Last week I visited Lake Toba in Northern Sumatra, Indoesia. Lake Toba is the ‘biggest crater lake in the world’ and one of the biggest lakes within an island in the world. It originated 75,000 years ago when Mount Toba erupted in one of the biggest catastrophic events in history that covered Southeast Asia in ashes and created a mini ice age on earth.
In Indonesia, we work with cooperatives in Aceh region, one of the most well known coffee regions in Sumatra. Cooperatives in Indonesia have had mixed results in Fair Trade. Although some of them have helped farmers to improve their coffee and lives, there have several challenges with other cooperatives that have been suspended from or left the Fair Trade system. According to many people working in coffee here in Indonesia, cooperatives might not be the best form of farmer organization in this region for every case, as shown by the challenges that cooperatives have faced in the Fair Trade system. We continue working with the cooperatives in Sumatra (by securing funds for trainings and better access to markets) but, instead of trying to force an organizational structure that might not be the best in this region, we are also trying to work with the farmers in Sumatra so they can join Fair Trade and form farmer organizations that may better fit their specific needs.
The Batak people live in this region. The Bataks are a proud and ancient group with roots in the lake. They are a very social group that places a lot of importance on education and on maintaining their traditions. Although Indonesia is the most populated Muslim country in the world, most Batak converted to Christianity around 150 ago. I visited producers in two communities from one of the six distinct Batak groups: the Simulungun Batak in Simulungun district.
In the villages of Mariah Dolok and Seribudolok, small-scale farmers grow on average 1-2 hectares of coffee intercropping with different products (rice, chili peppers, etc.). The rich soils in this region allow coffee to generate one of the main sources of income for these families. The coffee from this region, when treated properly in the post-harvest period, can provide a great cup of coffee with very distinct characteristics.
Farmers in this region are not organized in cooperatives. Rather, there are very small farmer groups (10 to 20 farmers) who are organized not to sell coffee but to work with the government on different projects. Each farmer group represents a village. These organizations are called Kolompok Tani and together form GAPOK TANs (communities of farmer organizations). There is also a credit union organized by the local church. Many of the coffee farmers in the region are members of this organization. The credit union is involved in social projects and could provide a way for farmers to become organized to trade their coffee as a group.
A farmer in this region told me that Simalungun is “20 years behind Aceh in coffee production,” especially around infrastructure for processing coffee and access to this infrastructure for farmers. This region has great potential for quality coffee and for Fair Trade to support farmers to improve their lives. Several farmers and supporters identified improving access to drinkable water as a main need in the region. Improving agricultural practices could also improve yields and quality, bringing more resources to Batak families in this region. There are around 1,000 farmers in this region that could begin working with Fair Trade. We might begin working with 200 and grow from there. I hope that Fair Trade can support these farmers so the Batak communities in Lake Toba can see similar benefits that farmers in Aceh and other places in the world have been able to achieve.
Special thanks to my new friends in Indonesia and especially to Leo and Lisa who showed me around this beautiful region they call home and taught me about the Bataks and their traditions.