In the Golden Triangle region of Thailand, Doi Chang was once known for its opium production but since the 1980s, farmers have been turning to arabica coffee plants, which have thrived in the rich soil and cool weather.
Southeast Asia is home to remarkable treasures, including hilly areas that have proven fertile and rich beds to grow some of the world’s most flavourful and high-quality coffee beans. It may surprise you to learn that some of these areas were once productive grounds for opium plantations, the main cash crop of local communities and hill tribes.
How Coffee Production in Thailand Started
The Ban Doi Chang region, a mountainous area in the north of Thailand, is one of them. Located nearly 800 kilometres from Bangkok, this area borders Laos and Myanmar and formed part of the notorious Golden Triangle region. But these sprawling hills have been transformed since the 1980s by a joint Thai government and United Nations programme to substitute opium with other crops, including Arabica coffee.
At the time, the Thai government had outlawed opium production as part of a wider campaign to eradicate narcotics. Aside from crop substitution, programmes such as the Doi Tung Development project enabled villagers to sell coffee, clothes and paper to cope with the loss of their old livelihood.
Tristin Rogerson, the marketing and media relations coordinator with Doi Chaang Coffee Company, says the unique story of coffee in this area involves the Akha hill tribe farmers. The co-founders of Doi Chaang – a southern Thai visionary, the late Wicha Promyong, and a Canadian executive John M Darch – met in Bangkok at a coffee expo in 2006.
At this meeting, Darch learned about the challenges that farmers around Doi Chang village had faced in adapting to the crop substitution programme. The communities were deeply impoverished and marginalised, lacking access to basic economic, social and political rights.
“Despite how long they had been settled there, the majority of the tribe didn’t have state identification, which is needed for employment and access to adequate health care and education outside of Doi Chang mountain,” says Rogerson.
She says that while the royal initiative replaced the opium with coffee, damage to the environment and other issues related to opium cultivation made it difficult for the coffee to be grown successfully at first.
It took much work and investment to transform the land so that it was suitable for coffee production. Wicha’s involvement was essential, as he was well-known to the villagers.
“Khun Wicha invested his energy into helping the farmers perfect the cultivation and processing of coffee. Over time, the farmers then turned into independent coffee producers and named their creation “Doi Chaang Original Company,” explains Rogerson.
Beyond Fair Trade
This was when Darch heard the story of the villagers’ struggles. He came up with a means of growing this independent enterprise, by co-founding Doi Chaang Coffee Company in Canada as a private, family-owned and operated business.
The business evolved over the years and together with his son, John A Darch, he created a sustainable and equitable model, called the “Beyond Fair Trade” model, with which to move forward. Under this model, the farmers would own 50% of the company.
“Because besides being active in the Fair Trade community, and being certified by Fairtrade International, we have developed our own agreements and relationships with the farmers,” Rogerson says.
The farmers receive 50% of the profits from Doi Chaang Canada, while the Canadian side also pays the Fair Trade premium for Doi Chang’s green beans. The beans from Doi Chang’s farm are premium Arabica and of single-estate origin. Rogerson says they are certified organic, hand-picked, shade-grown, freshwater washed and sun-dried.
Rogerson says that the processing methods are natural to ensure authenticity and flavourful profiles, while the hilly area provides a perfect environment for cultivation.
“We grow a variety of Arabica plants under a canopy of plum, peach, pear and macadamia nut trees in altitudes between 1,200 and 1,600 metres above sea level. The fallen leaves from various fruit and nut trees create nutritious mulch for the coffee plants, providing a subtle fruit and nutty taste to the coffee cherries, creating a more complex, dense and intensely flavoured bean.”
More than a million trees have been planted in the past 10 years as a way to repopulate the forest with vegetation and wildlife. The lush trees then help provide natural shade for coffee plants. The fruits from the other trees are also sold by the Akha farmers and profits from the plum, peach and macadamia nuts are reinvested into the coffee farms.
Aside from keeping the area free of toxic chemicals, the producers have devised several methods to conserve resources. One is to use just half a litre of water to pulp 10,000 kilograms of coffee cherries. That’s a huge saving compared to the farm’s past practices of using 50 litres of water to process only 800kg of coffee cherries.
Nothing goes to waste at the coffee plantations because each year the Doi Chaang Coffee Company uses three million kilograms of composted coffee cherries as fertilisers for the crop. Rogerson explains that the green coffee beans are sent directly from the village to British Columbia, where they are roasted, packaged and sealed in high-grade valve bags for freshness.
The high quality of the beans is further validated, as the company’s registration was certified by the Geographical Indication of the European Union (EU) in 2015.
Hard Work and Responsible Consumers
The practice of fair trade is very important for a major coffee player like Doi Chaang Coffee Company because the organisation sees value in investing time and resources to meet global standards.
“We’ve seen first hand how fair trade practices can help to transform the lives of those living in farming communities. In the last 10 years Doi Chang village, now equipped with medical facilities, running water and even WiFi, has become fully self-sufficient,” explains Rogerson.
Empowering communities through the Doi Chaang Academy of Coffee is just as important. The academy helps Akha farmers and villagers from nearby areas to improve their coffee processing skills. Farmers learn about topics such as processing beans, plant selection and harvesting techniques, as well as financial management.
Rogerson notes that Thailand, like much of Southeast Asia, has developed a vibrant coffee culture over the past decade. Although the industry faces some challenges, such as high tariffs, Rogerson says the business is now self-sufficient thanks to the hard work of the Akha people and the fair trade purchases of consumers in North America.
With that in mind, Doi Chaang Coffee Company wants to carry on their work to strengthen partnerships with Thailand and bring their unique fair trade model to other farms, smallholders and co-operatives around the world.
Find out more about the Doi Chang village and purchase their coffee here.