Lee Ayu Chuepa
To my indigenous fellows and all, there are so many threatening challenges attacking our peoples. The Climate change and pandemic are forcing our brothers, sisters and everyone to reflect on our way of living, many disruptions and digital transformations are spinning our world toward imbalance and many times the results treat us hopelessly. Could we work together to look after our ancestral knowledge and establish sharing civilization for our children? If I could say, I want to call everyone to join the Slow Food philosophy of Good, Clean and Fair to sustain the beauty of this earth, not for me, but for our children and creatures.
Ayu is a gentleman who, at the young age of 36, has bases not only in Thailand but also in Japan, where he works to protect indigenous people’s lives, culture, and the environment through the coffee business. This is the story of Ayu, where he shares the love he holds for his mother, explains the mindset behind the coffee business, and his vision for the future.
Name ： Lee Ayu Chuepa Community /Country ： Akha / Thailand Whrere I currently live ： Chiang Mai, Thailand Age： 36 (born in 1985) Current Initiatives/Title： Founder of Akha Ama Coffee,Committee of Slow Food Community Food for Change Chiang Mai, Founder of LONG Coffee Project, Committee of KHARTSU, Committee of Chiangmai Trust
Of the 70 million people in Thailand, about 85% are ethnic Thais, while the Akha and other hill tribes are said to make up about 1.5% of the total population, although there are more than 10 ethnic groups in the country. Many of Thailand’s hill tribes are believed to have migrated south from near Yunnan in southern China more than 200 years ago, passing through countries such as Myanmar and Laos before arriving in the mountains of northern Thailand.
After World War II, the Thai government applied an assimilation policy towards the people from the hill tribes, also banning poppy cultivation and traditional slash-and-burn agriculture, which represented an important source of income, and promoted their migration to the lowlands.
The process to obtain Thai nationality was also a major endeavor for the hill tribes, beginning with the need to travel to city halls in the lowlands to complete paperwork and the fact that to maintain their original place of residence in the hills, they needed to obtain a permit.
‘Live a life of mindfulness and celebrate the sharing of civilization’
This is what my mother, who lives in my hometown of Chiang Rai, said to me this morning. My mother is my inspiration and the one who taught me everything I know about coffee production. My roots are Akha, from Yunnan, China, through Myanmar to Chiang Rai, and I am very grateful to have that in my DNA. Today, I would like to share with you my dream, the story of the birth of Akha Ama Coffee, and my social projects. I hope we can share our stories, celebrate each other, and care for each other.
As a child, due to financial difficulties, I grew up away from my family, attending a temple school, dividing the time between the school in Lamphun and English education in Chiang Mai. For three years since 2007, I worked with Child’s Dream, an organization that supports refugees who have fled poverty and discrimination, providing support to people with various backgrounds.
As a young indigenous, I strongly felt the importance of conveying the message not only to people in the community, but also to everyone else , as people with valuable culture and wisdom are deprived of their human rights and many children have lost their parents. This experience has been a great source of inspiration for my activities to this day.
Three philosophies of Akha Ama Coffee:
Economy, Education, and Environment
While working with Child’s Dream, I found a goal to pursue. It is “Akha-Ama Coffee,” a social enterprise with three simple philosophies: economy, education, and environment, inspired by the Akha community. The logo was modeled after my mother, who worked on a coffee plantation to support her family’s livelihood.
First, let’s talk about the economy. The economic situation of the indigenous people is very serious, and many young indigenous people do not have access to good quality education. Many adults are working at construction sites, gas stations, and other low-income jobs. I thought that we needed to improve the economic conditions first, and I saw the potential in coffee because we can grow it and preserve it.
Although coffee was not originally cultivated by the Akha, it is an important crop for our community. And I thought it would be a great idea to start a business through coffee that would allow us to live in harmony with the surrounding mountains and nature. Also, coffee is the second largest commodity crop in the world. Therefore, I thought that producing high quality coffee would have a positive effect on the economy.
