Producer Profile: Sumatra

Written by Cafe Campesino on Jul 1, 2003 in NEWSLETTER, Producer Profile |

The fifth largest island in the world and the third largest in a 13,000- island archipelago, Sumatra accounts for one quarter of Indonesia’s total landmass. With its lush rainforests, active volcanoes, canyons, lakes, Amazon-like rivers, exotic flora and diverse fauna, including the two-horned rhino, the black gibbon, the tapir, the endangered Sumatran Tiger and 582 species of birds, the country is truly an eco-traveler’s (and a coffee-lover’s) paradise.

Sumatra’s population of 40 million people (more than 20% of the total population of Indonesia) inhabits an area roughly the size of Spain and is comprised of more than a dozen major ethnic groups speaking some 25 languages and hundreds of local dialects. Today, some of the main groups are the Acehnese of the north, renowned for their fierce resistance to Dutch rule, the Gayo, located in Central Aceh (pronounced Ah-Chay), West Sumatra’s Minangkabau, generally recognized as the intellectual elite and thought to be descendants of the youngest son of Alexander the Great, the Batak of the country’s interior and the largest group, the Malays, who descend from Asia’s seafaring traders.

In almost every way — strategically, politically and economically — Sumatra is Indonesia’s most important territory. With its rich oil and natural gas reserves and extremely fertile soil from which rice, coconuts, rubber, tea, cacao and, of course, coffee is produced, it has the most vigorous export activity in Indonesia. Geographically, the island’s large flowing rivers and abundant resources brought it to the attention of adventurers and invaders from the beginning of its history.

A Brief Look Back

Though the discovery of stone tools in the area indicates a 2,000-year old megalithic culture in the mountains of western Sumatra, not much is known about Sumatra before the arrival of Islam. The Kingdom of Perlak, a vibrant trading port located in what is now Aceh, was established in the year 804. On the Southeast coast, a large trade empire known as the Sriwijawa Kingdom prospered and eventually went on to control large parts of Southeast Asia. The Arabs, who arrived in the 10th century, established the sultanate of Achin (now Aceh), which controlled most of the island.

The first European to visit Sumatra was Venetian explorer Marco Polo, who spent five months there in 1292, paving the way for other European settlers, including the Portuguese in 1509 and the Dutch, who gained a foothold in 1596 and gradually grabbed more and more land. In the late 1600s, the British also established themselves in Sumatra, setting up a long-term Anglo-Dutch rivalry.

In 1819, the British government acquired exclusive trading privileges with the sultanate, but an Anglo-Dutch agreement in 1824 turned the British out and made the sultanate a virtual Dutch protectorate. This didn’t sit at all well with the northern Aceh people, and the situation was made worse in 1871 when the British authorized the Dutch to invade Aceh, possibly to prevent French annexation. The Netherlands issued a formal declaration of war in 1873, but they found that gaining control of the territory was difficult, due in large part to Acehnese resistance. The resulting Aceh War lasted for decades. It was the longest war the Dutch had ever fought, and cost them more than 10,000 lives.

During the Aceh War, in 1885, the Dutch made an important discovery in Sumatra — oil. The initial reserves were found in the northern part of the country, but subsequent exploration led to the finding of many more fields. By the end of 1999, 5,203 million barrels of oil had been recovered from the Sumatran land, as well as offshore locations. Today, the primary beneficiary is Exxon Mobil, which has extensive operations in the country, and particularly in northern Aceh.

Although there are differing accounts of when the Aceh War actually ended, guerrilla activity continued in Aceh until at least 1914 and the Dutch didn’t abandon their occupation of Aceh until shortly before the Japanese invaded Indonesia in 1942. Days after the Japanese surrendered to the Allies, the Republic of Indonesia asserted its independence. However, the country hadn’t seen the last of the British or Dutch.

