New Opportunities for Independent Small-Scale Farmers in Sumatra

Guest blog from Miguel Zamora, the Director of Coffee Innovation and Producer Relations

01/17/2013 - 6:14 PM

This guest blog post comes to us from our very own Miguel Zamora, the Director of Coffee Innovation and Producer Relations at Fair Trade USA. Miguel is focused on creating opportunities between buyers and coffee-growing communities around the world. Last week you read about his visit with small scale coffee farmers in the Lake Toba region of Sumatra. This week, Miguel talks further about the potential for these small-scale farmers who hope to access the many opportunities and benefits of Fair Trade through Fair Trade USA's new Independent Smallholder Standard (ISS).

Meeting with small-scale coffee farmers from the Mariah Dolok village to discuss Fair Trade certification
With small-scale coffee farmers from the Mariah Dolok village when we met to discuss Fair Trade certification

Last week I visited Lake Toba in Northern Sumatra, IndonesiaLake Toba is the ‘biggest crater lake in the world’ and one of the biggest lakes within an island in the world.  It originated 75,000 years ago when Mount Toba erupted in one of the biggest catastrophic events in history that covered Southeast Asia in ashes and created a mini ice age on earth.

A view of Lake Toba
A view of Lake Toba

In Indonesia, we work with cooperatives in the Aceh region, one of the most well known coffee regions in Sumatra. Cooperatives in Indonesia have had mixed results in Fair Trade. Although some of them have helped farmers to improve their coffee and lives, there have been several challenges with other cooperatives that have been suspended from or left the Fair Trade system. According to many people working in coffee here in Indonesia, cooperatives should not be considered the only form of farmer organization in this region that Fair Trade could benefit. We continue working with the cooperatives in Sumatra (by securing funds for trainings and better access to markets) and, we are also trying to work with the farmers in Sumatra so they can join Fair Trade and form farmer organizations that may better fit their specific needs.

Traditional Batak village in Samosir Island, Lake Toba
Traditional Batak village in Samosir Island, Lake Toba

The Batak people live in this region.  The Bataks are a proud and ancient group with roots in the lake. They are a very social group that places a lot of importance on education and on maintaining their traditions.    Although Indonesia is the most populated Muslim country in the world, most Batak converted to Christianity around 150 ago.  I visited producers in two communities from one of the six distinct Batak groups: the Simulungun Batak in Simulungun district.

In the villages of Mariah Dolok and Seribudolok, small-scale farmers grow on average 1-2 hectares of coffee intercropping with different products (rice, chili peppers, etc.). The rich soils in this region allow coffee to generate one of the main sources of income for these families.  The coffee from this region, when treated properly in the post-harvest period, can provide a great cup of coffee with very distinct characteristics.

Meeting with small-scale coffee farmers from the Seribudolok village to discuss Fair Trade certification
With small-scale coffee farmers from the Seribudolok village when we met to discuss Fair Trade certification

Farmers in this region are not organized in cooperatives. Rather, there are very small farmer groups (10 to 20 farmers) who are organized not to sell coffee but to work with the government on different projects.  Each farmer group represents a village.  These organizations are called Kolompok Tani and together form GAPOK TANs (communities of farmer organizations).  There is also a credit union organized by the local church. Many of the coffee farmers in the region are members of this organization. The credit union is involved in social projects and could provide a way for farmers to become organized to trade their coffee as a group.

Talking about Fair Trade at a farmer's house in Mariah Dolok
We met at one of the farmers’ house to talk about Fair Trade

A farmer in this region told me that Simalungun is “20 years behind Aceh in coffee production,” especially around infrastructure for processing coffee and access to this infrastructure for farmers.  This region has great potential for quality coffee and for Fair Trade to support farmers to improve their lives.   Several farmers and supporters identified improving access to drinkable water as a main need in the region.  Improving agricultural practices could also improve yields and quality, bringing more resources to Batak families in this region.  There are around 1,000 farmers in this region that could begin working with Fair Trade.  We might begin working with 200 and grow from there. I hope that Fair Trade can support these farmers so the Batak communities in Lake Toba can see similar benefits that farmers in Aceh and other places in the world have been able to achieve.


Special thanks to my new friends in Indonesia and especially to Leo and Lisa who showed me around this beautiful region they call home and taught me about the Bataks and their traditions.

To read the first blog post of this series, click here: Visiting Lake Toba, Sumatra

Looking Ahead

This post is part of our new Innovation Update Series. Please stay tuned as we report on both the successes and challenges involved in launching each coffee pilot, our cooperative-strengthening program Co-op Link, and our progress on Fair Trade for All as a whole. It's a unique opportunity for people to learn about the farmers and workers participating in these programs, what Fair Trade means to them, and how we can work together to build a more inclusive, collaborative approach that supports everyone in the global coffee supply chain willing to commit to a journey of sustainability, responsibility, empowerment and impact.

Learn more about Fair Trade for All

To learn more about Fair Trade Certified coffee, click here.

01/17/2013 - 6:14 PM
01/17/2013 - 2:40 PM