August 18, 2017
Lightly edited team email in the early days of Enveritas
The past two weeks have been an inspiring and logistically demanding bout of travel. I don’t usually write trip reports, but I have some stories and photos that I hope you’ll enjoy. Warning: this is a long email.
China’s coffee industry is growing fast. A lot of growth is happening in the borderlands near Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand, aka the “golden triangle”. Historically, it’s an area notorious for poppy / opium / heroin production. Now, it’s apparently one of the world’s largest producers of methamphetamines. It’s also a hotspot for human trafficking.
I spent two days in this area. My trip was arranged by “Joseph”, a coffee entrepreneur originally from Australia but living in China for the past 20 years. He lives in the last town of any significance before the Myanmar border. He put me up in a farmhouse outside town. Here’s a view out my window.
The landscape reminded me of the intensely cultivated hillsides of Bali or Rwanda. As always on origin trips, you drive past markets, traditional houses, people waving, cute children, etc. It leads you to assume that what you see is all there is, a bias the psychologist / economist Daniel Kahneman calls “WYSIATI”.
As we drove around, Joseph pointed out coffee farms where the owners had been executed for drug activities. We went to a wet mill and afterwards he told me the manager was an addict. We had pour overs at a new cafe. Apparently, the man running it made his money doing “seriously bad things” across the border. Now he was operating cleanly as a trader and cafe owner.
Joseph’s wife was a doctor and child trauma specialist. Her job involved providing psychological support to boys whose parents had sent them, proudly I was told, to fight in the Burmese civil war and girls who’d been trafficked for sex work. Joseph and his wife once housed and provided a “transition space” for a man who was completely broken after being part of an undercover operation that required him to pose as a sex tourist for several years in order to infiltrate a trafficking ring.
These are shocking stories, but I don’t want to paint an overly dark picture of the place I visited. In fact, most farmers would have done very well against our standards: wages are fair, yields are high, farmers are investing in quality. And, I was told, the issues related to drugs and the rights of children are getting better.
But it reminded me that there’s a middle ground we need to get to in our work, between the level of “what you see is all there is” and the level that is only known by insiders.
I never would have picked up on these issues had I not been with someone who knew the area deeply, who was neutral and uniquely qualified to see things from multiple perspectives. Moreover, it took trust (hours of driving around, eating meals together, etc.) to get there with him.
By design, our approach prevents us from hearing about the child who’s not there or the farmer / drug manufacturer who’s been executed. Our methodology gives us a certain distance from these types of issues: we only look at coffee; we have tightly-scripted definitions to evaluate against; we only look within a random sample. We don’t ask farmers if they cultivate poppies on a secret farm somewhere.
That’s probably how it should be. There’s no causal link between these practices (decades old) and the sourcing activities of coffee companies (a recent phenomenon, in Yunnan at least). I don’t think they should be picked up on by our surveys.
On the other hand, I do worry that we might be overly naive about what’s happening, failing to get deep enough. This, and the risk that we get shut out because people don’t want us probing too deep. We have to go deeper but we can’t go too far.
The question “how do we go deeper” is not the same as “what do we tell our clients.” A definition like “the worst forms of child labor” gives us the power to turn a complex issue into a 1 or 0 under the pretense of international norms. While this is what our clients will ultimately see, I believe it is our responsibility not to condemn practices we don’t fully understand.
All this to say, my time in Yunnan with Joseph reinforced that even the darkest issues we encounter in communities we work in are not black and white.
PNG couldn’t have been more different from China. Whereas China’s coffee industry seems to have sprung up overnight, PNG’s has been languishing for a quarter century.
There are so many contradictions. On the one hand, farms are extremely orderly - plots are rectangular, tree densities are uniform. On the other hand, it looks abandoned - massive stumps rotting away with a few spindly branches fighting for survival.
One thing that’s important to know about PNG is that, even today, there is no road connecting the capital, Port Moresby, with the highlands, where all the food is grown. The country’s internal transport relies on ships and airplanes.
Before traveling, I borrowed a copy of the Highlands Trilogy. It’s a 6-hour documentary about the first explorers in the PNG highlands, the Leahy Brothers.
The Leahy’s were Australian brothers, Mick and Dan, who came to PNG in the 1930s looking for gold. They led an expedition into the rugged highlands and “discovered” a million people living there. The documentary includes incredible footage of the first contact between the locals and the Leahy’s. As these stories tend to go, relations with the natives quickly soured… That’s part one of the documentary: First Contact.
A year or so after first contact, a baby shows up in a village who looks, um, a little paler than the locals. His father, Mick Leahy, refused to acknowledge him. So the boy was raised like any other child in the tribe.
The boy’s uncle, Dan Leahy, who continued to live in the highlands (and had fathered several mixed race children of his own), found this unconscionable. When the boy was 8 or so, Dan brought him under his wing. He named him Joe and sent him to school in Australia.
