Producer Profile: Sumatra’s Gayo Cooperative

Written by Cafe Campesino on Sep 1, 2002 in NEWSLETTER, Producer Profile |
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In mid-1997, ForesTrade, Inc., an organic product company based in Vermont, selected the Gayo highlands in the northern province of Aceh on the island of Sumatra, as an optimal site for a Sustainable Organic Coffee Project. This fertile and landlocked mountainous region is the largest producer of Arabica coffee in Southeast Asia. The province is also well known for its protracted and brutal civil war between the Acehnese separatists and the Indonesian military. American investment in the area has been limited to the embattled massive Exxon Mobil oil and natural gas facility in Lhoksemauwe.

ForesTrade initiated the project by sending two of their most seasoned local field staff, Oktavianus Zebua and Risnawan Purba to the region, with the task of locating local innovators and risk-takers with a strong vision. In the region of Takengon, Aceh, a local non-government organization (NGO), Yayasan Pemerhati Sosial Indonesia, helped connect them with two farmer leaders, Iswandi Idris and Mohammad Salim, and a local coffee processor, Misriadi Mude Saad. As life-long coffee growers with a passion for both coffee and the land, they understood the concept of organic farming, and introduced the idea to other farmers in the area. Many of the early participants were members of the extended families of the founders. They encouraged new members to avoid using agrochemicals or planting new varieties of coffee. This would change the unique flavor of their product and could alter their sustainable shade-grown cropping system.

What started as a initiative between the Vermont-based company and two small groups of coffee growers has now grown into a 1400 member Farmers Cooperative in 24 communities — Persatuan Petani Kopi Gayo Organik (Gayo Organic Coffee Farmer’s Association) — or PPKGO. They now can proudly produce over 1,500 tons of Sumatra and Indonesia’s only Fair Trade and Organic Certified Coffee. ForesTrade helped with the Fair Trade and Organic Certification process of the farmers, as well as introduce the farmers of Takengon to the International Fair Trade Market. Now PPKGO works in partnership with ForesTrade’s local Indonesian staff to coordinate the exporting of the goods from a processing facility in Medan. Today Iswandi is the director of the cooperative, Salim is the Regional Director for ForesTrade in Takengon, Misriadi has become the project’s processor and exporter, and Oktavianus and Purba run the processing plant in Medan.

The farmers of Takengon are predominantly members of the Gayo ethnic group, devoutly Muslim and trying to remain non-partisan in the Aceh conflict. The region is composed of 60% Gayo, 30% Javanese, and 10% Acehenese, and today the Organic Cooperative encompasses members of every ethnic group and various religions, including Christians. A significant part of the success of the coffee project lies in the interethnic diversity of the cooperative, an incredible feat in a region of intercultural violence.

Recently, two of the founders of the project, Mohammad Salim and Iswandi Idris, visited the USA and were able to communicate with customers, consumers, and the media about their coffee and their Project. They spoke about their current challenges in keeping up with demand and maintaining the quality of their product, in overcoming transport blockages by organizing 24-hour convoys through remote forests. They were very articulate in describing the difference that Fair Trade and organic were making in their lives and their communities. The farmers and the cooperative benefit greatly from additional funds provided by the Fair Trade and Organic premiums, as well as receiving financial support for field projects from customers such as Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (GMCR) and Cooperative Coffee member Dean’s Beans.

A key initial investment was the renovation of several village mosques and their water supply systems. This helps individual worshipers purify themselves before prayers, improves community life and sanitation practices, and provides pure water for adjacent coffee processing plants. The funds have also provided for a full-fledged rehabilitation program for members, replacing old and unproductive plants with indigenous “tipica” seedlings. Over 35,000 seedlings have so far been distributed in 4 villages.

Currently, PPKGO’s highest priority is on setting up eight new village-based wet processing mills to accommodate increasing orders. They are also developing a credit savings program for their members, in which the members can contribute a portion of their earnings to create a capital reserve fund. This gives the cooperative’s farmers control over their own savings, independent of government-controlled banks.

Salim and Iswandi also spoke about the ecologic and economic benefits of the Organic Program, including the use of green manuring, compost, and the use of leguminous shade trees. The annual pruning of trees has increased production greatly, as every year the diseased and dead matter is cleared away. Erosion control has also improved in the area, so much so that Salim said he believed that even without the Organic Program, the farmers would continue to use natural forms of weed and pest control. The result is that yields per hectare on a number of farms have risen from about 1 to 1.6 tons per hectare, also raising incomes in the process.

On Monday, August 19, Salim and Iswandi met with representatives of Cooperative Coffees, Equiterre, and ForesTrade at Coffee Lab International in Waterbury, VT. This was the first step in a two-week whirlwind tour of the United States for both men, whose visas had not been approved in time to attend the Fair Trade Forum at the Specialty Coffee Association of America annual conference in Anaheim last May 2002.

In the coming harvest season, ForesTrade and PPKGO, with the support of their customers and Coffee Lab International, plan to install greater quality control measures in the field, complete with a test cupping laboratory in Takengon. The goal is to have the farmers themselves familiar with the unique flavor profiles for their Sumatran coffee of all of their customers.

Iswandi mentioned that one of the most positive aspects of the Program to the farmers was the consistency and loyalty of the customers. The steady stream of contracts, their number increasing along with the farmer members and levels of production, is what has attracted the Gayo coffee farmers to join PPKGO. It is the scruples of roasters such as Café Campesino and ultimately, the discerning consumer in the North American marketplace, that have helped to make PPKGO and their wonderful coffee a well-deserved success.

Here are a few links for more information:

ForesTrade
http://www.forestrade.com/

Coffee Lab International
http://www.coffeelab.com/

Equiterre http://www.equiterre.qc.ca/english/coffee/index.html

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Maryann Schrupp is the U.S. Supply Chain Manager for ForesTrade, Inc. A native of Brattleboro, VT, her background is in International Affairs and Economics.

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