Coffe plants in flower

The road from Takengon to Silih Nara winds up and down some of the mountainous country of Aceh Tengah, coasting rivers, farms and forest. The surrounding peaks are encircled by white clouds, giving them a snow-capped look, but not much chance of that around here; we are in the Tropics. Nonetheless, the air is crisp and cool, and hovering at approximately 1500 metres or more, there is no threat of altitude sickness; the breathing is easy and wholesome.

The road cuts through villages lined with wooden and brick homes with the now ubiquitous rusty tin roofs. The latter a result of economic development (?), the thatch roofs made from palm leaves and pandanas (rumbia), which grow abundantly in the area, have been replaced with imported tin because … tin is cheaper. Go figure!

The transition from timber to brick construction at times signifies increase in wealth and status, sometime it is a response to tragedy, as my friend Anwar Paudi explained, many of the brick houses in his village were built after a devastating fire charred the traditional wooden homes, including his, and villagers couldn’t really make do with the galvanised iron sheds the government offered them as compensation and relief.

The spectacular views are healing, the natural beauty of Gayo country is stirring and can remain so for as long as visiting eyes keep their gaze aloof and fixed on the scenery, but not many visitors make it to these places just for the scenery, and in any case, it would be impossible to resist the charming hospitality of the local folks, and the copious amount of coffee, which they produce with passion and offer with pride.

Inside their homes, as the stories unfold, the tales are those of subsistence farmers everywhere; they who toil, who produce from the land, but struggle to make a decent living, and everyone else in the market chain that touches their produce lives well and seems to prosper. Lest the familiarity of the situation bring apathy, though; the risk of knowledge is that of being shelved in the repositories of memory, validating the existence of the facts, but desensitising the self from the plight of another, to shield oneself from hopelessness and despair. For that reason alone the story is worth telling, time and time again.

Cherries ready for picking

Aceh Tengah and adjacent districts produce  in excess of 50,000 tons of coffee per year and export almost their entire production accounting for 60% of Indonesia Arabica coffee export. Arabica coffee is in high demand globally and Aceh is known for its quality not only in Indonesia but among coffee connoisseurs everywhere. More than 80% of the coffee from Aceh Tengah is produced by small holdings of no more than one or two hectares of land. Without delving too much into the math of the situation, let’s just say that the price of a cup of coffee in Melbourne is equivalent to what the farmers earn for a kilogram of their finest. Without making the point redundant, let’s also say that most farmers in Aceh Tengah are poor—working poor.

As we sit on the floor, relishing in the aroma of the hot brew, sipping yet another cup of the nutty, smooth, flavoursome coffee from the mountains of Gunung Singit, the eyes of the hosts are on me because like Mark Twain once said “the expert always comes from out of town”. They are looking for solutions, for ways to end the perpetuating cycle of poverty and hardship that brings them the same problems day in day out.

Ninik harvesting her family small holding

They are not resigned or looking for charity; they just want ideas. Sudarto explains that for people like Ninik the situation is slightly better—Ninik farms her family’s land. But for him or Dariati, who ploughs the rows of chillies in the company of her three years old son, they lease the plot, therefore committed to cultivating for a share half of the holding in coffee for the owner of the land, while on the other half they can grow vegetables for their own income. Aside from the technical problems these arrangements create, the vegetable produce can only account for the very basic needs of the household, thus necessitating diversifying, getting a second job or even dealing in coffee by buying the cherries from other poor farmers and trying to add value to them, but how?

Sure, I’m from out of town, but I am no expert. What can I tell them? What do I know about coffee farming? These are questions that could bring relief and a way out to me, but bring nothing of use to my hosts whose generosity to afford me the gift of  a bottomless cup of premium Arabica would not let them became regretful of their gesture, but their economic situation could. Yet, I can’t relinquish responsibilities so easily because the little that I know is probably useful to people who have never had the opportunity to get outside of their district, let alone know what an espresso is, Starbucks or a cappuccino strip.

Dariati and Danil

I don’t have solutions for them, but I have ideas. And again the internal struggle churns and stirs as I tussle with my thinking—small holders pulling together, forming a united cooperative able to dictate or at least exercise some control over prices, production and a share of the market; or small boutique, individually crafted products aimed at the niche markets of café latte sippers in trendy neighbourhoods?

As Sudarto explains his situation and that of many of his neighbours, I begin to thrash about in my head the figures he is supplying only for my jaw to drop in disbelief. He’s thinking that his coffee may be too strong for me or I’ve seen a ghost; once I reach for pen and paper and transcribe the figures he is providing, his jaw drops too.

From the information he has contributed it becomes clear that each stage of the coffee processing that the farmers cannot handle for themselves, before they are ready to sell their produce at the gate, it costs them more than they are able to earn from it, as for example, the operators who separate the cherries from the beans can earn in one hour more than what Sudarto earns in one day during one of his bumper seasons. The equipment needed for this process costs the equivalent of one farmer’s yearly income.

Sudarto

I let him ponder over the figures—one machine one farmer; one machine two farmers; one machine three farmers—one more cup of coffee and I’m on my way.

Fotos: Aceh Tengah; ’11