A Storm in a Coffee Cup: Indigenous Coffee Production, Typhoon Marokat and the long way home.

Written by Chang Yu-Hsin, Translated by Sam Robbins.

Image credit: RG72, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Whether at a chain cafe in a busy part of town, from a machine in a convenience store or at a speciality coffee shop hidden in a side alley, drinking coffee every morning has become a daily ritual for many Taiwanese people. The coffee market in Taiwan is currently developing rapidly. According to the International Coffee Organisation report, Taiwan drinks 2.85 billion cups of coffee a year, which equates to roughly 200 cups per person. The coffee market in Taiwan is worth around 80 billion NTD.

Although Taiwan has now become a major coffee consumer by global standards, only about 2-3% of coffee consumed in Taiwan is produced domestically. International observers rarely even take notice of Taiwan’s domestic coffee production. In December 2015, I was a daily coffee drinker, but I had never seen a coffee tree. I took my first trip to Taiwu Township in Pintung. This area is predominantly Paiwanese, one of Taiwan’s indigenous nations. Coffee is harvested in Winter. From a road about winding mountain road about 500 meters above sea level, I could finally start to see the coffee trees growing.

Growing coffee in Taiwan can be traced back to the Japanese colonial period (1895-1949). at that time, the total area and quantity of coffee trees in Taiwan started to increase to meet the demand from Japan rapidly. In 1942, the total area of coffee trees in Taiwan was around 960 hectares. However, with the outbreak of World War II in the Pacific and Japan’s ultimate defeat and retreat from Taiwan, the Japanese domestic market for Taiwanese coffee collapsed. As many indigenous communities who had become involved in coffee cultivation didn’t consider coffee a real part of their culture, many either cut down coffee trees or let them grow unattended after the Japanese left.

Although there are many Paiwan and Drekay indigenous communities in Pintung, none saw coffee as their main source of income or key to their communities after the end of the war. However, because some wild animals in the surrounding woodlands began feeding on coffee berries from the remaining trees and thus excreted out coffee tree seedlings, coffee trees have become a constant presence. Ten years ago, when coffee from Gukeng Township in Yunlin became a highly sought after product, indigenous communities in Pintung started to plant coffee trees again and re-entered the market.

Just as more people within indigenous communities started to rediscover the value of the coffee market and enter into coffee production, the 2009 Morokat typhoon led to landslides and building collapses across many indigenous tribes in the mountain area Taiwu Township, Pintung. As a result, many were faced with the tough decision of whether to move homes or stay in place. As a result, local coffee production came to a temporary stop.

After the typhoon, indigenous communities moved into new villages constructed in the lowlands through government and non-profit organisations’ funds. The new village for the people of the Taiwu township was roughly 17 kilometres from their original home, and the journey between the two locations took about 40 minutes by motorbike. The number of resources needed to take care of and manage the coffee farms increased as transport and oil costs went up. Especially for community elders who needed to go up the mountains to take care of the coffee farms, the time and energy now required to make the journey was no small burden.

One of the reasons that many indigenous people refused to give up high-mountain coffee production after the disaster was to maintain a connection to their previous life. Working on the land passed down to them by their ancestors allowed them to maintain a relationship with it. While getting accustomed to their newly-constructed village, they didn’t have to turn their back on their previous experiences completely. As they began to accept their new lives, they could still maintain a connection with the past. In addition, coffee can be stored dry and is much less likely to decay when compared to other fruits. Such a distance between their homes and the coffee farms thus wasn’t too much of a difficulty in terms of production.

After Marokat, many indigenous communities lost their livelihoods and had to leave an area they were familiar with. In this process, coffee became a new means of sustenance for them. In addition, the migration toward the mountains was a way of reconnecting with their family. Through moving up and down the mountains, their new village slowly went from a foreign space to their hometown where they could make lives for themselves.

Once when I was in a coffee shop drinking coffee in Taiwu, a middle-aged man came in and only after talking with him for a while did I find out he was Paiwanese and a local. He wasn’t tall but very sturdy in appearance. Although December in Pintung isn’t as cold as in Northern Taiwan, like Taipei, the nights still get cold after rainfall in the mountains. However, the man, Brother Ji, seemed unbothered by the weather. He was wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt, knee-length shorts, and flip flops. He was carrying uncooked coffee beans in a ziplock bag.

