Sunday, April 13, 2008

April 13, 2008

After working in the coffee business for 11 years, I now have the unique and somewhat surreal opportunity to teach a unit whose theme is coffee to a class of advanced students on the island of Sulawesi. It’s pretty weird.

In case you don’t drink coffee, Indonesia and Sulawesi in particular produce some of the best coffee in the world. Years ago, I discovered that Sulawesi and Sumatra were my favorite coffee origins. And there’s really not much that can beat Arabian Mocha Java (the world’s first coffee blend) brewed as a shot of espresso. Now, these things aren’t why we chose to work in Makassar, Sulawesi. It was just coincidence that the teaching positions presented themselves to a guy who used to sell coffee from here and his wife.

Anyway, the curriculum of this English unit revolves around using contrasting and comparing terms, discussing supply and demand, and charts and graphs vocabulary for analyzing trends.

I asked my class of seven students who had been up north where most coffee is grown on Sulawesi. Two had. I asked who had seen a coffee tree and unpicked coffee berries. “Tree?” they asked. “Yeah,” I said. “Coffee grows on little trees. The beans start as little red berries.” I thought about one of these trees in a cafĂ© I had worked in – right next to the merchandise. Then I described how coffee was picked, processed and roasted. They had no idea. It was new to them. Five of the seven drank coffee (the other two preferred tea), and of those who drank it, drank instant coffee. Instant coffee: I usually refer to this as an abomination in the eyes of God. Unbelievable. It’s the Mountain Dew of the coffee world. Only one had ever been to a Starbucks. (This fact seemed so quaint to someone from the Pacific Northwest.)

I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Since coming here I‘ve learned that all the superior coffee is exported. All of Sulawesi’s best resources are shipped away. Not long ago, I got a pound of Sulawesi beans from my nephew who works for Starbucks in the mail. This irony was even more profound when I tasted it, and it was better than the beans I actually bought up north in Toraja – coffee growing country. This would be like getting better corn on the cob from Germany instead of Indiana or better apples from China instead of the State of Washington. It’s difficult for an American to grasp.

I did a little research for the class. I not only wanted to give them an English lesson, I wanted to present them with information about an industry so important to their country. As many of you know, the coffee industry is a nasty, nasty business. While over the past few years coffee production has increased 1-1½%, the demand has increased by 2%. And as farmers try to meet the demand, they’re producing inferior quality, and about 8% of all beans go unused. Producing countries exporting profits have dropped by billions of dollars in just a few years as well while their buyers try to increase company profits. (Admittedly, I got some of this from the Internet, so give me some slack on these figures.) I introduced the idea of the Fair Trade consortium and of those smaller roasters (as opposed to the gargantuan buyers: Nestle, Sara Lee, Proctor & Gamble, and Kraft) who pay enough for farmers to live. Some had at least heard of Fair Trade, but they didn’t really understand it.

This was a moment I could certainly tell that I was working within a young democracy. This information had never really been presented to these students before. It makes me appreciate my rights of freedom of press and speech all the more. Indonesia observes these rights now but only since 1997, and this concept takes a while to reach an archipelago that’s also the fourth most populous nation in the world. Information is so important to the prosperity of a country. This seems so obvious, but now I have seen why first-hand.

Such a strange full-circle of events.

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