By Adrian Leighton. The Lisu are an indigenous people that are spread across several countries including Thailand, Myanmar and China/Tibet. On a recent visit to the Lisu village of Doi Chang, my family and I were able to witness the first steps this community is taking to unite village coffee growers into a cooperative and market their own coffee brand that would support economic development, cultural preservation and education in their community.
Orn-anong Saenyakul (Chome), a Mansfield Fellow who spent several weeks in Montana last October was our guide and is one of the driving forces of the project. We got to see the roaster, the fields and meet with some of the villagers, and were exceptionally privileged to be part of one of their "culture nights"
Although there are currently markets for coffee in the area, the villagers have to sell individually to wholesale buyers. The Doichang Coffee Company, which is a Thai Royal Project is USDA organic and Fair Trade certified but does not seem to be a better option for the village. Chome’s vision is one of international marketing, where Lisu culture is part of the brand itself. They already have a roaster that can roast 13 kg at a time, and Chome’s brother Charley routinely produces 100kg of roasted coffee a day. There is also a great potential for green bean export to US and European coffee roasters.
The villagers were also interested in hearing about economic development and empowerment case studies on Native American reservations, and especially the tribal college movement. When Chome was young, there were no good roads into Chiang Rai from their mountain home, and she and her siblings would have to walk to town, where they stayed at a Christian boarding school. Now that there is a good road (40 km, less than an hour) and a local school, there are many opportunities, but also the potential for many young villagers to be lured to the big cities. Building economic and educational capacity at home makes sense, and could, like it has for many tribes in the US, make it possible for educated youth to come back home for jobs rather than the far too typical "brain drain" that has existed for many Native peoples.