Story by Nick Percy. All images unless noted by @joshgriggs_
With today marking day one of Fairtrade Fortnight, there is no better time to reflect on my recent trip to Papua New Guinea to visit the long-time Fair Trade producer organization, the Highlands Organic Agricultural Organization (HOAC), located in Purosa, within the Southern Highlands Provence.
Turns out it is harder than expected, on paper, with a short 3-hour flight from Brisbane and a 50-minute connecting flight; we were hoping to spend our first night in PNG, in the nearby town and coffee heartbeat of the area Goroka; however, the delays quickly mounted up. First to come was a 5-hour flight rescheduled out of Brisbane, making us miss our connecting flight, leading to a night's stay in Port Moresby. The next day saw us arrive (we thought) early for our 8:30 flight, to find out after lining up for an hour the flight was overbooked, and the next flight would be at 1:00 pm. We resigned ourselves to a wait, some breakfast back at the hotel, and we'd still be able to make the journey to Purosa on schedule. After five hours in the airport, two more cancelled flights, and a lengthy wait for a hotel to be assigned, we resigned ourselves to a couple (30-ish) beers, some ten-pin bowling at the hotel bowling alley and planned to get to the airport before 6 am for our 9:30 am flight the next day. After some breakfast, a couple more delays, and a quick exploration of the Port, we were finally on the tarmac at 11:30 am, only to be turned back to the terminal for this to be fixed. Almost planning for another night in Port Moresby, the airline quickly resolved the issues, and we landed at Goroka airport at about 1:00 pm.
Image by Nick Percy
With the drive to the highlands taking anywhere from 4 – 8 hours, we judged it not practical to make the drive on our first afternoon, instead spending some time with some of the local coffee exporter businesses, such as Coffee Connections and Monpi. My first impression was that I had never seen so much coffee in one place before, with the warehouse containing over 2 million KG of green coffee of all different qualities, stretching from the highest A-grade coffees down to the defect-riddled Y3 grade. More mind-boggling was that this warehouse was only one of a series of warehouses along this stretch of the Highlands Hwy, known as "Coffee Road" by the locals.
While only a touch over 120k's from Goroka, the remote highlands location of Purosa is challenging to get through; the ironically named Highlands Highway was a patchy two-way road. As I rattled and bounced around in the back of a Landcruiser for the 5 hours in the car, I quickly learned that the Highlands Hwy turned out to be the well-maintained part of the journey, with the road steadily decreasing in quality until the final 5k's of what I can only describe as some of the most gnarly 4W Driving I have ever experienced. It's also key to note that this is the only way this community can get to and from the town centre. Some people make this journey 5 or 6 times a week; when there is heavy rain, the final stretch of the road can become impossible, cutting off the main trade route that coffee needs to travel out of the region.
In addition to the Fair Trade Floor price, which guarantees a minimum sale value, and protection from the volatile swings of the traded coffee futures market, there is also a premium that is paid along the supply chain by brokers and roasters alike, which is destined to be spent in-country by the local communities, and for the local communities. On our trek up the mountains, we stopped at a couple of hubs along the way to see where some of this money had been spent. Farmers have been supplied with portable pulping machines, clean water lines from local mountain sources, raised drying beds, and even funding two birthing beds to aid the local hospital in delivering healthy babies and improving the comfort and experience of the mothers, something that was easy to notice as being put to good use, as in the two days between our visits there where more than four brand new babies sleeping soundly in the ward.
Without a doubt, the most humbling experience was the welcome we received upon arrivingat the nerve centre of HOAC, known as cluster 1 (their region is divided up into 12 clusters, all with a voice at the table for their sub-communities). Over 2,000 people greeted us, some dressed in traditional garb,singing,dancing, and giving us a welcome to be remembered.Some of the locals had walked for up to four hours and had even waited for us the day before when we were originally due; it was obvious how important coffee is to the community; in many ways, the trip had felt like the farmers and their families got the most impact out of our visit, this was doubly obvious as when it was time to leave that quite a few where in tears, after a welcome ceremony, including the PNG national anthem,we were shown to our accommodation,a house that used to be owned by the late father of the Chairman of HOAC,Daniel.
On our first morning in the very remote but very beautiful region of Purosa, we began with a short drive to the local school, which we travelled in the normal PNG way, in the back of an Isuzu flatbed truck, holding on for dear life, while slipping and sliding up the red, clay road. It was only a 15-minute drive; however, I certainly felt fatigued at the end, but this is how things are done in this part of the world. At the school ground, we were (somewhat begrudgingly, as it was school holidays) greeted by some 300 school kids of different ages, with some of the buildings funded by the Fair Trade premiums, one of the local Fair Trade employees (shout out to Norman), gave a short education session to the kids about the different steps along the supply chain, and where the "white man" as we were referred to continuously where a part of this, after a quick exchange of gifts, including an impromptu soccer match, which due to the elevation had me gasping for air in 5 minutes, we were off back to the village for more training sessions. The village was again a buzz with activity as Norman delivered training focussing on when to pick coffee at its ripest, as well as pulping, washing and processing the coffee. After this, members of our travelling contingency roasted up some coffee on a newly supplied sample roaster for the farm holders to taste their coffees, side by side with the other clusters, something that many had not had a chance to do before, in fact of the 800 odd people in attendance, less than 5% drank coffee regularly. Sadly, during the cupping, I fell ill with a stomach bug and missed the rest of the day and the evening proceedings, including a traditional outdoor goat cook and a couple of Cassowaries.
Still not feeling well, it was a bit of a dicey drive back to Goroka, but we made it back to the hotel without incident, and after some rest, and after I felt better, we headed to the local Yacht club, complete with a boat in the yard, despite being more than 100k's from the nearest ocean or body of water. We sat and discussed some of the experiences of the last couple of days; Daniel spoke about the impact and importance of our visit to the community. Only months before, there was an armed conflict between neighbouring tribes, with more than a dozen lives lost; as part of the peace talks, our impending visit was used as a catalyst to promote the peace talks, and for that (despite us doing nothing really) they were very thankful for.
Summing it up
PNG is a fascinating place; I found a new appreciation for the hard work Cooperatives put into a product that, in the West, we take for granted. I challenge anyone who thinks that the price of a cup of coffee is too high to spend a bit of time rattling around in the back of a truck on a PNG road and tell me it's not worth every cent. Although air travel is far from seamless, we were lucky to make our flights and even have our luggage returned to us a few days late.PNG is an incredible place, and I found the people to be generous, passionate and welcoming.