I have been in northern Thailand for just over 10 days working with Ornanong Saenyakul, a Lisu Indigenous woman whose family owns a coffee business in the hill country of Chang Rei province. The work plan that she developed during her visit to the United States with the Mansfield Center’s Economic Empowerment Program in Southeast Asia, included: After
1) the further development of the family’s coffee business to include transforming it into a community-based resource that could be managed on behalf of a farmer’s cooperative, yet to be formed.
2) The development of a cultural/eco-tourism program among the indigenous Tribes of Thailand, and specifically for the Lisu Tribes as a start.
Her primary objective in all of this was to help raise her people out of poverty by helping them develop their economic opportunities while also helping them preserve their cultural and language traditions for future generations.
My first presentation was at the Women’s Studies Center at Chiang Mai University, organized by Paiboon Henguesan (Center Director). It centered on social entrepreneurism and the basics of business development. While there I was able to have an interesting discussion with a couple of students wanting to develop their own businesses, but as yet had not taken any business management classes. I led them through a SWOT analysis to help them to begin to think through their plans and talked with them about classes they should think about taking. We also talked about cooperatives and how they work. Also while there, I read the introduction to Mrs. Saenyakul’s thesis which was completed at the Center, in which she described how it has been the practice of both the government and the missionaries working with indigenous peoples has been based on a program of assimilation (much like that previously practiced in the US by our own government). While it is now recognized as not being the right approach for the indigenous peoples, it explains why the hill country peoples have tried to isolate themselves in their mountain communities and are less experienced with language and business practices of the outside world. In working with a group of primarily women in the community of Doi Chang on several business ideas, for instance, only half read or write and none speak English. My host fellow is the daughter of the village leader, and he had the foresight to send her away to school as a child to learn English and to go to University. The people here are intensely curious about the progress of the indigenous peoples of my area (the Flathead Indian Reservation) and I have been fortunate to have been able to share much of their history. The Lisu peoples are nearly 30-40 years behind the progress of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, so the comparisons have been an invaluable learning tool for me.
Coffee has become the main stay crop for these villagers, supported by the Thai government in order to replace the previously grown opium. It has been quite a learning curve for these farmers. While the coffee grown in the region is of excellent quality, the farmers are often taken advantage of by corporate coffee brokers who by the cherries or cleaned, green beans at the lowest possible price. While this coffee company has a roaster and services coffee houses throughout the region, they have not had money to invest in the quality equipment they need to assure a consistent and controllable quality of the Arabica coffee they grow. Therefore, in order to be competitive with either their green beans or their roasted coffees in the world market, substantial investment dollars are needed for equipment and training. The big question is: is there a niche for a “Lisu” branded coffee in the fair trade environment that can be used as an economic development tool (i.e. Lisu owned and managed) within the Lisu communities throughout northern Thailand. Such a business would help train and employ some of their young people as managers, marketers, accountants, quality controllers, equipment operators, etc. and fully able to engage in the marketing and trading of coffee in the world markets. Perhaps not today – but could a plan be developed to start down that path as a way of empowering these people economically? I am here at the last picking and processing of this year’s crop. Attached are a few pictures to demonstrate the current practices. My next blog entry will be to describe presentations and work with the Lisu and other Indigenous people’s on developing economies.
Drying Coffee in the Sun – Turned Several Times a Day