Gayo Mountain Adventure
Tuesday, July 15, 2003
Melanee Meegan, Peace Coffee Dir. of Marketing
In early March of this year I was fortunate enough to travel to Indonesia to visit our coffee partners in Sumatra. I landed in Medan, the third largest city in Indonesia, and drove immediately ten hours to Takengon, which sits on a tiny lake bordering the renowned Gayo Mountain coffee region. The dry processing plant for all of the Gayo farmers is located in Takengon and referred to as Trimaju.
When we arrived at Trimaju on our first full day, we were greeted with a huge celebration. Over 500 farmers and community members had gathered to welcome our small group of visitors, which included Dean Cycon from Massachusetts-based Dean's Beans (a member of Cooperative Coffees), Mane Alves from Coffee Lab International and Thomas Fricke from Forestrade and me.
A huge ceremony was held in honor of our visit as well as to acknowledge the efforts of the farmers who have been caught in the crossfire of the military rebel conflicts in Aceh that have raged ceaselessly for the last three years. One of our main purposes for making the trek was to show our appreciation towards the farmers’ incredible endurance and commitment to growing, harvesting and exporting some of the most unique, wild and flavorful coffee in the world during times of civil unrest and violence. We met widows, amputees and other victims of the counter-insurgency campaign. The farmers recalled long trips from Takengon to Medan (the closest port city) on unpaved highly dangerous roads, transporting our coveted Gayo coffee. The truck drivers often feared for their lives during these treks, in light of the escalated conflict. It often took over two days for the coffee to reach Medan safely. We also spoke with men who continued to pick coffee on their farms, but whose wives had left the area to live with family members in safer regions. One family spoke of a grenade going off right behind their house. Other farmers had lost whole herds of water buffalo that were caught in crossfire. All of these tragedies have made the plight of the Sumatran coffee grower very difficult. We shared in their grieving and prayed with them that the situation would improve in Aceh.
Despite these hardships, I have never met a farmer group so committed to improving and stabilizing their community by supporting and caring for each other. PPGKO, Pentani Kopi Gayo Organic, was very well organized and doing things in the community that had direct benefits for everyone. Roads have been improved over the past two years, a well project was initiated, communal depulpers were installed, drying patios were built in key areas, a central mosque was finished and cupping labs are on the horizon. We toured and visited farmers’ homes and lush coffee plots. Spider webs glimmered under the sun attached from tree to tree. The presence of spiders, referred to in Indonesian as laba labas, are a tell-tale sign that no chemical fertilizer was applied on the plants. Some of the coffee plants in the area were over 50 years old. Mane, the coffee expert, was in awe of these elderly trees. Despite their age they are still producing three harvests worth of coffee a year. Among the coffee trees grew persimmons, vanilla, hot chili peppers, ginger and other fruits and spices, many of which were not familiar to me. I bit into a tiny red pepper and nearly breathed fire from the heat. It was then that I learned the word panas – HOT! I used that word frequently to describe the insatiable heat and the spicy Indonesian food.
After four days spent in the farmer's fields we made the trek back to Medan to visit the final processing plant and export house. The coffee is dehauled, sorted by hand, bagged and loaded into containers at this final location. We did extensive cupping and other quality control processes that were beneficial for processing managers and for me also since I knew little about qualifying green beans as defective, spoiled, cut, etc.
In Medan, I also made friends with a woman who worked at the airport and a woman at a Children Amnesty non-profit, who both spoke English. Since returning I have been in contact with both of them via email. Although they are not from the coffee growing region they give me updates via the local newspaper about the state of Aceh. I was pained to hear most recently that numerous schools have been bombed out and that the conflict has escalated despite the cease fire agreement signed in December which had made it possible for our group to travel into Aceh.
I was very aware while traveling in a predominately Muslim country (88%) that US actions were having a significant effect on people's perceptions of me and other American visitors. Some people I spoke with thought that all Americans hated Muslims. They were upset and angered by Bush's threat of attack on Iraq. Protests were held in Jakarta, including a fast that lasted for days outside the US embassy. Despite the overriding anti-American sentiment, however, it was clearly directed at our government and not us. In every community we visited we were greeted warmly and openly. The day I left Indonesia was the morning the war officially began. Since returning, my Indonesian friends have sent me emails full of anti-Bush commentary. They feel that the attack on Iraq is an attack on all Muslim people. I only hope that when I visit again the image Bush has projected to the world about our country and its policies will have improved. Until I have another opportunity, I am happy and grateful to have shared many a peaceful moment in the mountainous Gayo Highlands.