Karo Coffee Culture (2016 – 2018)

A cup of coffee has its own history. The bean is being planted, harvested and processed by people who rarely recognized by industrial chain. Since ancient colonialism, when coffee became one of the primary global commodities, the life of farmers and workers have always been anonymous and unknown.

In 2016 and 2017, I visited Tanah Karo in North Sumatera, Indonesia, one of places where legendary Sumateran coffee is produced. Using documentary photo approach, I traced the supply chain of Sumatera coffee trading and examine how fair trade and traceability applied by farmers and coffee industry in the area. When the 3rd wave of coffee industry demands those two ideal concepts, the real situation is dynamic, complex and facing many challenges.

The life of coffee farmers in Karo is intertwined by series of invisible hand, i.e. free market, climate change and changing landscape. Within free market, the farmers still depended upon middlemen and price fluctuation. With little knowledge in post-harvesting process and have no direct access to end buyers, selling raw coffee beans to the market at low prices is the only option available for majority of farmers.

The other challenges come from climate change as weather anomaly bring longer dry or rain season and create crop failures and pest attack. The regular eruption of Mount Sinabung, that happens since 2010, also force the farmers to postpone outdoors drying process when eruption is occur. During this delay, farmers should struggle to make ends meet. To survive, farmers sell horticultural plants, farm livestock and work in other job to get cash income.

Reflecting on this reality, it might be true to what Andrea Illy, a famous coffee businessman, wrote, “For some multinationals, it [economic crisis] was simply a matter of difficult economic circumstances, but for laborers in some countries it meant surviving almost at a subsistence level, if not actually being reduced to starvation”.

In this combination of contemporary climate change and traditional sweatshop, the concept of 3rd wave coffee movement: fair trade, sustainability and other concepts are hardly be understood by farmers. Yet, a wave has its potential momentum that will eventually release great energy in a perfect time. Until it will come, what they can do now is continuing to survive with what they can do; to keep floating in a silent wave; or keep rolling like Sisyphus with his stone.