Joe returned to the highlands after school. WWII had ended and Dan was growing coffee now. Joe helped Dan and then eventually established a coffee farm of his own.
Joe did really well during the 1970s (coffee prices were high). He built a nice farmhouse, bought a Mercedes, etc. He also continued to integrate with his native tribe. When the leader of the tribe died, the community asked Joe to assume the role of “big man”. He accepted. This is the plot of part two of the documentary: Joe Leighy’s Neighbors.
In part three, Black Harvest, Joe and the village enter a joint venture to establish a new coffee plantation. Under the terms of the deal, the villagers provide the land and Joe provides the management. The documentary captures the deal as it’s drawn up. Amazingly, the filmmakers come back 5 years later (1991) when the coffee is mature to pick up the story.
1991 was an important year in the history of coffee. The International Coffee Agreement had recently collapsed and prices plummeted. Joe, who had promised riches to the village, is unable to pay the going rate for harvest labor (and still make his loan payments). He has to plead with his neighbors to pick coffee for a pittance.
But his partners refuse to work. The coffee cherries turn black. The bank applies pressure. Joe gets frustrated. Meanwhile, a war begins against the neighboring tribe. The coffee farm becomes a battleground, with spears and arrows impaling people.
After multiple attempts to save the farm, Joe eventually gives up and leaves the country. The fighting continues; nearly 100 people are killed, the farm is looted, villagers’ houses are burned to the ground.
This is where the documentary about Joe Leahy ends. Now my story about his cousin, Bryan Leahy, begins.
Bryan Leahy was one of Dan’s children. Bryan, like Joe, has a New Guinean mother, was raised in the highlands and educated in Australia.
Bryan grew up on Dan’s coffee farm. In the documentary, Joe is seen going to Dan’s farmhouse multiple times to seek advice. When Dan died in 1992, Bryan took over the family farm.
I was able to spend a day and a half with Bryan and his team (he sells to Peet’s). We visited Dan’s old farm, walked around the coffee trees, saw the names of workers scratched into the wood inside the mill. Very little had changed. The equipment was over a half century old but still operational.
We went to the farmhouse, too. It was incredible seeing it, immediately recognizable from the film, with old pictures of Dan on the wall.
I was given a thick guestbook to sign. Before signing, I flipped back to the first page in the book: 1948, the year the farm was established. It sent chills down my spine. I was holding the history of the country’s coffee sector in my hands.
In 1949, G. T. Bustin visited from Cape Haitian, West Indies. Haiti was a major coffee producer back then. Could the first seedlings have come from Haiti?
I saw the names of missionaries, priests, traders, and agricultural workers who visited the farm repeatedly over the years. The names of various Leahy’s started appearing, some from PNG, some from Australia. The Leahy children all signed their names when they learned to write. Their parents and cousins wrote comments like “good to be home” and “beats city living”.
The first coffee buyers (with addresses in Japan) seemed to show up in the 1960s. Legendary coffee traders like Henry Volkart (of Volcafe) and Peter Moser appeared later on.
In 1992, Dan’s funeral is recorded in the book. Hundreds of guests paid their respects, many with names I recognized from the early days of the farm.
In 2005, Chris Jordan’s name appears. He was at Starbucks at the time and was a mentor for me when he worked at TechnoServe in East Africa. Shirin Moayyad, then the buyer at Peet’s and a close friend of TechnoServe, appears in 2008 (and again in 2011). Pete Rogers is there too. Tom Owen (of Sweet Maria’s), Tim Hill (of Counter Culture), Darrin Daniel (then of Stumptown), Christy Thorns (of Allegro), and Max Fulmer (of Royal) all appear in 2011. Phil Maloney, the current buyer of Peet’s, and Taylor Mork, from Crop to Cup, appear in 2014. There were other buyers, mostly from Australia and Japan, whose names I didn’t recognize.
It was humbling to be signing a book that had so much history in its pages.
That night I had dinner with Bryan and his wife at a mountain lodge with views over the Waghi Valley. The lodge had photos from the colonial times and I asked Bryan if there were any pictures of his father or uncles up there. He looked and couldn’t find any.
Then he asked if I’d seen the First Contact documentary.
I’d been very curious to hear his view on the film, whether he thought it was accurate, what was left out, etc. But I was a bit nervous to ask. His family was not always portrayed well, especially as views regarding imperialism and racial equality have evolved considerably since the films were made.
But Bryan was very happy to talk about it. In fact, he seemed impressed that I had spent 6 hours watching an obscure documentary. (It can only be purchased as a DVD set from an NGO in Australia for $850. And it is rather slow - it took me a month to get through.) He said the film was an accurate portrayal of what happened.
I asked him what happened to Joe after the filming. Bryan shook his head and said he’s alive, nearly 80, living on the farm. Things didn’t work out for him in Australia. He had the bank debt hanging over him, so he returned and tried to restore the farm.
