Golden Triangle Shade Grown Coffee

Times are changing in the Golden Triangle, the region in Southeast Asia famous for growing poppies for heroin. Farmers are switching to coffee!  Voice of America reports the some farmers drop poppies for coffee beans in this region and why.

For 54-year-old farmer Long San, growing opium makes simple economic sense.

He started planting poppies – which produce the resin that can be manufactured into heroin – eight years ago when the market for his traditional cash-crop collapsed. Like most people in Long Tway village, in the steep hills of Myanmar’s southern Shan State, he used to plant his fields with cheroot leaves, which are used to roll cigars.

“After I switched to opium I could make about $2,500 (3 million kyat) a year,” he said. “With cheroot leaves I was only making $250 (300,000 kyat).”

Despite the windfall, Long San and other farmers in this area interviewed by VOA now say that opium’s inconsistent yields, the soil erosion caused by deforesting the hills to plant poppies, and the threat of government eradication programs mean they are willing to abandon the illicit crop.

Since late last year, the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has been recommending coffee as the replacement.

We know that when coffee farmers use the sorts of sustainable methods used for organic coffee that soil erosion is prevented. Sustainable income is more likely when the government is not going to come in and destroy your crop in drug enforcement raids. Will Golden Triangle shade grown coffee be good?

Coffee in Indochina

Last year we wrote about coffee in Vietnam. The highlands of Vietnam, Laos and Burma (Myanmar) are natural areas for growing coffee.

Vietnam is the second greatest coffee producer in the world. Only Brazil grows more coffee. But Vietnam grows primarily Robusta coffee as opposed to Arabica coffee grown throughout the Americas. Robusta coffee has more coffee per bean and is a more bitter coffee than Arabica. Thus when you ask for coffee in Vietnam you always get it with a layer of sweetened condensed milk layered on top. The drink is very strong and very sugary. Coffee in Vietnam is served hot or cold.

Coffee was introduced to Vietnam in 1857 when the French were the colonial masters of French Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos). The costal highlands that run the length of this 1000 mile long country are ideal for coffee production. Vietnam was reunified in 1975 at the end of the French colonial period and then the Vietnam War. The government promoted coffee production and exports. By the 21st century coffee was only surpassed by rice as a Vietnamese export.

As the government works to subsidize coffee production in the Golden Triangle as well as works to eradicate poppy production the Golden Triangle should be able to produce comparable amounts of shade grown coffee to Laos and Vietnam.

Preserving the Rain Forest

In our article about coffee in Laos we mentioned that cooperatives that are responsible for much of the organic coffee production.

Traditionally coffee in this area has been grown by tried and true organic methods although in the last generation more “modern” production techniques have also been introduced. Nevertheless, businesses such as the Jhai Coffee Farmers Co-operative and retailers such as Canadian owned Joma Bakery work with local growers and continue to produce and sell organic whole bean coffee grown in the highlands of Laos. Although four fifths of the coffee grown in the Laotian highlands is Robusta much of Laotian organic coffee is Arabica. In 2005 Jhai Coffee Farmers Co-operative was certified as a producer of USDA organic coffee which has helped local farmers command a higher price for their beans and helped them provide a higher standard of living for their workers whose income is almost entirely derived from the coffee harvest. The cooperative produces virtually all of its Laotian organic coffee in the shade thus maintaining a sustainable environment for coffee production, habitat and soil maintenance, and avoidance of contaminants that commonly are found in regular coffees.

Our wish is that Golden Triangle shade grown coffee is able to compete economically with other growers in the region and produce high quality organic coffee.

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