Three Gorges Probe

China’s remarkable coffee

Green Beanery, our coffee business and the social enterprise arm of Probe International, introduced coffee from China to our inventory last month. Supplied by the Xinzhai Coffee Co-op, this close-range look provides a fascinating snapshot of the growers behind our Yunnan Coffee selection – China’s first crop of farming entrepreneurs.

By Sun Shan

Yunnan Coffee supplied to Green Beanery is produced in Xinzhai Village, Lujiangba Township, Longyang District, Baoshan City, Yunnan Province, Southwest China. It is a unique coffee for many reasons – its geographical location, altitude, water, community, and history.

As suggested by the long list of higher administrative layers above, Xinzhai (which literally means New Village) is at the very bottom of China’s top-down system of governance.

With its entire 800 acres of cultivable land dedicated to coffee, the plantation is quite visible on Google Maps, although the village itself is not identified. This is not uncommon for a rural place like Xinzhai. The closest location Google Maps provides is one administrative level up: the Lujiangba Township (see Map 1).

Xinzhai and its surrounding villages are sandwiched between the Salween River to the east and Gaoligongshan Mountain to the west. Salween, called Nujiang in China, originates on the Tibetan Plateau and flows through a small section of Yunnan before it enters Burma, where it forms the largest river basin in Southeast Asia. Gaoligongshan is a long-standing national nature reserve in China famous for its unique biodiversity. In 2003, UNESCO recognized it as part of the World Heritage Site known as the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas. The region’s features contribute to its singular environmental value and include three major rivers – the Yangtze, the Mekong and the Salween – that run parallel, separated by mountain ranges as high as 7,000 metres above sea level, sometimes only 30 kilometres apart. If you travel west from Xinzhai across Gaoligongshan, in just 200 kilometres, you will reach the Burmese border and the watershed of the Irrawaddy, another major Asian river. Each mountain range and river valley boasts animals and plants found nowhere else. These geographical features make Yunnan the most biologically and ethnically diverse region in China.

Map 1: The Lujiangba Township, of which Xinzhai Village is a part, is located between the Salween River and Gaoligongshan Mountain. See the zigzag mountain road to the west that runs through Gaoligong. (Google Map)

Map 1: The Lujiangba Township, of which Xinzhai Village is a part, is located between the Salween River and Gaoligongshan Mountain. See the zigzag mountain road to the west that runs through Gaoligong. (Google Maps)

Chinese society does not have a long history of growing or drinking coffee. For Xinzhai, several backyard hundred-year-old coffee trees serve as a proud reminder of their unusual village history, yet how and why their grandfathers obtained the coffee (probably from their Tea Horse Trading way of living1), is not easy to confirm.

Yunnan and the tropical Province of Hainan Island – China’s southernmost point located in the South China Sea – are the only two coffee producing provinces in China, and both have subtropical areas within their boundaries. Xinzhai’s climate is not subtropical, but rather a terraced valley topology that receives a lot of warmth from the dry and hot monsoons blowing through the Nujiang River valley. This has made Xinzhai, at 25 degrees latitude, the northernmost coffee growing village in China. With sloping land from 900-1,200 metres above sea level, Xinzhai is also the highest coffee-growing area in China and perhaps the world. The altitude makes for slower growth, but also hinders the devastating coffee rust2. Xinzhai produces Arabica, a small bean that is considered superior in taste than Robusta, the middle-sized bean that is produced in southern Yunnan and Hainan. The latter is mostly used as filler for instant coffee.

For years Xinzhai Village went out of its way to sell directly to consumers and marketed their product as small beans from Yunnan in China’s coffee market. Unlike its neighbouring villages, which one by one have ‘surrendered’ to supplying large names, such as Starbucks, Nestlé and the sort, Xinzhai wants to maintain its own brand because it aspires to grow the best coffee in China and maybe even the world.

The confidence comes from Xinzhai’s close proximity to Gaoligongshan. The 5,000-meter high and 600-kilometre-long north-to-south mountain range provides essential ecological services to the coffee plantation. An 11-kilometre-long canal carries water directly from the mountain, providing good quality and sustainable water for irrigation. While this part of China has suffered from droughts increasing in frequency, the people of Xinzhai have never seen the mountain water go dry. Managed through conservation agreements, the Gaoligongshan Nature Reserve has collaborated for many years with the village. Villagers agree to not hunt animals or cut wood for fuel from the nature reserve, and in turn they are eligible for support from the reserve and other government programs, for projects such as an irrigation canal and subsidies for new houses with much better insulation. This is a little known story that can be considered a conservation win-win.

Gaoligong is historically the sacred mountain of the local ethnic Dai (Tai) people. With education programs set up in the village schools by the Nature Reserve office, the coffee growers increasingly appreciate the shelter this mountain provides: not only does the nature reserve ensure their source of clean water, but it provides a habitat for the wild bees and other pollinators that are essential to the coffee plants. The misty mornings and the beautiful backdrop provided by the reserve and the coffee plantation give the region a magical quality.

