This is what we try to do daily at the Akha Ama coffee factory. My name is Ayu and I am a young coffee farmer and a social entrepreneur. I belong to the Akha indigenous community living in the Maejantai, in the Northern Thailand. I grew up in a small village where people used to provide everything for themselves, from building houses and tools to foods by doing subsistence agriculture.
I was lucky because my parents worked hard to give me the chance to study. Later on, whilst working for an NGO, which supports village kids by teaching them how to build social enterprises, I understood that was my mission too!
Making a living as a coffee farmer is not easy. So I went back to my village and started a social business, a coffee factory dealing with the whole value chain, from the seed to the coffee bean, to avoid middlemen and maximise income for the farmers. We apply integrated agriculture and agroforestry to grow coffee and other foods such as cherries, peaches and persimmons. Thus, aside from the coffee we sell, we also have food to eat. These production systems allow us to gain twice: we earn an income to support our livelihoods whilst growing our food and preserving a resilient land which ensures long-term food security and the continuity of our income-generating activities. Moreover, in a healthy forest we can find plenty of useful plants which thrive without any human intervention, from mushrooms to bamboos and the plants used in traditional medicine: if you treat the forest well, the forest will treat you!
This is what I believe in, and what made me join the Slow Food movement, whose mission is to promote this kind of sustainable agriculture and to support and protect the work of small producers.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case in our area and elsewhere in Thailand: in this age globalization farmers need higher incomes to provide for their families’ needs. Thus, they start producing higher quantities of lower-quality products, shifting to monocultures, deforesting and using chemicals, damaging local ecosystems and lowering their resilience. We experienced this three years ago, in 2014, when we had an unprecedentedly bitter cold. Crops were heavily damaged: we lost more than 60% of coffee plants and the whole yield was affected; many farmers struggled to get by. Yet, this fact has made people aware of the importance of biodiversity in maintaining ecosystem resilience: they started providing shelter for the coffee crop by growing canopies like avocado trees, macadamia nut trees, stone fruits trees, tea and many other different vegetables. It also showed how monocultures are more vulnerable and less nutritious for coffee, not to mention that integrated farming and agroforestry provide better revenue opportunities.
Healthy, biodiverse forests are more able to adapt to climate change. So this is our daily attempt to mitigate and adapt to climatic changes. And we are planning to do more! We are building a learning space in Chiangmai, where our coffee factory is located, for students, visitors and farmers to hold workshops and talk about our climate-friendly agricultural approach. This space will be combined with a social garden where the workers at the factory can grow native seeds and a kitchen to cook traditional indigenous dishes and preserve local knowledge.
Once a year, we also organize what we call Coffee Journeys, where interested people and tourists from Thailand and beyond can take part in visits to plantations and meet the farmers. It is really rare to get to know the people and the places behind the products we buy; and this helps us understand their real value.
We believe that sharing knowledge and information is the best way to raise-awareness about pressing issues like climate change. After all, “Coffee is just a bridge, which leads us to understand what sustainable living means!”
Slow Food has launched Menu for Change, the first international communication and fundraising campaign to highlight the nexus between food production and climate change.
#MenuForChange #EatLocal #SlowFood