Coffee adventures in Indonesia

Every single day in Australia we drink our way through an average of 16 million coffees (ABS, 2014). We tend to take this brown drink pretty seriously. For some it is held up as lifeblood, the nectar of energy or good humour that punctuates their day. But how often do think about where our coffee comes from?

Every single day in Australia we drink our way through an average of 16 million coffees (ABS, 2014). We tend to take this brown drink pretty seriously. For some it is held up as lifeblood, the nectar of energy or good humour that punctuates their day. For others coffee is a hot medicine to be drunk fast, the only thing that will draw them out of bed or push them through long stretches of work. Many are connoisseurs, with their own long-winded beverage preferences to be rattled off to unfazed baristas, who have heard it all before. We gather around it, meet up for it, we warm and wake ourselves with it, and cling to it through the night when deadlines are breathing down our necks.

But how often do think about where our coffee comes from? For all the cups of coffee that we drink, all the coffee dates that lubricate our social lives, does it ever cross our mind to consider the farms, environments, ecosystems that our coffee has emerged from, or to wonder about lives of those who spend their days producing it? Sure there are little labels on the packaging that say ‘organic’ or ‘Fairtrade’ or ‘Rainforest Alliance’ and maybe we glance at these things too, but how close can this get us to the  lives and environments that produce the products we consume, and how much can they make us care?

Over the past few months I have been given the opportunity to see and experience these place and these lives right up close. The focus of my honours thesis is on the effects of Geographical Indications (GI) certification on coffee farming in Indonesia, and throughout June and July I spent most of my time on coffee farms and in the houses of Indonesian coffee farmers, learning about their livelihoods and their farming practices, their families and their own coffee preferences (a far cry from our double shot skim lattes!)

GI certification involves the registration of a place name so that it becomes a legally recognised and protected form of intellectual property. Some of the more well known GIs in the world are Champagne, Darjeeling tea and Roquefort cheese. What makes GIs different from other forms of certification like Rainforest Alliance or Fairtrade is that they are driven by the communities involved in the production of the product, and are not defined by arbitrary third party conventions or standards. The prime aim of GIs is to build a connection between the specific geographies of production (human and environmental factors) and the product itself, which, in theory, fosters a strong sense of identity and solidarity within producer communities.

GIs attempt to draw consumers into recognising and appreciating the environments and communities that have grown the product, which in the case of my study, is coffee. GI certification is considered as a means creating greater environmental outcomes within the production locality through community empowerment and capacity building. Traditionally it is the big roasting companies that accrue the vast profits of coffee trade: they buy coffee cheaply from various countries of the global south, then blend, roast and brand it in a way that will be profitable in the market of the global north. GIs, in contrast, are considered as a mechanism of ‘branding from below’ (Mancini, 2013), a way of gaining profits at the farm gate, which would otherwise be captured by big companies further down the supply chain.

My research has shown me a lot about the complexity of our vast, globalised agricultural trade networks, and the ways in which producers from the global south are working to empower themselves and their communities in the face of big business. In the places that I visited, one of the biggest challenges they faced was that large rosters and exporters refused to use the registered place name or pay the price premiums that the producers were asking for. The reason for this is that roasters and traders currently occupy a highly advantaged position within the supply chain which they are reluctant to compromise. When they don’t have to stipulate where the coffee they sell came from, these actors can be highly flexible in switching between producers, depending on who is offering the lowest prices. Problematically, this leaves producers perpetually vulnerable to the power of traders and vast changes to the prices they are offered year to year.

On top of the difficulties that come with navigating the changing global coffee market, the communities I visited also faced the challenges of low institutional capacity and inadequate access to capital. Even among local government officials and managers of the GI, there was uncertainty about how to effectively gain recognition for the quality and unique attributes of their coffee, which translated into limited participation in the GI by the broader community. While some groups in these communities have worked hard to have their name officially registered and are trying create a brand around their coffee, becoming well known enough to attract a price premium will be a long process for them, as will building GIs that are inclusive and fair.

I wish that I could say that my time in Indonesia provided me with answers about how we can directly empower local communities through our coffee consumption, but what it made me realise is that such simple answers don’t really exist. I’m not just going to tell you to go out and start buying coffee that has been registered as a GI because I came to see that these systems are just as problematic as many other certification schemes, with powerful traders and producers still disproportionately capturing profits. What I have come back with is an appreciation of the importance of research such as this, which reveals the complex and unequal relations within global markets, contextualises them in the lives of real people, and works towards empowering, inclusive and sustainable solutions.