Although the Dutch formally recognized Indonesian sovereignty over the islands of Java, Sumatra and Madura in 1947, the agreement only sparked more another four years of violence and territorial disputes. In 1949, the United Nations stepped into the fray, brokering the 1949 Round Table Conference Agreements, which provided for a transfer of sovereignty between the Dutch East Indies and an independent Indonesia. The Dutch East Indies ceased to exist and the Republic of Indonesia joined the United Nations in 1950.

Though the Acehnese people had fought fiercely for the Indonesian cause in the struggle for independence from Dutch rule, they became gradually disillusioned as the newly-formed Indonesian government began to siphoned off and centralize Aceh’s rich resources. The government’s continuing secularist policies led to rebellion across Indonesia in the 1950s. By then, Aceh had won status as its own province, separate from North Sumatra. Disillusionment in the region grew, however, when promises by the government of greater autonomy for the Acehnese in matters of education, religion and culture were made but never allowed to be implemented.

The political turmoil of this period included seven governments in eight years (1949 to 1957), the imposition of martial law, attempted communist takeovers and a 1965 CIA-backed military coup that brought Suharto to power. The slaughter that preceded Suharto’s accession took the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent Sumatrans. Observers reported that the rivers ran red with blood for days.

In 1971, the discovery of liquefied natural gas in Aceh brought in large revenues, but the centralized Indonesian government and multinational corporations were virtually the only recipients of the profits. Job opportunities for the northern Achenese dramatically declined. Revenues raised from taxes and royalties went directly to Jakarta, and little, if any, money was spent locally.

Building resentment over not benefiting from the wealth gained by the exploitation of their own natural resources led in 1976 to the founding of the armed resistance Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka or GAM), which gained ground in the 1980s. In May 1998, after ruling the country for more than 30 years, President Suharto was forced to step down.

At about the same time, the Free Aceh movement was revitalized, but Indonesian security forces launched a counter-insurgency campaign in early 1990 which led to the indiscriminate rounding up and torture, death or mysterious disappearance of many civilians. A year later, Indonesia gave Aceh the designation of “Military Operations Area,” which in essence gave the country free rein to “crush the separatists.” Amnesty International reports that more than 2,000 Sumatrans were killed in military operations in Aceh between 1989 and 1992.

Recent Events in Sumatra

Violence in northern Aceh spiked in 2001 and 2002 with almost 3,500 people, mostly civilians, killed in the conflict. After long negotiations between GAM and the Government of Indonesia, the two sides signed important cease-fire agreement on December 9, 2002, in Geneva. It was intended as a first step toward ending the conflict.

But though the CoHA agreement initially dramatically reduced the casualties and brought Aceh a long overdue reprieve from violence, the Indonesian government and the GAM began actively undermining it. Indonesian security forces targeted peaceful political and human rights activists for arrest and scores of unlawful detentions, torture, kidnapping and killings were reported. The GAM were themselves responsible for some serious human rights abuses.

This past May, Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri declared martial law in Aceh. A few hours later, hundreds of troops poured in and renewed the fighting. Since the invasion of East Timor in 1975, it is Indonesia’s largest military operation. Although there is a ban on the transfer of U.S. weapons to Indonesia, the Indonesian military (now known as the TMI) has been using weapons supplied by the U.S. before the ban.

On June 27th, members of both houses of Congress called on the Bush administration to work for an end to Indonesia’s military assault on Aceh. In separate letters, members of the House and Senate expressed their deep concern over U.S. weapons being used against the Indonesian people and decried the emerging crackdown against NGOs (non-governmental organizations) engaged in peaceful human rights and other advocacy activities. In no small part due to U.S. interests in the area, however, the Bush administration is unlikely (and probably unable) to respond to the crisis.

On July 10th, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called for the release of all prisoners of conscience in Indonesia and for the repeal of legislation used to prosecute and imprison activists engaged in peaceful political expression. These organizations and others are working to expose the repression in Aceh to international scrutiny and educate and activate the American public to support democracy, demilitarization and justice for the Aceh people.

