Admittedly, Thailand seems an unlikely place to not only discover arabica coffees of extraordinary quality but also to discover the genesis of a realistically sustainable self-supporting coffee community.
A few years ago, no one in the specialty coffee world had heard of Thai grown coffees, and still today, there is little awareness for coffee from this region. The association in buyers’ minds between Thailand and Vietnam, as well as all of Indonesia is strong and abiding. The flooding of low quality Vietnamese Robustas into the market in 1999–2000, and ongoing issues of corruption, supply inconsistency, and fair trading practices in Indonesia have tainted the market’s perceptions.
And yet, in a pocket of what was once the infamous Golden Triangle of Thailand, an indigenous people, the Akha Hill Tribes have, for the last 20 years, been lifting themselves up from generational destitution through the cultivation of coffee.
The village of Doi Chang was, at one time, the center of the opium production trade in Thailand. Opium, which requires slash and burn agriculture methods, had destroyed the native jungle, brought death and desolation through addiction and enslavement, and eventually caused complete economic devastation. By the time the cultivation of opium poppies was made illegal and eradicated in Thailand, the culture of opium was so pervasive that the indigenous hill tribes were left with ruined soil, economic collapse, and abandonment by their government.
The culture of racism that defines the relationship of the hill tribes to the urban and governmental centers of Thailand descended upon the Golden Triangle and the Akha people. It was not until the Princess Srinagarindra, the mother of HRH King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand withdrew from public life in Bangkok and retired to Chiang Rai, the northernmost province of Thailand that official government notice of the plight of the Akha Hill Tribes began to be understood.
Because opium was an economic crop, and not a core element of hill-tribe culture, her work to change the economic equation through crop substitution was more easily implemented. Coffee was a natural replacement for a cash crop but because of environmental damages, isolation, and the crushing need for subsistence farming, coffee did not effectively ‘take root.’
The evolution of sustainability
To understand the chain of events that have lead to this vital center of commercial success in the Thai mountains, one must first try to understand the cast of key characters who brought this together.
The term, “Golden Triangle” generally refers to an area where the borders of Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand converge and the point where the Sop Ruak tributary flows into the mighty Mekong River. Considered one of the world’s remaining wild places, the area remains largely inaccessible. The name conjures up alluring images of mist-shrouded mountains with forested slopes overlooking the mighty Mekong River, home of hill-tribe villages. Its mystical reputation attracts hundreds and thousands of tourists, year after year, particularly adventure seekers.
The Golden Triangle, however, has a darker side. It is one of the areas of the world where opium is grown, processed into heroin, and smuggled out, and is the source of half the world’s illegal heroin.
As impoverished hill farmers eek out a living from a rugged terrain through opium cultivation, mystery and danger surrounds drug production and trafficking, characterized by the outbreak of civil wars, clashes between the police and armed forces in a fight against smugglers, surprise raids on clandestine heroin factories, and donkey caravans along old jungle trade paths. The list reads like the stuff of mystery novels and action thrillers. Tragically, this is the stark reality of the drug trade.
First and foremost is “Wicha” Promyong. A very humble man who takes no credit for the work of Doi Chaang, nonetheless without Wicha, so much would have been different. Looking like an aging Asian hippie from San Francisco, Wicha is very well known throughout Southeast Asia and beyond. He literally has spent most of his life walking from village to village and country to country just to ‘see what he could see’ and in the process, this quiet, peaceful, and wickedly intelligent man gained the trust and admiration of village leaders, common ™people, and government officials. He still is called upon to travel to distant villages to help settle disputes. In different times, he would be considered an itinerate saint. But in today’s world he makes his living selling antiques and operating 20 owned cafes and licensing an additional 300 cafes throughout Thailand. So, it was natural that the headman of the village of Doi Chang came to Wicha for help lifting his village out of poverty through coffee.
At that moment, Wicha dedicated all his energy toward perfecting the cultivation and processing of coffee and increasing the welfare of the village of Doi Chang. Starting out with less than a hundred acres of land owned by the village, they now have 8000 acres with 3000 under coffee cultivation.
Wicha, who is an intense lover of plants had, as a key part of his plan the reforestation of the mountains. After the mountains had been clear-cut, there were no indigenous plants remaining – the mountains were barren. Raising trees in nurseries, all the coffee is now 100% shade grown under a dense canopy of trees hand planted by the farmers. Not only are there shade trees, but also alternative crop trees that bring additional income to the farmers. Where once the jungle was gone, there now rises a high and thick canopy of lush forest.
Looking for a pathway for increasing his sales and price of the coffee, Wicha attended a coffee expo in Bangkok where he happened to meet Pornprapa Bunmusik (Sandra). This powerful and interesting person in her own right happened to have a friend that could have an idea or two. That person was John M Darch, a successful mining executive from Canada. Together, they began to formulate a plan to move forward with Doi Chaang Coffee.