Coffee growing has been steadily shifting the village economy for the better. Most of the region’s population had been homesteaders who relied on their own produce to exchange for household essentials and even village-level schools or barefoot doctors.3 When China started to open up in the 1990s, and the rural communities could trade their produce on the market, most Xinzhai villagers chose to grow corn, tobacco and sugar cane. While Xinzhai was not optimistic about its crop choices and remote location, their need for cash for education, agricultural supplies, medical help and home expenses was on the rise. As it happened, Mr. Xie Xianwen, a Xinzhai native, and later the founder of Xinzhai Village Coffee Co-op, was working with a tobacco trading company in Baoshan City. He travelled widely, and during a trip to Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan, he sat down in a cafe, hoping to close some deals. The deal was closed alright, but he was shocked when the bill came. The cup of coffee was 35 Yuan (today that’s $7.75 Canadian). At the time, that amount of money could buy a family of five food for a meal. Xie returned to his village, and asked his mom if she could convert some of her land to coffee growing.

Now 15 years later, and 10 years after the Xinzhai Coffee Co-op was established, Xie recounted this story to me in his processing plant in Lujiangba Town, while siphonbrewing coffee for a group of Canadian visitors. He and his colleagues, and many co-op members, could discuss any coffee terms with me in their Yunnan dialect. They compare their most prized higher elevation Typica, an Arabica bean, to that of Jamaican Blue Mountain. They grow these beans at 1,100 meters, and they sell it at twice the price as their regular Arabica. “Last year an American coffee professional came to the village, and gave very high ratings for our Typica,” Mr. Xie told me. Yet neither he nor the co-op members speak enough English to know how to promote their coffee as one of the world’s best. In China, Xinzhai struggles to retain its Chinese customers, most of whom purchase coffee online from Taobao, the Chinese website for online shopping – similar to eBay and Amazon – operated in China by the Alibaba Group. These days, Chinese consumers can purchase coffee beans from anywhere in the world on Taobao, and many other exotic coffees from unknown places far away, for cheaper than Mr. Xie’s beans. But Mr. Xie is determined to maintain his standards: harvesting coffee beans is labour-intensive, and paying workers on a pay-per-pound system would encourage workers to rush and that might compromise the quality of the harvest.

The enterprise is obviously worth it. Today, most of Xinzhai’s 500 families grow coffee. It’s an impressive scene to drive up to the mountain-side village. The coffee plantation dominates the landscape, and the village’s income landscape as well these days. Thanks to their rising incomes, many village growers have rebuilt their homes using better materials and improved insulation. In addition, the Baoshan City government has awarded the village various improvement grants, including a better road and solar-powered pest control apparatus. The co-op now has 300 members, and close to 1,000 acres of coffee plants; some growers from other villages have joined too.

When I asked what the New Year’s plan was for 2016, Xie told me the co-op had just signed an agreement with a village-owned Ethnic Dai (Tai) Travel Agency. The hope is to promote coffee through specialty tours, so customers can visit the village and see and taste the local culture first-hand, including the coffee culture.


Map 2: Xinzhai village of Yunnan Province. Yunnan is the most ethnically diverse province in China, bordering Tibet in the north and Burma to the west, Laos to the south and Vietnam to the southeast.


Sun_ShanSun Shan is currently a market gardener, eco/agro-tourism leader and environmental consultant. She and her family started Chi Garden in 2015 in Inverhuron, Ontario. Prior to her Canadian life, Sun Shan was the executive director of Shan Shui Conservation Center, based in Beijing, and worked in the mountainous region of Yunnan, Sichuan, Qinghai and Tibet. She first visited Yunnan’s coffee-growing Xinzhai Village at the foot of the Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve in 2007, and could not stop (and hasn’t stopped) telling people about it ever since. She returned to visit Xinzhai in October 2015.

Green Beanery, based in downtown Toronto, is the social enterprise arm of Probe International. Green Beanery provides small coffee farmers around the world, specializing in niche coffees with characteristics as distinctive and extraordinary as their local ecology, access to new markets. Instead of being forced to shift to mass-market crops, these small farmers are able to continue planting traditional varieties that help to maintain genetic diversity in the world’s store of coffee. Green Beanery customers benefit too by being able to choose from North America’s largest selection of roasted and unroasted coffee beans. All profits from Green Beanery’s operations support the work of Probe International.

1. For centuries, Yunnan’s Tea Horse Road, an old trade route also called the South Silk Road, was a vital trade link from Yunnan, one of the first tea-producing regions, to Bengal via Burma; to Tibet; and to central China via Sichuan Province, and served as a conduit for tea, salt, ideas, and perhaps coffee plants.

2. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, coffee rust, the most devastating disease of coffee plants, is caused by the fungus Hemileia vastatrix. Long known in coffee-growing areas of Africa, the Near East, India, Asia and Australasia, rust was discovered in 1970 to be widespread in Brazil, the first known infected area in the Western Hemisphere. Rust destroyed the once-flourishing coffee plantations of Sri Lanka and Java.

3. In the mid-1960s, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese Communist Party introduced a radical new system of health-care delivery for the rural masses, in order to provide basic medical care. Soon, “barefoot doctors” could be found throughout the country (providing mostly Chinese herbal medicine, acupuncture and some western medicine treatments), creating a national network of health-care services. The barefoot doctors were portrayed nationally and internationally as revolutionary heroes, wading undaunted through rice paddies to bring effective, low-cost care to poor peasants. These were unpaid jobs: a barefoot doctor also worked as a farmer and may also have received a share of the grain harvest and, in some cases, payment from a village co-op in exchange for their services.

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