It didn’t work out though. He poured more money into it. That didn’t work either. Throughout the years, he grew increasingly bitter about the coffee price, about the village not fulfilling their end of the bargain, about the government never doing anything to fix the roads or provide electricity. Eventually, his savings were depleted. He was unable to manage the farm. He never caught another break.
In contrast to the charming farmhouse that Bryan inherited from his father, Joe’s farmhouse was falling apart. It had holes in the roof, replaced with thatch. There was no electricity or running water. The farm was overgrown with weeds. His son, Jim, tried to convince him to leave the farm, to move in with him. But Joe held out. In Bryan’s words, he was a broken man.
I asked Bryan if he ever imagined an alternate history, where coffee prices had stayed high and that first harvest had delivered the riches that Joe promised the village. Bryan said he learned two things from Joe. First, never promise anything. The expectations of others will always be higher than yours. Second, always stay neutral. Power will inevitably be turned upside down and when it does you can’t change alliances.
Race was important in both their cases. Having a white father enabled Joe to assume power in the community. In Bryan’s case, having a white father was the only way for him to maintain neutrality.
The second supplier I visited was a collection of large plantations managed by a foreign group. The estates are now part of a large holding company, the owner of which is apparently one of the wealthiest families in Southeast Asia.
The management team took good care of me, but it was no secret that relations with workers and the local community were strained. I was picked up in a car with armored windows. The general manager (who I didn’t get to meet) had served in the Australian military and instituted a training camp for the farms’ security teams. One of the farm managers mentioned that they spent 35% of their operating budget on security.
After a cupping and tour of the facilities, I asked them if they had any experience with certification. The manager flashed me a smile and said, “Yes, but we’ll never do it again!” So I asked for the story…
They were one of the early farms to get certified, I believe around 2008. They spent a long time and invested considerable resources in preparation. They cleaned up their chemical practices, eliminating Gramoxone (paraquat), and put up the necessary policies and signage. They built a nursery of indigenous tree species. They put windows in workers’ houses (the local custom is to have houses with no windows so that smoke could be kept inside and keep the house warm). They built bathing areas for workers, importing the fixtures from Australia (even though workers preferred to use the river). They imported the best quality protective equipment, which was ventilated so that workers wouldn’t get too hot while spraying in the farm.
Finally, the audit was booked. An auditor flew in from abroad. Given all the activity that preceded the audit, it was likely that all 3,000 workers (plus the neighboring community) knew something important was about to happen.
It’s the first morning of the audit. John drives through the farm gates with the auditor. A man walks out in front of them, naked, except for a tattered protective uniform, holding a pesticide sprayer and yells out, “Good morning my boss!”
The auditor is shocked. John is baffled. He says he swears the man doesn’t work for the farm. They ask the man to hop in the car and go straight to the office. They eventually work out that the man didn’t work on the farm, he lived right next to it. He had lost a contract to supply the gravel for the road and so this was his way of settling the score.
The audit went on for 10 days. The fixtures in the bathing area were looted. When they went to the river, it was full of people bathing in it. Outside the farm, workers were seen wearing their brand new ventilated protective uniforms, riding motorcycles; they wanted to wear the gear all the time it was so comfortable.
Somehow they passed the audit.
A few years later, the international certifier tightened its standards and specified new minimum requirements for worker housing. The windows that John had installed before the first audits were frequently being boarded up by the workers because they wanted to keep the smoke inside. To meet the new standard, new housing would need to be constructed for all permanent workers.
John presented a plan to his management for building wooden houses with windows, modern kitchens and partitioned sleeping areas for all workers over the course of three years. They would build new houses and relocate one third of the workers each year.
The workers liked the first batch of new houses, but there was quarreling over who would get them. The farm intervened and selected who would get the houses.
The people who were not selected burned down the new houses. They also set fire to the nursery of indigenous trees.
John gave up building the new houses. They opted not to continue with the international certifier. They looked into another scheme, but decided against it.
When I was there, they still had some of the old warning signs and policies up, though they were all in English. The fancy protective uniforms were long gone. They’d gone back to using paraquat because their weeds were resistant to glyphosate and alternative herbicides are not available in PNG.
Would they pass our verification? Clearly not. Is there a pathway to improvement? I’m not sure. If their buyer requires it, do they participate? Do we become the gatekeeper? Is paraquat use justified in such a setting, where nothing else is viable let alone available? Does the introduction of an observer like us create even more problems for the farm and the workers? Is this naturally what happens in PNG when a businessman worth $500 million buys a farm with 3000 workers on it?
I went back to my $140/night hotel room that was full of cockroaches and thought about it.
I started writing these reflections as I flew out of PNG yesterday, hoping that in writing them down I’d be able to find some kind of resolution. But now I’m at the end and I don’t think there’s any resolution except to say that things are complicated.
Rather than shy away from complexity, we should go after it. If there’s a way for us to unravel this complexity, that builds trust and creates obvious value for producers, then I say we go for it. But in PNG at least, these are not things we can parachute into.