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Little Bean, Fairly Big Impact: Beyond Fair Trade: How One Small Coffee Company Helped Transform a Hillside Village in Thailand.


Beyond Fair Trade: How One Small Coffee Company Helped Transform a Hillside Village in Thailand

Mark Pendergast, Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2015, 270 pages.

In Beyond Fair Trade, Mark Pendergrast focuses on Inow tine Doi Chaang Coffee Company--a joint venture between the Akha people in Northern Thailand and a former Canadian mining venture capitalis t--has impacted the lives of tribal people living in the village of Doi Chang.

The Akha are a hill tribe that, over several hundred years, has been pushed and pulled throughout the "Golden Triangle" between Burma, Yunnan province in China, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. The book starts out with an extensive look at what is known of them from oral history (the Akha have no written language) and the anthropological record. It delves into their traditional way of making a living, their culture and spiritual beliefs, family and gender relations, relation with neighbouring tribes and how they've been impacted in recent decades by globalization and nation-state politics.

A big part of the story is how the Akha, along with other hill tribes, found it opportune to grow opium poppies as a survival cash crop. From the 1950s to the '80s, the CIA along with corrupt military and police officials were encouraging opium cultivation. In the meantime, the Thai government made quite a show of stamping out the trade, while a blind eye was turned to the corrupt entities that benefitted from it.

In the early 1980s, the Thai government and international aid agencies began encouraging the Akha and other tribes to grow alternative crops, including coffee. However, most ofthese proved to be unviable. In spite of this, Doi Chang village leader, Piko Saedoo, persisted with the coffee trees long after most other farmers in the area had abandoned the crop. Eventually Wicha Promyong, a non-Akha Thai, described by those who knew him as part hippie/ part Buddhist, and another Thai, agronomist Patchanee Suwanwisolkit, came to the rescue of the fledgling coffee operation.

Another significant contributor to the success of Doi Chaang was Canadian mining entrepreneur, John Darch. At one point, Darch is described by a colleague as "honest as can be, his integrity is super important to him, and his word is everything." Darch fortuitously met and was recruited by Promyong. Darch found Promyong's vision and charisma irresistible. Soon, they began focusing together on making Doi Chaang a global company where the Akha would retain 51 percent ownership and would use Darch's help in distributing Doi Chaang beans. Darch and Promyong believed the beans were very high quality because they were grown in unique climatic conditions. The beans would be roasted and retailed in Canada, as well as sold in other parts of the world.

Promyong's vision was to plough a certain amount of the revenue back into the Akha portion of the business, and to use the rest to enhance health and education services and to upgrade local people's knowledge of coffee growing and processing. However, before we get to the meeting of Darch and Promyong, and the founding of the partnership corporation, there is a lengthy description of Darch's life and career. While Darch never fully ceased his work in mining, Doi Chaang became his passion and obsession. Promyong's life is described at length as well.

The Doi Chaang Coffee Company has two partners--the Akha growers and the Canadian group of companies that arrange the roasting and do the retailing. Although Darch claims that the Canadian partners are "sharing the risk" with the Akha growers, in actual fact, the risk is all on the Canadian side. The companies not only agreed to purchase a set number of tonnes of beans each year, but they also agreed to pay a set price regardless of world coffee commodity prices. Pendergrast goes at length into the trials and tribulations that the Canadian partner companies faced in getting the beans into retail stores, the institutional sector and coffeehouses--and how difficult it was for them to make a profit. This is one of the more engaging parts of the book. It's an epic struggle that seemed almost doomed to fail.

Several chapters at the end involve the author himself going to visit the community in the aftermath of Promyong's sudden death. In addition to assessing the ability of the Akha leaders to carry on in Promyong's absence, Pendergrast also visits other coffee operations in the same general area not necessarily aligned with Promyong's initiative. In fact, he finds that Promyong had a number of detractors and that he made certain decisions that alienated other growers and processors.

Though an interesting book, it has its flaws. There are numerous personalities, but no index. Unless one has a photographic memory, one must constantly flip back through to try to find the first occurrence of a specific individual's name to check for context. The initial section on the Akha is also rather long before we get into the origins of the coffee company itself.

In his epilogue, Pendergrast notes that the concept of "beyond fair trade" (Doi Chaang's motto) shows local growers and processors retaining most of the control, and enjoying much of the benefit of the value added, rather than just selling their beans to a foreign buyer. This was Promyong's original vision, and what attracted John Darch. Indeed, the village became something of a boomtown as new jobs were created and young people no longer had to move to the big city to find jobs or, in the case of young women, work in the towns as prostitutes.

On the other hand, the newfound prosperity has led to an increase in congestion, a rapid rise in land values, and some people spending their money on gambling, drugs, satellite dishes and SUVs. What will the long-term impact be of these trends on Akha cultural integrity? This is one village that has largely been lifted out of poverty, but where it is going in the longer term is hard to foresee.

Don Alexander, a professor of Geography at Vancouver Island University and director of the New City Institute, writes extensively on issues of urban

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Author:Alexander, Don
Publication:Alternatives Journal
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2016
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