By Win Wan Nur D.I Aceh, Sumatera, Indonesia
In the Indonesian Special Province of Aceh, situated at the northwestern extreme of Sumatera Island, the Gayo farmers (indigenous Acehnese who inhabit the valleys of the Gayo Mountain Range) have been growing Arabica coffee for well over 100 years. The ‘Gayo Highlands’ constitute much of the mountainous interior of the Central Aceh District, where altitudes range from approximately 700 meters to 2500 meters above sea level. The town of Takengon is the administrative capital of Central Aceh District, which itself is further divided into eight administrative sub-districts. The sub-districts, which are listed as major coffee production areas include Bandar, Bukit, Timang Gajah, Silih Nara, Bebesen, Pegasing, Bintang and Linge. In 1989, the total area devoted to coffee production in Central Aceh District was 68,800 hectares, with the larger portion of this total area consisting of small, family run plantations or plots.
The first coffee plantations in Aceh were established by the Dutch Colonial Regime in the late nineteenth century. Shortly after Indonesian independence in 1949, the Gayo farmers took control of many of these former colonial plantations, and to this day they have continued to run them in a traditional manner. It is important to note that prior to the mid-1980s, all the coffee produced in the Gayo Highlands was grown without any chemical inputs whatsoever and this exceptionally fertile growing region could have been considered 100% Organic.
It was not until the Soeharto Regime solidified it’s influence over the entire Indonesian archipelago in the early to mid-1980s, that the widespread practice of government control began to affect coffee production in Central Aceh. During this time, the son-in-law of the acting Governor of Aceh Special Province was granted a virtual marketing monopoly by becoming the sole holder of a special license enabling his company to market and distribute chemical herbicides to agricultural producers throughout Aceh Special Province. Henceforth, it was pronounced that the intensive application of chemical herbicides was merely ‘a simple solution to control bothersome and unexpected weed growth’ in the coffee plantations of Aceh.
Fortunately, current use of such chemical based herbicides is estimated to be less than 10% of the total area planted with Arabica coffee. However, in the recent past (during the Soeharto Regime) it was quite commonplace for field data to be fabricated by the corrupt government bureaucracy, it is herewith suggested that in the name of accuracy, a new ‘herbicide and pesticide use field survey’ should be carried out in the near future.
Production and cultivars
Though some of the family-owned coffee plantations in Central Aceh cover as much as fifteen hectares, the average plot of land owned by each Gayonese mountain farmer amounts to less than two hectares. As a direct result of the ongoing national economic and political crises, many Indonesians have become jobless, the daily cost of living has become more expensive, and there are no new job opportunities to be found. Yet, in the Gayo Highlands of Central Aceh the devaluation of the Indonesian Rupiah has in effect come as a blessing in disguise for ethnic Gayo farmers. Arabica coffee is the primary export commodity produced throughout Central Aceh District, a commodity which is valued and sold, in United States dollars (USD). Therefore, an effective ‘monetary buffer’ has been established; one which affords Gayo farmers much higher levels of real income (especially when compared to the current national average).
Since 1997, higher levels of real income and savings amongst the farmers of the Gayo Mountain Range have fueled the ongoing rapid expansion of almost all Arabica coffee production areas throughout Central Aceh District. Early retirees and young people, who had previously focused their combined family efforts towards emigrating to urban centers throughout the archipelago (in search of better paying jobs), now prefer to stay in the highlands to either revive old coffee plots, or establish new ones.
Unfortunately as of 1990, both the local and the provincial governments in Aceh Special Province, have yet to compile any kind of an accurate database regarding the expansion of existing coffee plantations, and/or the establishment of new ones. It is estimated that during the past decade, the total area of coffee cultivation in the Gayo Highlands of Central Aceh District has been expanded by some 40-50% (an additional 25,000 to 30,000 hectares).
The large majority of Gayo coffee farmers still manage their small coffee plantations/plots in a very traditional manner (i.e. without chemical inputs). The only fertilizer they apply consists of the decomposed waste and skins of the ripe coffee beans, which tend to accumulate following the annual harvest (October to February). The physical removal of this particular waste material, or agricultural byproduct, is becoming a major problem throughout the Gayo Highland Region, as there is no formal effort for collection and/or composting and disposal.
Waste materials continue to consume far too much production space, to the point where it is now commonplace for a land area which was once capable of supporting 5000 coffee trees, to have as few as 1500 productive trees! This land-to-tree productivity ratio problem is compounded by the fact that most of the older coffee plantations in the region have yet to be replanted with newer, more productive species of coffee trees. The latter drawback has resulted in a further drop in overall production capacity; particularly on those older and more established coffee plantations dating back to the colonial era, which are located in and around the town of Takengon. The current, total annual Arabica coffee harvest in the Gayo Highlands is far from optimal, with only 50,000 MT being produced from a total land area of 68,000 hectares.
At the present time, the most popular coffee variety grown by the Gayo farmers of Central Aceh is called Catimor, which is a hybrid variety, derived from a cross between the Red Caturra and Hibrido de Timor varieties. Hibrido de Timor is famous for it's resistance to the leaf rust disease; a disease which spread through most of the colonial coffee plantations in Indonesia during the early part of the 20th century. The major drawback of the Hibrido de Timor variety is the low yields and relatively tall growth, making it somewhat difficult to harvest. In contrast, the red Caturra variety grows on smaller/shorter trees and offers an exceptionally high yield. Therefore, the crossing of these two breeds offers local Gayo farmers an ideal low maintenance and high yield variety of coffee tree.
There are numerous selections of the Catimor hybrid in Indonesia. Some of these hybrids were developed in a government-run coffee research centres in the province of East Java, but they are not overly popular in Takengon. The most popular Catimor variety grown in the Gayo Highlands of Central Aceh District is called Catimor Jaluk; a naturally occurring hybrid variety which originated from a local Gayo Higland plantation. This crossbreed of Hibrido de Timor and Red Caturra, is well suited to the growing conditions in the Gayo Highlands. Today, almost all of the newly established, or replanted coffee plantations in the region are planted with the Catimor Jaluk hybrid variety.
According to the coffee production data compiled by AEKI (Indonesian Coffee Exporters Association) during the 1999/2000 period, Indonesia produced an estimated 432,000 metric tons of coffee, and only 15% (64,800 MT) of the total amount was Arabica. Therefore, it becomes clear that the Gayo Highland Region of Aceh Special Province produces well over 90% of Indonesia’s entire annual Arabica coffee harvest!
Unfortunately, during the 1980s, every single seaport in Aceh was shut down by the Soeharto Regime, and all of the major ethnic Chinese Indonesian coffee traders based in Sumatera were encouraged to run their operations from the city of Medan (the capital of neighboring North Sumatera Province). These drastic policy changes effectively terminated the link between the indigenous Acehnese Gayo Highland farmers and the international coffee market giving the Medan-based middlemen a virtual supply monopoly. Until the present time, most of the Arabica coffee produced in the Gayo Highland Region of Central Aceh District continues to be marketed as if originating from the smaller, less significant coffee production areas in North Sumatera Province (using brand names which correlate to the names of villages and districts in that province-Mandheling, Pawani, Sidikalang, Gunung Lintong etc). Such marketing practices are totally misleading.
Major Coffee Producing Regions in Indonesia
Province Type Production(MT) Share (%)
South Sumatera Robusta 91,786 18.9
Lampung Robusta 84,021 17.3
Aceh Robusta/Arabica 61,906 12.7
North Sumatera Robusta/Arabica 30,106 6.2