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Indigenous communities at Terra Madre: Lee and the coffee of the Akha tribe

Lee Ayu is a young man born in the Akha tribal village of Maejantai, in a national park in northern Thailand.

coffethai This is a remote corner of the world, a place where there are few opportunities for study or travel or entering into contact with other ideas and cultures. Yet the highly motivated Lee has managed to do all this, making his own personal dream come true while, at the same time, improving conditions in his village. How? By stimulating the production and commercialization of coffee.

“I come from a very modest family and, for me, the only way I could study was to attend the temple school, which provides board and lodgings free of charge. But when I finished secondary school, I found myself at a crossroads. Either I tried to go to university, even though I had neither money nor outstanding academic qualifications, or I went home to work on my family’s farm.”

Lee ultimately opted to pursue his studies and went on the lookout for grants and scholarships. He was lucky enough to find a place at Chiang Mai University, where he subsequently studied English with impressive results.

Straight after graduating he joined Child’s Dream Foundation, an international organization dedicated to underprivileged children, with which he worked for three years. It was thanks to this experience that he developed a passion for social work and grasped the need to help children to have a better future.

“During a visit to my family in Maejantai, I realized that the situation had never changed since I’d left. The villagers were still struggling to send their children to school, and most kids were starting to work at a very early age to help their families. On that occasion I felt almost guilty that I’d had the chance to study. I didn’t want to be a rare exception, one of the privileged few. I figured out that it was time to go home and try to improve the conditions of the village and give the children of our tribe the hope that they too might be able to study and live new experiences.”

So it was that, much to the amazement of his parents and his friends, Lee returned to his village to stay.

“I realized how productive the village was. Peasant farmers had always grown vegetables, fruit and rice for their own subsistence and for a micro local market. Yet my attention was attracted by one plant in particular, one that was already there but had always been totally undervalued. That plant was coffee.” The fact was that, though coffee adapts very well indeed to the climate of the mountains of northern Thailand, the Akha people had never really grown and processed it on a permanent basis.

Maejantai_Chiang_Rai_province_02“My idea was to implement the processing of the beans to obtain a high-quality product that would bring the local farmers economic benefits without forcing them to abandon their other crops, which still served to maintain the balance of production in the village. Which is why, in 2007, I founded Akha Ama Coffee and tried to involve farmers from my area in the project. At the outset, only a few of us believed in it, but now there are more than 20 of us, and our coffee is improving all the time. It’s still spreading round Thailand and we’re even starting to receive international recognition.”

Lee had the chance to learn the trade thanks to the support of friends he met along the way. One such was the chef Andy Ricker who, when he heard about the project, helped the youngster by putting him in touch with American coffee-roasters and funding his study trips abroad.

“Slowly but surely, the economic situation of the village is improving and more kids can go to school than in the past. I’m sure that education and cultural exchange are the lifeblood of the future, and after my experience as a delegate at Terra Madre in 2014 I can’t wait to take part in the next event in October. Now I know that every single experience of this type opens our minds to new ideas and inspirations.”

Last October Lee Ayu took part in Terra Madre Giovani – We Feed The Planet. As a representative of the Akha tribe in northern Thailand, he will also be present at Terra Madre Salone del Gusto 2016. During the next edition of the event indigenous populations will be represented at the Conferences and the Terra Madre Forum, with a program of specific events open to the public and meetings dedicated to the network, in the Indigenous Terra Madre space in Valentino Park.


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