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Rise of Sumatran Coffee
A farmer is harvesting coffee beans in Karo, North Sumatra, after Sinabung eruption. TEMPO/Wisnu Agung Prasetyo
Wednesday, 17 January, 2018 | 14:34 WIB
Rise of Sumatran Coffee

TEMPO.CO, Jakarta, 

Coffee Post-Disaster

Before Mount Sinabung`s eruption, people living around the volcano in North Sumatra paid little attention to the coffee plants growing in their fields. Today, the region’s unique coffee varieties are gaining popularity.

The devastating disaster that struck North Sumatra in September four years ago is still fresh in Imam Syukri’s memory. Mount Sinabung in the Karo Regency erupted, breaking its over four centuries of sleep. Volcanic ash from the eruption blanketed his land and the land of thousands of others living in Karo’s highlands, not to mention the volcanic mud that swept through their plantations. Imam lost half of his livelihood. 

Crop failure was not Imam’s only problem. It was difficult for him to resume working his land. The government urged Imam and the others living around the mountain to temporarily evacuate. But Imam, who lives in Cimbang village, could not stand to leave his home and land unattended for a long period of time. Although he was forbidden to return, he went back to his village, ignoring Mount Sinabung’s potential threats. "I just wanted to check on my field," said the father-of-three. 

He discovered that nearly all his plants, particularly his orange trees-his main source of income-had died. "Only the coffee plants were able to survive," said the 39-year-old.

Noting that coffee plants remained intact despite the volcanic eruption, the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) considered coffee to be included in their rehabilitation and reconstruction program. The program was carried out in four subdistricts around Mount Sinabung: Simpang Empat, Tiganderket, Naman Teran and Payung. Beginning March 2014, said Imam, he and several other residents took part in training programs organized by the BNPB. In the training sessions, locals from the four subdistricts were divided into 30 farmer groups.

Suarta Sembiring, chief of the Karo Regency Regional Disaster Mitigation Agency’s (BPBD) Sinabung rehabilitation program, says coffee has the potential to become their region’s new commodity. The size of land used for growing coffee has increased since the eruption, according to the Karo regency agriculture office. Last year, 10,347 hectares of land were used for growing coffee in Karo, or up from 9,146 in 2012. Now, coffee is the most widely planted commodity in the regency. "We believe that coffee is one way to recover local economy after Sinabung’s eruption," said Suarta. 

The BNPB and BPBD’s predictions have so far been on the mark. Four years after the volcanic eruption, farmers in Cimbang have been able to harvest 15 tons of coffee plants. But only half of the said amount can be processed at the Cimbang Sinabung Coffee Production House as the facility’s manufacturing capacity still limits their coffee output. "Because of this, we often can’t meet the coffee demand from outside the region," said Imam Syukri. 

Initially, the BPBD had some trouble encouraging the people of Karo to shift to coffee following Sinabung’s eruption. Suarta Sembiring explained that locals had already grown accustomed to growing oranges, their region’s primary commodity. 

The BNPB had already tried training residents so they can resume cultivating oranges. But marketing the fruit was not easy. Oranges would spoil quickly and sales were slowed because of the volcanic ash. Still, at the time, people were not particularly interested in planting coffee. "Locals felt that coffee was just something to plant along the edges of their plantations," said Suarta. 

Zulfikar Aditya, a farmer from the Ndokum Siroga village, Simpang Empat subdistrict, confirms Suarta’s explanation. Coffee has been growing on his plantation and farmed by other Karo farmers for decades. But instead of cultivating the plant and selling it, most of their coffee would be left untouched. Most Karo locals believed that coffee is a tuah dibata, or a ‘gift from God’, and tedah hate, roughly meaning ‘that which is missed’. So if coffee plants produce beans, farmers would feel grateful, but if not, then that is fine too. 

In those days, Zulfikar never tended to his coffee plants. "At most I would pick one to two kilograms for money to buy cigarettes and gas for the motorcycle," he said. He had no idea of his land’s great economic potential, if only it was managed properly. "What we knew about coffee was very limited," he said.

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