A Plentiful Coffee Land

Introduced into Indonesia in the mid-1600s by Dutch explorers, coffee was first grown in Aceh around Laut Tawar Lake in the 18th century. Though armed conflict has swirled around it for decades, the remote Central Aceh region, inhabited by the Gayo people, has been relatively untouched by the violence of the Aceh separatist movement to its north.

Over the years, GAM has tried to exert its influence in the area, but because of cultural and religious differences between the Gayo and the Acehnese and the fact that the Indonesian government has had very little involvement in the coffee trade in Central Aceh, there has not been a strong constituency for GAM among the Gayo. In fact, the peace-loving Gayo fervently wish for an end to the conflict.

Though violence continues unabated to the north, Central Aceh remains an oasis of calm. This landlocked part of the Bukit Barisan Mountains (also known as the “Parade of Mountains”) with its organically-nurtured volanic soil and eight-month long coffee harvest has allowed the Gayo to produce some of the finest, most distinctive arabica coffee in the world.

Café Campesino’s Sumatran coffee is a classic Mandheling grown in the buffer zone surrounding Gunung Leuser National Park. The growers are part of the Gayo Organic Coffee Growers Association or Persatuan Petani Kopi Gayo Organik (PPKGO) a diverse membership of about 1,250 families from the Gayo Aceh and Javanese ethnic communities who together promote inter-ethnic unity and conflict resolution. PPKGO was formed in 1999 with the assistance of ForesTrade, Inc.

The Vermont-based company, whose mission is to support sustainable agriculture, natural resource conservation and socio-economic development through the promotion of Fair Trade and organic-certified products, first visited Aceh in 1997 in search of a good source of arabica coffee. There it found that many of the farmers, although not certified organic, were already practicing organic farming techniques such as promoting ecological diversity through intercropping on their 2 to 3 acre plots. ForesTrade hired its first field staff person, whose own shade-grown coffee plot was intercropped with mango, avocado, guava, banana and papaya, to train others in organic agriculture to help them become certified organic.

Soon after the first several dozen growers passed an organic inspection, the newly formed organization turned its energy onto forming the cooperative. The PPKGO cooperative then became certified Fair Trade in 2000 by Fair Trade Labeling Organization (FLO), and is certified organic by Skal International, a respected Netherlands-based organization and also by National Australian Sustainable Agriculture Association (NASAA), a reputable IFOAM accredited certification agency.

Sumatran beans produce a singularly full, heavy-bodied coffee that is low in acidity. It is a very hard bean that holds its characteristics deep into the dark roast stage.

Through its Sumatran coffee program, ForesTrade is helping to promote peace and ethnic unity in the Central Aceh region so the people of the mountainous Gayo Highlands can continue to flourish, relatively unaffected by the hostilities that have enveloped their northern neighbors.

A Island of Adventure

Because of its lush, tropical splendor and incredible biodiversity, Sumatra is rapidly becoming one of Indonesia’s most popular tourist destinations. For those who want to experience something different, there are countless possibilities for eco-adventure on this huge, unspoiled island. Though it’s true that recent U.S. State Department guidelines have warned against travel to Aceh, we look forward with great anticipation to a time (hopefully in the not-too-distant future) when Sumatra will be truly at peace. But until then, we armchair travelers raise a mug of Sumatra Gayo to a vibrant and fiercely independent people and their hauntingly beautiful land.

For Further Reading:

Human Rights In Sumatra:

Amnesty International — Take Action Against Torture

Human Rights Watch — The War in Aceh

The Indonesia Human Rights Network

Travel to Sumatra:

Lonely Planet

Sustainable Coffee Project:


Lynn Nichols is editor of Fair Grounds and a die-hard Fair Trade coffee drinker. She and her husband, Don Krüger (who also works on Fair Grounds) started a Fair Trade coffee fundraising campaign at their local church. Every Sunday morning they raise awareness for Fair Trade coffee and raise money for the church at the same time!

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