have to wait for things to clear until they can dry their beans, which directly results in a delay in earning income.
These hurdles—and many more—are problems coffee farmers have to deal with. In order to survive, they’ve employed a wide array of strategies: from planting other horticulture plants and raising cattle, to working odd jobs in the service and tourism sector.
Reflecting upon these findings, I wonder if these words from Andrea Illy, a famed businessman and coffee merchant, might indeed speak of truth: “For some multinationals, it [the economic crisis] was simply a matter of difficult economic circumstances. But for labourers in some countries it meant surviving almost at a subsistence level, if not actually being reduced to starvation.”
“Give Us Our Daily Bread”
Songs of praise echo on a Sunday morning. Worshippers from different places in Karo gather in their best clothes, some in traditional attire, to attend the weekly congregation. During the Holy Communion, the priest hands out ryeless bread as a manifestation of God, present and one with the believers.
In these chilly highlands, religion acts as a beacon of hope. You’ll find churches, mosques, and other houses of worship in all places—even remote ones. It reminds me of a line from the Christian Lord’s Prayer: “Give us our daily bread.”
These words point to how mankind’s bitter hardships remain inseparable from their sense of hope. The realities of the world may unveil the true face of a civilisation, but one’s spirituality can provide strength, and with it, a sense of calm. While the wheel of the global economy keeps on turning, carrying away goods harvested from Karo’s soil, the coffee farmers will go on tending their fields, and wrestling with their own restlessness. At the end of the week, they’ll once again gather with their loved ones, sharing their resolve with one another, before continuing the struggle for another day.
For these farmers, concepts such as the third wave coffee movement, fair trade or sustainability may sound completely alien. But a wave always carries with it a momentum when large amounts of energy will be released; it’s just a matter of time. Perhaps there might be alternative economic models in the future—ones that will cater to the farmers’ needs and lessen their struggle. Rather than an ideal to aspire to, ethical trade could become the norm.
Yet for now, it remains a hope fostered in silence.
Michael Eko is an Indonesian documentary photographer. For almost a decade, he focus his works in environment and cultural issues across Indonesia and Asia. Currently he established ENKLAF, a firm where he and his team provide ecommerce and storytelling consultation to communities. Using online platform and fair trade approach, the startup support local communities to empower their economic life as well as protecting their environment with sustainable economy. He believes that storytelling is a powerful tool to inspire and move people in creating better understanding, dialogue and solutions.