e-mail us

Cover story

Good to the last drop: reconciliation in a cup

Paksae and Paksong, Laos

The rise in elevation is gradual but noticeable as the van climbs more than 3,000 feet from the valley cut by the San and Mekong Rivers up to Phu Phieng Boleven (the Boleven Plateau) in southern Laos. The air cools considerably as the van grinds up the road. Lee Thorn and Theresa Kingston are anxious to reach Paksong, a market town on the plateau above.

They have been away for eight months, and they are carrying precious cargo: a one-pound bag of Jhai Coffee.

Jhai Coffee is an organically grown Arabica typica, a premium coffee -- some have called it the finest in the world. Thorn and Kingston are the U.S. end of the Jhai Coffee network. It is roasted and sold in the United States, but it grows here on the Boleven Plateau.

Thorn and Kingston bring a bag of coffee so the growers can taste their final product. The coffee is precious not so much because it retails for $15 per pound, but because it represents the promise of a better life for so many.

Jhai Coffee is rebuilding American and Laotian lives destroyed by bombs, turning enemies into friends and -- as Thorn describes it -- bringing reconciliation where once there was war.

From enemies to partners

In 1966, Lee Thorn was a young sailor on the aircraft carrier USS Ranger in the Gulf of Tonkin. He loaded bombs onto fighter-bombers and later, after the planes had returned, he would thread the projector to show bomber crews “assessment films” of their raids. The bombs Thorn loaded rained down on Laos as part of the nine-year, ultimately futile effort to prevent supplies from reaching communist Vietcong forces attacking U.S.-backed South Vietnam.

Thirty-six years later, Thorn walks amid the people he bombed as a young man. He has met people whose families were destroyed and displaced, sent into internal displacement camps and overseas as refugees. Thorn, too, could be described as a bombing victim, but in a different context. A recovering alcoholic and drug user with posttraumatic stress disorder, Thorn spent many years after the war in his own internal exile.

Thorn’s first trip to Laos was serendipitous. A financial windfall in 1997 allowed him to take a trip he always dreamed of: seeing the orangutans on Borneo. A friend he would travel with suggested they visit Laos too, but Thorn refused. Then he got a letter from Bounthanh Phommasathit, a Laotian who went to America as a refugee in the 1970s. She was looking for help to deliver a donation of medical supplies to a hospital in her home village in central Laos. Thorn reluctantly agreed to deliver the supplies.

In January 1998, he visited the country he had seen countless times in “assessment films.”

The doctor who accepted the medical supplies took Thorn to a local Buddhist temple. More serendipity. The temple was adorned with the traditional murals depicting the life and sermons of Buddha, but the mural that shows scenes from hell included pictures of modern warfare -- guns and bombs and soldiers in khaki uniforms. Thorn was moved to tears. But that night, for the first time in decades, he slept a full night without nightmares.

Now Thorn and Laotian farmers and villagers are coming together for a common purpose under the Jhai Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by Thorn and Bounthanh Phommasathit to provide development aid to Laos. The foundation has stocked hospitals and clinics with basic medical supplies and helped villages build schools, drill wells and organize a weaving cooperative. In southern Laos, Jhai is working with coffee growers to get their premium coffee into the world market instead of selling it for pennies a pound to local traders.

According to Thorn, Jhai never brings a project to a village, school or group. Instead, the programs arise out of the people’s desires and expressed needs. Jhai engages people in a continual dialogue, explains Thorn. He adds that the foundation works on the basis of jhai (heart) and is less about results than establishing and maintaining relationships.

The taste of coffee

Curiosity and anticipation mark the faces of the people standing around the counter of a small restaurant in Paksong. They are pawbaan (literally “father” of the village), the leaders of the villages that grow Jhai coffee. They have come to meet Thorn and Kingston for a meal of laap moo (spicy minced pork), gai yang (fried chicken), tom yam plaa (spicy-sour fish soup), khao ne-yeo (sticky rice) and fresh vegetables. To top off the meal, the group shares cups of freshly ground and brewed Jhai coffee.

The growers have never tasted their coffee roasted by a high quality, professional roaster, prepared as the premium coffee it is. As the hot water hits the fresh grounds and steam rises out of the coffee filter, eyes light up. Smiles spread across faces.

Almost in unison they say, “Hawm, hawm mak [It smells good, very good].” The hot coffee is poured into glasses, some mix in sweetened condensed milk and sugar, and one after another says, “The taste is good, very good.”

Village leader Nummula Thapbouly says, “This is much better than we’ve had before. A very different taste. We’re used to drinking instant coffee.”

Laos produces about 16,000 tons of coffee a year, but most of it is low-quality robusta. For much of the last 30 years, Laos was not able to export coffee. Slowly, foreign markets have opened up to Lao growers, mainly through Vietnamese and Thai traders, but few saw the Arabica typica plants as special. Beans from these trees were tossed into the bags and bins as if they were robusta, and they fetched the same prices, around 26 cents a pound in recent years.

Jhai buys the coffee beans at four or five times the market rate, but they buy only the highest quality Arabica typica. To achieve the necessary quality, the beans are left on the trees until each is the properly ripe bright red color, and then each bean is picked by hand. The beans ripen over a number of weeks between mid-October and early January.

In 2001, Jhai’s first operating year, the foundation bought two tons from 80 farmers in three villages. Kingston, Jhai’s buyer and quality-control expert, hopes to double that this year, and continue doubling it annually over the next five to six years.

“Coffee is the only cash crop in this area,” Kingston says. “So we need to get the coffee out there to the coffee drinkers. We produce an excellent product, and we’ll get the money back to the people who need it.”

Jhai is also working on getting the coffee groves around Paksong certified as organic by an international body. This will help the growers to continue to command top prices in the premium coffee market.

The jubilant mood at the restaurant turns somber when a visiting journalist asks the coffee growers what they think of about Jhai Foundation’s mission of reconciling American and Laotians. It is a question about the war, of which all these men are veterans.

Bounheuang Keomany, another village leader, says, “The war separated families and destroyed them. We try to forget that now. But when we see the bombs, the bad memories and bad dreams all come back.”

Laos is littered with unexploded ordnance, or UXO. Every year some 200 people are killed and two or three times that number maimed by the explosives. A group clearing the land, called UXO Laos, removed and destroyed about 80,000 pieces in 2001. The group needs an estimated 20 to 30 more years to complete the job.

Nummula says, “The past is the past. We learned from the experiences of the past. Now we look to the future for ourselves.”

Free-lance writer Dennis Coday lives in Bangkok, Thailand.

National Catholic Reporter, February 7, 2003