Brother Ji was from Wutan village in Taiwu and worked as a construction worker before starting to grow coffee a few years ago. Although he knew nothing about coffee at first and didn’t have any equipment to use, he asked for help from everyone he could to learn the complex process of coffee production. So that night, he had brought along the beans he had pealed and dried out himself and had come to ask the shop owner to help him roast them.

Because he was busy with his construction job during the day, Brother Ji went to work on his coffee farm in his time off. “When everyone is sleeping, I’m still working in the mountains, wear a headlight, cut grass and branches, and spread fertiliser.” Because of the climate and the limitations of land available for use, most coffee farms are located on sloping hillsides. In addition, because Pintung is full of many jagged rocks, one has to be cautious even when working in the daytime. Working alone at night is a whole other matter. Listening to Brother Ji describe his work to me, I couldn’t help but ask myself, what reason would make him want to enter the coffee industry despite all these endless challenges?

“I used to work up North, and I did construction work in Taoyuan. Although you make more money up North, everything costs more too. My family is getting older, and no one cared for them, so I returned.” Brother Ji’s personal story of why he came

home reflects why many indigenous people living in cities decide to return to their hometowns. It’s better this way, and I’m going home; I feel freer this way after all. It’s not like up North, where they charge you for just breathing. There’s no way to have enough money up there.”

In the 1960s, the government actively encouraged cash crop agriculture in indigenous communities, but such cash crops often required a high initial investment in tools. Because many indigenous people could not muster the resources to get involved or had no way to turn a profit from cash crop agriculture, some decided to rent their land to people from the Han majority or to move to urban centres. In the 1980s, to improve people’s quality of life and help stimulate the national economy, the government actively promoted infrastructure construction. At this time, a large section of indigenous communities moved to cities looking for new work opportunities.

Many indigenous people found themselves involved in high-risk, intensive, low-paid work after moving to cities. This hard work, compounded by the cultural shock, made a move difficult for many indigenous people. Some indigenous people who were relatively economically stable also decided to leave their hometowns for their children’s education or other conveniences of city life. The indigenous townships experiencing population outflows became known as collectors of “the old, the kids, and the weak.”

Faced with this structural challenge, many indigenous people came to see coffee as a product with international market appeal. Compared to traditional agricultural products such as millet, tarro, pigeon peas, and coffee was seen as having a higher market value and thus more able to improve indigenous people’s economic prospects. Furthermore, if indigenous peoples could rely on coffee for their income, they wouldn’t have to leave their hometowns for work, and the problem of intergenerational cultural loss would be reduced.

Of course, returning home for indigoes people isn’t as simple and joyous as is often reported in the media. The process is often filled with struggles. As indigenous people were still figuring out the process of bean processing and roasting technology, the high cost associated with production made their homegrown coffee beans lack market competitiveness. In addition, modern production and marketing organisations are different from traditional methods, causing many difficulties. However, indigenous people’s ardent support of coffee perhaps reflects their hopes and desires to return home.

I still remember when I bumped into a historian in the township. When he heard I was researching indigenous coffee production, he directly asked my stance on the issue, “is coffee good for indigenous people?” He believed that all the indigenous people jumping on the coffee bandwagon were doing so because they thought there was a good market there. However, as indigenous coffee grows, traditional agricultural products are being left behind. As such traditional products are disappearing, indigenous people’s culture is coming under threat, and the local ecology is also likely to change.

But why are indigenous people only allowed to grow traditional crops? From the perspective of cultural preservation, coffee production has certainly changed indigenous people’s relationship with their environment to a certain extent. Perhaps there were personal reasons why the historian was asking this question, as this issue reflects the long term struggles between tradition and modernity that indigenous people find themselves in regarding their economy, environment and culture.

We can also ask ourselves, faced with all kinds of challenges, why have indigenous people not given up on coffee production? As coffee is a cash crop, I think that indigenous people’s hopes for the coffee industry and their struggles are not only an issue of how to turn a profit. Rather, they reflect a desire to connect to their roots and return home. Regardless of whether it is to do a project or as a way to find a home, coffee production has never been easy for indigenous people. But just like coffee, the best things are often filled with both bitterness and sweetness at the same time.

This article is part of a special series of translations from “Searching for Taiwan’s Flavour (尋找台灣味”). Each article is an abridged and translated version of a chapter from the book. Find all published articles here, and read the introduction to the special series by the book’s editor here.

Yu-Hsin Chang is a co-author of ” searching for Taiwan’s flavour. In addition to coffee, she uses Djulis  (Chenopodium formosanum)as a lens to observe indigenous agriculture land-use issues and climate change in Taiwan.

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