CHIANG RAI – For barista lifers, amateur anthropologists, agro enthusiasts, sustainable development students and homesteading hipsters attempting to roast their own green beans, Mark Pendergrast’s Beyond Fair Trade is biblical.
West coasters have been long familiar with the humble plight and karmic mission of the Doi Chaang Coffee Company. They introduced Vancouver to kopi luwak, the famed and frowned upon civet “cat poop coffee.” Doi Chaang shook up the industry by promoting an ethical product from a 50-per-cent grower-owned business..
For North Vancouver mining executive and Doi Chaang Coffee Company co-founder, John Darch, it wasn’t about the coffee at all. “I am not a coffee person. We focus on the highest quality, but it could have been any commodity that I tried to help sell. I am passionate about people, especially underdogs who, through no fault of their own other than the accident of birth, seem to have the world against them. This just happened to be Thailand, and it happened to be coffee.”
The eventual partnership between Darch and Thai visionary Wicha Promyong is a tale of bewildering serendipity. Their entrepreneurial relationship introduced the world to the concept of “fair trade.” Pendergrast has researched this intrinsic “family” tree with roots in Thailand and branches in Canada and created a dense compendium of coffee culture, genesis, inequity and hope.
Highland coffee cultivation evolved after opium raids in 1985 forced the Akha hill tribe to relocate. A ritual public burning of 3,000 kilograms of poppy seeds was the beginning of the Thai government’s crackdown. In an attempt to end the perpetual debt bondage of opium, a Thai-German Highland Development Program was established to help convert opium fields into sustainable cash crops..
Coffee grows best between an elevation of 3,000 to 6,000 feet “in a girdle around the equator, between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. The beautiful locations are also among the world’s poorest and most violence-prone areas — in part because of the way coffee, a labour-intensive crop was grown.”
The Akha hill tribe’s history is one of displacement. Caught in the crossfire between the Burmese government, Communist and independent armies, “the hill tribe problem” in Doi Chaang and reliance on opium crops is an unlikely backstory for a cup of Arabica.
Failed tomato and cabbage production introduced pesticides, chemical fertilizers and growing erosion of trust. The story is a familiar one with indigenous people globally — sudden respiratory illnesses, increased infant mortality and suicide rates, malnutrition and the loss of faith in traditional healers. Poverty disrupted animism practices — no animals were left for traditional sacrifices. Christian boarding schools and an influx of missionaries encouraged religious conversion and children to learn Thai, not Akha.
The paradox was that despite the end of opium cultivation, there was an increase in heroin addiction with rampant smuggling across the Burma border of the “crazy medicine.” Women turned to prostitution and the HIV rate in northern Thai brothels skyrocketed from 30 to 90-per-cent infection rates.
“Most villagers were poor in the midst of a land of plenty and could not figure out how to do any better.” Drugs, gambling, porn, computers, western clothing and lifestyles were quickly adopted. Even the thatch and bamboo homes were being replaced by lumber and cement.
Though coffee seedlings were first rooted in the area in 1977 (succumbing to disease and declining coffee prices), a Thai German project in 1984 supplied 7,000 coffee seedlings to a group of farmers. The Akha predominantly drank tea though, and despite being spoon-fed with seeds, loans and training by overseas donors, farmers were left to do their own marketing after harvest. Driving seven hours to lowland markets to sell, traders offered the hill tribes embarrassing prices, knowing their desperation. Often it barely paid for the gas to deliver it.
For the Akha, since Darch’s involvement, they’ve been growing more than just coffee. Schools, roads, health care, electricity, running water and possibility have seeped in. Birds have returned to areas heavily logged and stripped of life from mono-culture.
.Beyond Fair Trade is rich in coffee lore not just in Thailand, but in Haiti where French colonists supplied half the world’s coffee by 1788. Pendergrast knits history neatly together by examining the specialty coffee movement that began with Peet’s Coffee and Tea in California in 1966. Did you know the first Starbucks Coffee opened in Seattle in 1971? Consumer curiosity about coffee production was stirred. Coffee drinkers suddenly wanted to know more than where the cream and sugar were located in the café. Where did the beans come from and how?
In the spring of 2007, the Doi Chaang’s Academy of Coffee opened in Thailand offering free classes on cultivation and processing to local farmers. A slick Bambrati Italian roaster has replaced the antique 6-ton roaster hauled up the mountain in the spring of 2003 (after disassembly, using a German-language manual no one could read).
If you’ve read Paul Theroux’s Mosquito Coast, you’ll have an instant flashback to inventor Allie Fox building his “Fat Boy” ice machine in the middle of the jungle. John Darch and Wicha’s vision runs ironically parallel.
After reading Beyond Fair Trade, the weight of a pound of coffee will feel different. But you can rest assured that you’re drinking a responsible and storied cup of feel-good coffee with Doi Chaang.