Coffee is just one element in the ecosystem. At the same time, I believe that coffee is more than just a beverage. The potential of the coffee flower is huge, as it protects the life of the honeybee. I don’t think I need to tell you the importance of honeybees, but they pollinate and increase coffee production.
In addition to coffee, we have a variety of other crops on our farm. We are not a monoculture, but a multicultural agroforestry. We also have plum trees growing on our farm. We can make tea from coffee flowers.We can also make plum juice.
Next is education. This is a really important point, but also a very sensitive one. How can we pass on our beliefs and wisdom to the next generation? But in this innovative society, it is difficult to learn only within the community, and we need to go out and gather data on what is happening in the outside world.
Most of the people in the community are farmers, but among the younger generation, there are those who want to be farmers, those who want to start their own businesses. They may have different mindsets, however, we are all brothers and sisters who share the same blood. Even though we may have different ideas and knowledge, if we unite as a community, we can become a strong team that can envision the future of our community together. We can support each other’s activities and share our beautiful knowledge. Young people, farmers, everyone can work hand in hand. Education is the key to this.
We also interact with the outside community through education to show them how special we indigenous people are. With education, young people can learn how to relate to and support indigenous communities in a fair way.
In 2018, we established the Akha Ama Living Factory, which houses our headquarters, learning space, cafe and roastery. We are learning how to balance and support each other between the indigenous people and the outside world.
Prior to COVID-19, 2,500 to 3,000 people domestically and from abroad visited the facility to observe production sites and participate in workshops. Some of them are long-term interns, while others come for a single day to learn about social entrepreneurship. A British university is also collecting data for a fieldwork research to support coffee farmers, using drones and information technology. All of this is leading to skills for protecting the community.
The third pillar is the environment. We are also working with universities on soil nutrition. As is the case in many indigenous communities, the soil is often already depleted. So we work with universities to test the soil and see what it needs to grow coffee. In this way, we can understand the disadvantages of using chemical pesticides and fertilizers in the soil. In Thailand, 99% of the indigenous communities are now located in parts of national parks, which means that nothing can be done on the land, not even farming. So it is important to let the government and the public know about our efforts and show them that we can maintain biodiversity and still be productive. We need to show that we can live on our land.
It is important to tell the government and other authority figures that we embody and can manage our own land. In addition, a lot of farmland has been abandoned and turned into thickets. In order to maintain the land, we are working with the indigenous youth to plant and grow endemic crops. In this way, we are working to protect the environment.
Youth and Community Empowerment
- Social element and Business element
It’s not easy to be both social- and business-minded. I don’t have any business background or training, but I believe in being international and sustainable, and I am committed to interacting and sharing the wisdom of indigenous people with the outside world, not just within our community. One of the most important aspects of the project is the involvement of the youth; 99% of all work at Akha Ama Coffee is done by them, and 50% of the team is indigenous people. Young people have been involved since the beginning, and many of them work as roasters, baristas, package designers, administrators, and quality control. The other 50% are not necessarily from indigenous backgrounds, but they understand what we are doing and know how to support it. We work equally with both indigenous and non-indigenous people.
We are working in the middle between the indigenous communities and the consumers. The indigenous community invests in the product, which is then sold to Akha Ama. We roast the coffee, package it, market it, and deliver it to the consumer. Some consumers are coffee shops, and some are home brewers. The profits from this comes back to Akha Ama, and the profits from that goes back to the indigenous communities. We do both wholesale and retail.
Our product line includes coffee beans, honey, tea (from areas where coffee cannot be grown), and plum juice. Our products are empowerment and reinvestment for the indigenous communities. That’s what I’m trying to do to develop Akha Ama.
Connect with Yourself, Family, Friends, and the World,
to Expand Your Possibilities.
It is also important to expand the possibilities into areas that our ideas alone cannot do. Ask your family how they feel and what kind of farming they are doing. Ask for advice from experts and friends. Research and experiment.
