Coffee producers from Myanmar are offering green coffee on Algrano for the first time in 2023. But roasters might find it hard to navigate sourcing from this origin.
Is it ethical to buy from Myanmar two years after the military took control of the government? Who are you really buying from? What if customers ask about it?
Algrano spoke to the following specialists in value chain development who have been deeply involved in the Myanmar coffee sector:
Reto Meili, of the Swiss Institute of Intellectual Property (IPI). He first approached Algrano in 2022. Before the coup, the IPI started a Geographical Indication project with the Myanmar Coffee Association in Ywangan.
Since the coup, the institute hasn’t worked with the government. They focus their support on producer groups and entities without links to the military. The requested training is delivered from a distance.
Photograph by Mario Fernández
Mario Fernández (left), former Coffee Quality Institute coordinator for the USAID-funded Value Chains Rural Development project in Myanmar and Technical Officer at Specialty Coffee Association.
Mario worked directly with producer groups in the country and has deep knowledge of the coffee supply chain in Myanmar.
Photograph by Lisa Conway
Lisa Conway (middle), Coffee Quality Institute’s Senior Director of Partnerships and one of the institute’s longest-serving employees. She supported producer groups with training, buyer visits, and events.
Photograph by Marcelo Pereira MagnereMarcelo Pereira Magnere, Coffee Quality Specialist and former coffee team leader for the Winrock project in Myanmar.
This blog will help you understand where coffee producers in Myanmar stand and give you the information you need to talk about it to your customers.
It also explains why we absolutely stand behind the producers listed on Algrano and believe that buying their coffee is a positive way of supporting them and the speciality sector in Myanmar.
Politics in Myanmar: an Overview
Myanmar has been under a military regime since February 2021. The armed forces, also known as the Tatmadaw, staged a coup alleging election fraud. Prominent pro-democracy leader and state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi was removed from power alongside President Win Myint and arrested.
Originally, the military junta declared a “state of emergency” for one year. This has been extended repeatedly since. Thousands of civilians have been killed in Myanmar and the country has been subject to financial sanctions by Western nations.
Photography by Saw Wunna
With all this in the background, people in the coffee industry have been questioning whether it’s ethical to buy coffee from Myanmar. We’ve even seen claims that beans from the origin are “dictatorship coffee”.
This is understandable. Large international companies have a history of funding the military in Myanmar. The movement Justice for Myanmar has an extensive “Cartel Finance Map”, disclosing businesses with direct and indirect links to the junta.
But is the coffee sector in bed with the military? And are we confident that the producer groups we’re working with have no relations with the regime? Below, we’ll unpack our findings on the ethics of buying Myanmar coffee.
Photograph by Gayatri Malhotra
Is the Coffee Sector in Myanmar Supporting the Military?
All countries imposing sanctions on Myanmar have lists of companies and persons linked to the regime. Official sanction lists are the best tools available to companies making new partnerships in Myanmar. They identify individuals and entities that support or supply the military.
This scrutiny is necessary because it's important not to support the junta. And the Myanmar-Swiss Intellectual Property project (MYSIPP) checked each company involved in the Geographical Indication project, including the two groups offering on Algrano - Mandalay Coffee Group and Shwe Taung Thu.
All checks came back clear. No links to the military government.
Photo by Saw Wunna
Why Mutual Partnerships Are Crucial
We strive to visit new farmers and producer groups when they start selling coffee on the platform and our team has visited the vast majority of them. In this case, we were unable to go to Myanmar due to travel restrictions.
However, we've spent over a year having online meetings and communicating with the producers we work with, as well as doing quality checks and talking to mutual partners.
Additionally, we spoke to industry leaders who vouch for these groups and have worked with them extensively. And we had the opportunity to spend time together at World of Coffee in 2022.
We recognise the effort of producers in Myanmar to improve their post-harvest and become a part of the international community, offering coffees of unique quality. They deserve to find good buyers and roasters can still build important direct relationships with estates and smallholder groups.
The Senior General’s Visit (What Can Producers Do?)
As a part of our due diligence, we learned that there were official visits to processing stations and the Myanmar Coffee Association in 2022. Producer groups “welcomed” a senior general to “inspect” their operations. Photos were taken - and red flags were raised.
But wait a minute. Does this mean, as some would argue, that coffee producers are suddenly associated with the government?
It's not impossible that big players in the Myanmar coffee sector, some of which control key companies in the commercial-grade market, have relations with the military.
"They are not interested in traceability, transparency or differentiation, and micro-lots would be a hassle for them. If you focus on specialty grade and fully traceable coffee lots from Myanmar, you are buying from the right people," says Marcelo.
“Smallholders have absolutely nothing to do with politics.” Mario Fernández explains. He reflects that it’s impossible to make a living in Myanmar (in any sector, not just coffee) if you don’t “get along” with the government.
Mario doesn’t support a boycott of Myanmar coffee. He says, “My view is that ultimately you are helping the original producers. The people there are wonderful, some of the sweetest people I’ve met. And they deserve better. I think it’s unfair that Westerners don’t want to help them because of politics.”
Photograph by Shwe Taung Thu
Lisa contends that producers probably can’t say no to the government, considering the hardships that have resulted from the February coup. She is surprised coffee is still coming out of Myanmar in the first place.
“This is a testament to their will to be a part of the specialty coffee world and realise financial gain for their hard work,” Lisa says.
The “Dirty Coffee” Dilemma
Having supported dozens of coffee-producing countries during her 14 years with the CQI, Lisa has seen ethical dilemmas pop up “again and again” in the coffee industry.
“I have seen countries drop out of public favour based on their nation’s anti-LGBTQ laws, while others remain in favour even though they have similar laws on the books or other serious internal conflicts with grievous human rights concerns,” Lisa says.
A recent example of this is when conflict broke out in Tigray. Back then, buyers and consumers questioned whether Ethiopian coffee could channel funds to paramilitary groups. There was even a hashtag about it on social media calling consumers to #BoycottEthiopianCoffee.
Lisa labels this type of criticism as the “dirty coffee” dilemma. “We need to acknowledge the poverty and conflict that exist in a cup of coffee.”
“It’s elitist to frame a certain coffee origin as unethical and to think that one fact tells you everything you need to know about a country. I think the people of Myanmar deserve better, especially for the amount of effort that they have put forth to join the specialty coffee industry” Lisa concludes.
Photograph by Mandalay Coffee Group
Coffee has become such an important cash crop in Myanmar over the last decade that stripping small producers of income can only add to the problem. It also debilitates the groups and associations that create a strong supply chain.
Coffee producers in Myanmar are already dealing with inflation and higher costs of living as a result of the pandemic and economic sanctions. They struggle to import goods and get less money when they export because the government controls the official exchange rate.
We believe the best thing we can do is to combine support for the emergent specialty coffee sector in Myanmar with due diligence so that producers are not punished (again) for something they’re not responsible for.