The pillars of “Beyond Fair Trade®”
It probably is unlikely that if a different cast of characters was assembled – younger or less financially successful – the results would have been so spectacular. To pull this off, there needed to be people that were ready to give back, but only in a meaningful and sustainable way. There were to be no handouts from this crowd.
In analysis, a key component of the Doi Chaang development was John Darch’s lifetime of experience as a mining executive. If he had any experience in the coffee world, his methods would have been very different. In the mining world, investors know that huge investments in equipment and infrastructure must be made before any revenues are seen.
You may have noticed that Doi Chaang keeps getting spelled two different ways – Doi Chang and Doi Chaang. The village in which the coffee company, Doi Chaang resides is spelled Doi Chang. Both mean Elephant Mountain but because of old trademark restrictions, the coffee company added an “a.” Congratulations to those who caught it, and shame on you to those who did not. Your fifth grade English teacher is glaring at you.
When John first visited Doi Chang village, the final 40 miles had to be travelled on mules over washed out tracks. There were no roads into the Doi Chang region making what he found there all the more remarkable. Under Wicha’s leadership, the village had built a modern fully washed wet mill, dry mill, and concrete patios. They had constructed a ‘coffee academy’ to train farmers in best practices through a curriculum design by a college professor from Chang Rai and had installed a 120kg roaster. All of this was brought up that same trail using only mules and strong backs.
Through continuous reinvestment of the money the village received for their coffee, several of the villagers were able to attend university, all receive health care, they feed all in the village who are hungry regardless of what they do, and they purchase additional land and equipment for coffee.
Darch saw immediately that Doi Chaang coffee required a rapid expansion of capacity and infrastructure, especially a road to connect the village with the world. And so was built the base of the idea of “Beyond Fair Trade®.”
Societal Capitalism and sustainability
The core of the idea of “Beyond Fair Trade®” is the firm belief in the power of Societal Capitalism. Darch formed a second company in Canada, Doi Chaang Canada for the sole purpose of purchasing and selling coffee from Doi Chaang Thailand. A price and quantity is struck between the two entities. Doi Chaang Canada agrees to buy, for example, 75% of the crop for a price above the Fair Trade premium. This provides enough revenues to aggressively build out the facility in Thailand and engage the social programs necessary to stabilize the community. Canada then sells the coffee in green and roasted form at a premium based on the Organic and Fair Trade certifications, plus the “Beyond Fair Trade® premium.
The key element toward ensuring a long-term commercial relationship between Thailand and Canada is that the village in Thailand also owns 50% of the Canadian company!
The results at Doi Chaang – the coffee company – and Doi Chang – the village – are dramatic.
Because a great deal of money was now flowing into the village, Wicha recognized that the village had no experience at cash management. He regularly brings a financial expert to the Coffee Academy to educate the farmers on sound financial business practices. Instead of buying big screen TVs, everyone seems to own a new 4×4 pick-up. They found out that it is much easier and faster to drive the freshly picked cherries to the village owned processing plant than to walk them down. The government has built a two-lane heavy load highway to the plant, and the entire village is electrified. The farms all practice water waste management and are all certified organic. New capital investments have been made to add 25,000 kilo Penagos semi-washed processing mills. The village is using their Fair Trade premium to purchase advanced medical equipment for the local “hospital” and as a result, the Thai government has agreed to fully staff the facility with doctors (prior to this it was only staffed with nurse practitioners).
Doi Chaang Coffee grows premium coffee on farms all above 1200 meters that is processed in a state of the art plant owned by the growers of the village. They have expanded into organic honey from their own hives and are constructing a facility to produce organic coffee and honey based soaps, lotions, and cosmetics.
The next goal of Wicha and company is to construct an academy to service all the children in Doi Chang and the surrounding community. Ground has broken for a building that will serve 450 students including dormitories for students who have no home. The Doi Chaang Foundation in Canada is working hard to raise the funds for this new benefit to the community.
Wild Civets of Doi Chaang
One of the premier products of Doi Chaang is Wild Civet Coffee. I will spare us all from the jokes regarding these unique little “wet mill” processors except to say that the civets at Doi Chaang seem to do an especially fine job of it. I suspect that there is a “Garbage in-Garbage out” element to it. These civets are dining on some of the best coffee in the world.
What makes the civets at Doi Chaang especially unique however is that they are completely wild. Unlike some of their brethren, these little nocturnal guys have free range of the coffee farms once the sun goes down. You do not really understand the distinction of “wild” until you try to sleep in a hut in the middle of a coffee plantation while outdoors, the trees are alive with fully caffeinated wild animals that look to be a cross between a cat and a raccoon. Civet coffee has become so valuable that wild civets are rare. They typically are caged and fed coffee their entire lives. In truth, this probably is just fine with the civets since their entire life plan seems to be eating, and then poo’ing coffee. But it just feels better knowing that the civets at Doi Chaang are eating whatever coffee they choose and then returning to their dens and families at the end of a long night of work. Doi Chaang’s civet coffee consistently earns scores in the 90’s and has been picked up by some of the finest specialty retailers in the world.
Sometimes life really is strange.