In order for our community to be sustainable, we need access to a variety of information that would allow us to share and expand our skill sets and knowledge, traveling helps achieve this. And it is a good opportunity for self-reflection and to hear valuable opinions from outside participants in workshops.
Slow Food is a great way to learn about the world’s biodiversity, to meet great people, and to get some very practical ideas. In our Slow Food community, we create a place to appreciate the diversity of food culture, not only with indigenous people, but anyone who respects our culture and existence.
Through the practice of agroforestry (forest farming) with the communities, we are working to preserve our culture and protect the land we were born and raised on. By cultivating cash crops such as coffee, tea, fruits, and vegetables, we are able to generate enough income to improve the livelihood of our communities, while at the same time demonstrating the coexistence of indigenous people with nature.
We are also working as a food bank in Chiang Mai that provides food to poor families and other people who do not have access to food for different reasons.
Akha Ama also opened its first overseas store, AKHA AMA COFFEE JAPAN, in Kagurazaka, Tokyo in 2020. This is an effort to diversify the risk of having a single market for farmers and to create a new market. We hope to build a roasting plant in Japan someday, and also to innovate through mechanization of production and processing.
Wisdom and Mindfulness for Overcoming Challenges
and Passing on Culture
The food of the indigenous community is simple and is all that is available in the forest. The main dishes in our kitchen are made with chili, salt, vegetable oil and seasonal ingredients. We love to collect vegetable and herb seeds to carry on our culture.There are very few ingredients that we cannot produce, like salt and oil. Recently, there has been a resurgence of cooking with animal oils in our community.
I would like to pass on this practice of using local, seasonal ingredients to the next generation. Akha Ama is currently working with eight communities, with over 100 families involved. I think we have achieved one thing: working with indigenous farmers and practicing sustainable agriculture.
If this project were to disappear, the diversity of coffee plantations would be lost and young indigenous people would be forced to migrate to urban areas. Coffee quality would decline, agroforestry would be discontinued, while monoculture increased. More importantly, the protection of indigenous people’s right to live in their own territories may also become more difficult.
As a next step, Akha Ama is joining Friends Trade*1 to establish varietal coffee farms. In these varietal farms, we will grow as many varieties as possible, do research and collect data on each variety for farmers. We also plan to establish a coffee career development center in Chiang Mai, to teach coffee skills to indigenous and local people. I am very fortunate to have been born into an indigenous family to believe in the wisdom of all cultures, and on behalf of Akha Ama Coffee, I would like to offer my passion and support to the indigenous community. As we face challenges in this confusing world, we need our wisdom and mindfulness to overcome any crisis.
*1 : Friends Trade
A voluntary organization of stakeholders from various sectors, from coffee production to logistics and consumption, to support and improve the coffee industry in Thailand.
Ayu’s Pride Food
I like tomato chili sauce (mar khe caer tahq) because the dish can simply be cooked from fresh seasonal ingredients. Tomatoes may not grow all year round, but you could use tamarillo which goes very well as well. This is my pride food because I learned the recipe from my parents and this simple dish saved our family from poverty back then when we didn’t have enough income to go to the market for food. The dish can simply be cooked with a few ingredients and almost every ingredient could be harvested from our garden except for salt, so my family have been collecting seeds of the ingredients of this dish to use in its preparation .
Ayu’s Personal History
1985 Born in Mae Soi, Chiang Rai Province to an Akha family in Maejan Thai
*No birth certificate, birth date registered as January 1, 1985. On his school certificate, he was listed as stateless for 15 years.
2007 Begin working at Child’s Dream Foundation
2009 Start planning Akha Ama as a social enterprise
2010 Found Akha Ama Coffee with the support of a Social Entrepreneurship Grant from the Child’s Dream Foundation 2014 Participate in Slow Food’s Terra Madre in Italy for the first time