Moral Dilemma of Importing Coffee From Myanmar

In all the years that I’ve been in the coffee business rarely has an origin thrown up such a moral dilemma as that of Myanmar. Currently there isn’t a day that goes by when the plight of the Rohingya, a minority ethnic group in the west of Myanmar does not make headlines in the press. The words “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” are now being associated with the actions of the Myanmar government towards these people. In the midst of it the moral authority of Aung San Suu Kyi, a winner of the Nobel prize for peace is being severely questioned. Why isn’t she saying anything?

As we land our first coffee from Myanmar which incidentally has been well processed and can proudly sit with some of the finest coffees in the world I ask myself am I right to support this very impoverished country or should we be making a wider economic stand because of the actions of its Government?

I decided to research the history of Myanmar, a country familiar to the British as it formed part of the British Empire up until its independence in 1948. It has also left a deep scar in the memory of many British soldiers held captive during World War two under Japanese rule and who were forced to help build the infamous Burma railway at the cost of some 8,000 allied lives.

But the great tragedy of Myanmar is that a civil war raged there from 1962 up until 2010 which has meant that it is one of the least developed nations in the world. In that context what is now happening to the Rohingya appears to be a continuation of a conflict that no one appears to be able to resolve.

So is the answer to boycott this country economically and inflict more poverty or should we in an imperfect world try to encourage trade so that those who grow this product can make a sustainable living?

It’s worth juxta-positioning this argument with the plight of the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo. As it happens a coffee sample from this origin arrived on my desk just recently. The coffee was a rather well known one, Congo Kivu. Although the name was familiar to me I haven’t seen this coffee in over 20 years. 2017 in fact was the first year the Kawa co-operative whose coffee samples I’d been sent had exported coffee.

This is a country which up until recently was described as the centre of “Africa’s world war”. With its vast natural resources being plundered by all sides amid the country’s civil unrest. The result has been that around 6 million people have lost their lives through warfare, disease and malnutrition.

A huge amount of work has been done with the support of Non-Government organisations, the International coffee organisation and many others. Without them progress is virtually impossible. Producers struggle to find finance, get agronomic training, equipment and education in best production practices.

It reminded me of a comment by one of our guides a few years back in Colombia. “The farmers don’t realise that they have money all around them (in the form of coffee) they just need to be educated as to how to turn that coffee into money”

But here too controversy surrounds the current leadership. The President Joseph Kabilia was elected in 2006 and re-elected in 2011. He was supposed to step down in December 2016 but elections were never held. There have been government crackdowns against the political opposition, media, and civil society groups with little to no accountability for past abuses.

Like Myanmar, DRC was originally a colony, in her case run by Belgium. Whereas Myanmar gained independence in 1948, DRC had to wait until 1960. But since then the fate of both countries has followed a familiar path.

Personally I believe we should be trying to support both countries in whatever way possible. If the coffee we receive from these origins is enjoyed by our customers I feel duty bound to encourage them to grow more and as importantly pay them a fair and sustainable price for their efforts.

They are only tiny steps in the grand scheme of things but it’s worth remembering the old adage, “mighty oaks from little acorns grow”

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