The Gayo area, comprising the regencies of Central Aceh (including its chief city, Takengon) and Bener Meriah, has a very different geography from most other parts of Aceh. With relatively low temperatures and rain falling between 113 and 160 days a year, this high plateau at the base of Gunung Leuser is very fertile. The local people make good use of these natural blessings by raising crops, especially Arabica coffee, which accounts for 95% of the region’s income.
Developing Organic Arabica Coffee in Gayo
Everywhere you go in Gayo, you are surrounded by the fragrant aromas of coffee – the raw red berries, the dried beans, or the roasted and ground coffee powder. This 74-hectare green expanse of coffee plantations is owned mostly by smallholders. The coffee is famous for its high quality: rich and long-lasting, with well-balanced acidity.
Coffee has been cultivated in Gayo since the Dutch colonial era, and over 53,000 households now grow coffee as their main source of income. And Gayo is still the largest producer of Arabica coffee in Indonesia and, indeed, in Southeast Asia.
The finest Arabica coffee is organically grown. As might be expected, organic coffee is a bit more expensive, and the longer it has been aged, the more sought-after it becomes. In New York, organic Arabica is 25% more expensive that other standard coffees on the international market, and organic Gayo coffee is among the world’s best Arabica.
These achievements are due in no small part to the excellent management resulting from cooperation among coffee producers, NGOs and the community to develop and expand the production of organic Arabica coffee.
One of the largest and oldest coffee companies in the region is PT Genap Mupakat Gayo Specialty Coffee (GMGSC) in Bener Meriah. Since the initial plan for cooperation between Indonesia and the Netherlands government in 1981, the company has focused on upgrading the quality of its Arabica coffee, through support of technology, investment, and knowledge about growing and distribution methods.
PT GMGSC and its products under the Gayo Specialty Coffee label have earned six coffee export licenses issued by agencies in several countries: Fairtrade from Germany, JAS from Japan, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), UTZ from the Netherlands, Rainforest from Costa Rica, and Uskapeh from Jamaica.
These licenses not only represent high awards for PT GMGSC but also help maintain standards for continuous improvement of the factory’s coffee processing. For example, the Fairtrade Labeling Organization Certifier sets world coffee prices; with its certification, PT GMGSC can continue to sell its organic Arabica coffee for a minimum price of Rp. 23.500 per kg even when the world coffee price drops.
Another requirement for this certificate is that PT GMGSC’s proceeds must be enjoyed by all parties involved in its production – the cooperative, collectors, farmers’ groups, and the farmers themselves. From the sales proceeds, US$ 0.22 per kg is set aside for social welfare and development programs.
Similarly, UTZ requires its exporters to return part of the premium to the farmers. PT GMGSC currently works with around 4,000 farmers who cultivate 3,969 hectares of land in 40 villages through the Tunas Indah cooperative.
“The certificates are constantly being renewed, so our company is subject to inspection at any time,” said PT GMGSC’s Director Azzohir Mogen, explaining what makes the company so special.
Of the organic coffee it produces, in 2008 (through November) PT GMGSC exported 90%, over 30,000 tons, as dry coffee beans to the US, Europe, Japan, Australia and Canada, supplying around 15% of the world market demand for organic Arabica. The coffee it markets within Indonesia is in the form of ground coffee.
The development and upgrading of organic Gayo Arabica coffee is also supported by NGOs, such as the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA)-USAID which works with the Baitul Qiradh Baburrayyan cooperative in Takengon. During the Aceh conflict, coffee production was disrupted; much of the productive land was left idle or even damaged, and many farmers fled. After the conflict ended, farmers gradually returned to their villages, but they lacked the wherewithal to resume proper coffee production.
NCBA, working with the local government and the community, helped farmers rehabilitate their plantations. From 36 farmers at the beginning, they are now working with 7000 members.
Only certain farmers are allowed to join; they have to be certified as following proper organic farming procedures. But it’s possible for uncertified farmers to become members; NCBA provides training to farmers, and once they have mastered the proper methods, they can be certified. Farmers who are certified members can sell their high-quality coffee beans to NCBA at 15% over market prices. This is just one of the benefits for the farmers.
“Once they saw how the land rehabilitation had succeeded, farmers were lining up to become members. So we’re still thinking about how to accommodate them all,” said Joselito Bombeta, NCBA’s Enterprise Development Advisor.
NCBA also manages nurseries; they operate 36 venues in Central Aceh and Bener Meriah, with a total of around 2.5 million seedlings.
It has also developed distribution markets for this 100% organic coffee, with foreign buyers in such places as New Zealand, France and the UK. A majority of NCBA’s organic Arabica coffee is sold to the Starbucks chain.
NCBA also helps manage the sorting process. The sorting rooms, once idle, are busy again with noisy sorting machinery and the nimble hands of workers. This cooperation helped produce 1,500 cubic tons of coffee in 2008.
Research for Gayo Coffee Varieties
Research is an important part of the efforts to upgrade the quality of Gayo coffee. The Gayo Test Plot in Pondok Gajah, Bener Meriah, under the Department of Agriculture, is a center for seedling cultivation and research into new varieties.
In a recent development two years ago, this facility recommended three new types for cultivation: TimTim, Borbor and B8. These types resist disease, live long, and maintain steady production levels with standard care to produce excellent aroma and proper acidity. The test plot continues to investigate new varieties and announce its results to the public in Gayo.
Despite these significant achievements through cooperation in the organic coffee business, Gayo needs to continue and expand its efforts to bring even greater prosperity to the local people and more extensive recognition abroad. The average production level for Gayo coffee is round 700 kg per hectare per year, bringing in a total of between Rp 1.2 and 1.5 trillion per year. This figure could still be improved on, for the benefit of the 300,000 people of Gayo.13