Coffee was introduced to the island of Java through Dutch colonial networks at the close of the 17th century, where it thrived, allowing the VOC to quickly dominate global supply. The Indonesian islands have produced globally significant volumes of coffee ever since. My research seeks to understand how household-scale livelihood strategies in contemporary Indonesia have co-evolved through dynamic interactions with broader institutional environments in highly path dependent processes. This historically-oriented paper examines the evolution of these environments, which include various forms of colonial exploitation, post-independence state-led developments strategies and the recent reconfiguration and governance of the global value chain by multinational lead firms. I argue that the contemporary institutional matrix surrounding coffee production in Indonesia has a far greater continuity with past institutional forms than is frequently acknowledged and that social patterns and processes are recurring and surprisingly resilient. The three hundred-year history of coffee in the islands can be interpreted as a perennially unresolved contest between global capital and indigenous elites in attempts to extract the value generated by an upland peasantry. For their part, this peasantry has incorporated coffee within diverse livelihood strategies that tend to resist broader institutional pressures to adopt intensive agricultural practices that would prioritise yield maximisation and rising output.
Jeff Neilson is a geographer at the University of Sydney, whose research focuses on rural development and smallholder farming in Indonesia. He has a specific interest in understanding the interface between global value chains and rural livelihoods, and is leading a five-year research project evaluating the livelihood impacts of sustainability programs in the coffee and cocoa sectors. He is also currently working on a book project examining agrarian change in Indonesia through an industry analysis of coffee. Jeff is the Indonesia Country Coordinator of the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre (SSEAC).
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Image: Coffee farmer in the Semendo highlands of Sumatra – Jeff Neilson.