Coffee farmers in Malaysia hope to plant the seeds of tourismCoffee farmers in Malaysia hope to plant the seeds of tourism

The scorching sun of Borneo’s midday heat smolders the mud beneath my feet as I walk with a group of enthusiastic Malaysian farmers to the fields, which, they believe, will aid in the development of tourism in the remote region of Sarawak.

“Here we are.” A bespectacled farmer, Tomy Pangot, adjusts his straw hat prior to showing a clearing where rows of plants dance with the wind.

With a smile that is not hidden, Pangot escorts us around the neat rows of his coffee plants.

Plump red cherries cause the branches to sag slightly as they weigh them down – an opportunity in the eyes of Pangot and the residents who live in Long Banga, an outpost in the southern part of Ulu Baram, a region located in northeast Sarawak in the islands of Borneo.

“Back in the day, it took us four days on foot to reach school in Bario,” the penghulu (regional head) of Punang Kelapang Robin Udau shared with me as we ate the dinner of welcome served by an elder upon our arrival.

In the present, the rugged roads for logging between two towns can take approximately three hours. Meanwhile, the trip between Long Banga to the coast and Miri, the largest city and the largest city in the region, is a rocky four-wheel-drive journey that could take about 10 to 15 hours.

Arriving in the Long Banga airstrip, the longest in Malaysia. Photo: Chan Kit Yeng

The drive to create Malaysian liberica coffee, their most sought-after product, has helped Long Banga attract adventurous travelers to its cozy homestays and blend between Sa’ban and Kenyah Lepo Keh traditions.

The almond-shaped beans of Liberica are slightly smoky in taste with a floral and fruity scent, yet they account for just 1% of all coffee produced worldwide.

Much less well-known than robusta or arabica, liberica plants can grow at a lower altitude of 800m (2,600ft) elevation. They can easily adapt to tropical lowlands in Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, in which farmers have been experimenting with this kind of plant for more than a century.

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The introduction of coffee into Borneo in the latter part of the 19th century by the “Second White Rajah,” British Chief of State Sarawak Charles Brooke. With the help of Italian Botanist Odoardo Beccari, In 1866, Brooke granted 600 acres (240 hectares) of land in the vicinity of Kuching, which is now the capital city of the state. Kuching, which was cleared for the establishment of the Matang Coffee and Tea Plantation, is the first of its kind in Malaysia.

The company was shut down in 1912 due to mistakes in management. It was to last for over a century for Malaysian beans to be able to attract the attention of the coffee industry.

In October 2021, coffee beans were harvested from My Liberica, a grower located in Johor in the peninsular region of Malaysia. They came in third in the World Barista Championship in Italy.

A well-known celebrity from Long Banga holds coffee beans, which he just picked. Photo: Chan Kit Yeng

“It’s important to be realistic,” says Alasdair Clayre, a British Anthropologist born within Long Banga in the 1960s by missionary parents. He’s currently studying the issues of identity for the Sa’ban ethnic group.

Considered a part of the community, Clayre is helping the Sa’ban think of innovative ways to utilize their land and the natural bounty that surrounds it to alter their lives to the best of their abilities.

Farmers like Ludia Apoi, who is the proprietor of the Billeng Lemdin homestay together with her husband Ujai, who lives in a comfortable concrete and wooden house located next to the runway at Long Banga’s small airport, are observing the introduction of Liberica coffee plants as the first step towards overcoming the country’s difficult geography.

A barn used for the storage of rice is embellished with an Orang Ulu motif within Long Banga. Photo: Chan Kit Yeng

It’s believed that coffee, Clayre says, has the potential to change the game because, unlike the region’s sweet-as-sugar-pineapples and other crops that are heavy to carry and manage and can be kept for some time or longer and won’t get lost in the long drive to the market on the coast.

“I am aware that coffee projects have failed elsewhere in Sarawak, but my aim here is to have a handful of successful people, a spearhead group, to make it all work,” Claire says. Clayre while we walk among the coffee plants, looking at their leaves and cherries.

Contrary to robusta and arabica, which typically have a beans-to-cherries yield of around 20 percent (coffee beans comprise the cherries’ seeds), Clayre says liberica’s yield ratio is less than 7 percent.

Alasdair Clayre was a British Anthropologist who was born in Long Banga in the 1960s and believed that the cultivation of coffee could transform the lives of Sa’ban farmers. Photo: Chan Kit Yeng

“Since liberica’s ratio is so low, it’s important to calculate how many plants are needed to give the farmers a chance to grow a profitable economy,” says Dr. Kenny Lee Wee Ting, founder of Earthlings Coffee, which operates two stores in Kuching.

The globe-trotting expert was one of the organizers of the inaugural Borneo Coffee Symposium, held in Kuching in 2019, where experts from all over the world met for a discussion on how to improve the production of Sarawak.

The success of the symposium inspired Sarawak vice-chief Minister Douglas Uggah Embas to propose that the state be the largest producer of Liberica coffee beans.


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