Coffee and Conflict in Indonesia

Sorting coffee in West Sumatra, 1941

Sorting coffee in West Sumatra, 1941. The woman in the turban seems unhappy; her gaze commands attention. This photograph captures the end of a difficult era — and the beginning of a turbulent decade. Life for the inhabitants of Sumatra under Dutch rule had been hard, and the coming years (and decades) would be particularly tumultuous.

A few months after this photo was taken, the Japanese occupied Sumatra. Coffee production fell by more than 90 percent during the Japanese occupation, as the Japanese uprooted many replanted many coffee farms in food crops, industrial crops, or tea. One author noted that, for coffee farming in the Dutch East Indies, the Japanese occupation was like a second invasion of Hemileia vastatrix, the crop disease that had dedicated the island’s arabica farms in the late nineteenth century (Di Fulvio 1947, 307). After the Japanese surrender in 1945, Indonesian nationalists fought a (successful) war of independence against the Dutch, who had attempted to regain control of their former colony.

In the following decades, the Indonesian coffee economy slowly recovered. The colonial coffee estates have disappeared. Now, most of Indonesia’s coffee is grown on small farms of two hectares or less; about 90 percent of this is robusta. As of 2018/19 Indonesia is the world’s fourth-largest coffee producer, after Brazil, Viet Nam, and Colombia.

Early view of wet processing, 1875

Eadweard Muybridge, Machinery for Pulping Coffee–Las Nubes, 1875, published 1877, albumen silver print, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mitchell and Nancy Steir, 2004.29.4

In 1875, the pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge, better known for his experiments in photographing motion, traveled through Central America. His photographs offer an early photographic record of Gutaemala’s coffee industry, just as it entered its first boom period.

This photograph captures a critical time in the evolution of the global coffee industry — the development of the wet mill. Writing about a decade after this photograph was taken, the American coffee expert Francis Thurber described this as a ‘new method’ of processing coffee, which was sometimes known as the “West India preparation.” According to Thurber, this method was already in wide use (to a greater or lesser degree) in Ceylon, India, Java, Venezuela, and Brazil. Clearly, as Muybridge’s photograph shows, it had also arrived in Guatemala. Of Guatemalan coffee, Thurber wrote that the finer grades “are regarded as equal in flavour, and by some judges, superior to any other coffee grown.” The industrial revolution was quickly making its way to the coffeelands, although setting up this machinery must have required a considerable amount of capital and expertise. Presumably, the people who did this hoped that the improved quality (and therefore higher prices) would make the expense worthwhile. Thurber comments while the wet method “is rapidly growing in favor… there are many coffee-drinkers who maintain that coffee produced by the old [dry] method is superior in flavour,” a conversation that continues to the present day.