Most people know the Akha people from tourism brochures for Northern Thailand. They are one of the most colorful of all ethnic minorities with their extensively embroidered clothing and elaborate head dresses.
According to many sources, the ancestors of the Akha people moved down south from the Tibetan highlands and settled in what is now southwestern China around 2000 years ago.
The Akha are excellent growers of wet rice, masters of turning steep mountain sides into fertile rice land. In addition to their traditional crops of rice, vegetables and beans, coffee plants were introduced to the Akha people in Thailand in the past few decades.
The climate of the northern Thai mountains is extremely suited to growing Arabica coffee beans, the most sought after coffee bean in the world, indispensable for making real espresso. Combined with the agricultural skills of the ethnic groups who live in these mountains, including the Akha, production has grown significantly in recent years, up from around 500 tons of Arabica in 1991 to more than 4000 tons 20 years later.
In 2007, 14 Akha families of Maejantai village set up the social enterprise: “Akha Ama Coffee”. Instead of selling the green beans to middlemen for a low price, the families decided to process and market the coffee themselves, ensuring a better price for their product. Lee Ayu Chuepa, co-founder of Akha Ama Coffee, was a Terra Madre delegate in 2014. He is part of the Slow Food Indigenous Terra Madre network and part of the Indigenous youth network.
The families also decided to change to an organically sustainable system of mixed multi-cropping system for their coffee, reducing the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides. The coffee plants, which grow up to about the height of a human, are now grown in between larger fruit trees and a wide variety of vegetables.
This system is beneficial to the soil ecology, produces humus, stabilizes hillsides against erosion and retains moisture during the dry season. Due to constant crop rotation, pests are less liable to negatively affect the plants. Although seen as a “new” system of agriculture in the West, it is actually very close to the system that the Akha people have used throughout their whole history, to work in cooperation with nature, instead of against it.
Today, the project is going from strength to strength, with the quality of Akha Ama coffee recognized internationally: it was selected for the World Cup Tasters Championship by the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe in 2010 and 2011.
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