In a bid to replace opium as northern Thailand's predominant crop, the Thai Monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) decided to sponsor coffee plantations in the country's northern forested highland in the early 1970s. The state claimed that forests were being lost to the swidden agriculture and opium production practiced by forest-dwelling Indigenous communities of northern Thailand. Instead of establishing open-air robusta plantations, Bhumibol advocated shade-grown Arabica (Coffea arabica), which could be planted within the existing forest coverage in the region—thus initiating a popular political investment in agro-forestry in Thailand. Coffee was both introduced within existing forests in northern Thailand as well as planted with a view toward the widespread transformation of open-air opium land into shaded forested areas for coffee cultivation. The large canopies could provide microclimates suitable for protecting the coffee trees from the excessive heat and wind found in open-air plantations. Here, King Bhumibol intended to harness a key elemental specificity of tropical forests—shade—for the en masse regeneration of forest cover through coffee and other plants.
Tropical forests have always been framed through the binaries of light and dark. Whether seen as the opposite of the enlightened spaces of Europe, or a space where wildness manifests in the shadows, tropical or subtropical forests have always been metaphorically or materially conjoined to darkness. Departing from this normative framework, following Niharika Dinkar (2019: 16), I look at shade (the middle ground between light and dark) as it “inflects bodies, [elements,] and spaces.” (Dinkar 2019: 10). While I borrow from existing scholarship on the anthropology of luminosity—the material and symbolic consideration of light as a social agent (Bille and Sørensen 2007: 264–66)—I entangle such scholarship within the more-than-human and decolonial concerns that the forest produces. The (subtropical) forest is a shaded space with many folded gradations, with the spatial distribution of patterns of light and shade shaping the life and agricultural relations of the Indigenous communities (here the Akha) who tend to this land. In this visual essay, I look at the deployment of shade in these forests through the cultivation of shade-grown coffee in Thailand in the last few decades.
This visual essay builds on my larger project, “Forested Media,” which not only studies forests as they are mediated by sociotechnical systems like film, radio, or cartography, but also encounters them as sites of sensory experience and exploration within a specific geopolitical milieu. For me, shade is key to understanding the sensory experience of light in the forest, and its relationship to the conditions of Indigenous plantation labor in northern Thailand. Shade-grown coffee plantations, while promoted as ecologically friendly, provided means by which erstwhile nomadic Indigenous communities like the Akha were conscripted as permanent laborers or debt-ridden small-farm owners. This also made them transition out of opium production and nomadic swidden agriculture to settled plantation life as indentured laborers. Following the life of shade, coffee, and Indigenous laborers, the visual essay emerges from my field visits to the sloping coffee agro-forestry farms around an Akha-dominant village, Pangkhon (thirteen hundred feet above mean sea level) in Chiang Rai District, northern Thailand. As I observe and think of light in the forest, the essay concerns itself with how shade mediates environmental and biological relations, but also in tandem with the region's social, historical, and industrial practices.
Standing by the handrail of what must have been a thriving cafe before the pandemic, Lee (a middle-aged coffee farmer), my research collaborator Huiying Ng (who translated and mediated our conversation), and I looked out onto the landscape (fig. 1). When I asked what the landscape at the far back was, Lee pointed toward the forested valleys and said, “All that land is managed by the country.” The two highest ridges (in the top-right corner of fig. 1) were managed by the army (军队, Jūnduì), the rest by the Thai Forestry Department. A little later he added, “Anyhow all those big tall trees are managed by them.”
Here Lee was not just pointing to Thai scientific forestry ideals that, borrowing from German forestry, aesthetically valorized and preserved tall straight trees. He also meant Thai Forestry's emphasis on shade in its restorative capacity, as part of its “three forests, four benefits” program. While the first three benefits, “fire, shelter, food,” are more material, the last benefit—shade—is in fact the goal of an afforestation drive that aims to produce broad canopies that can control light (and concurrently temperature) in these (sub)tropical forests. So, what farmer Lee was pointing to in the distance was the thick, quasi-impenetrable forest shade, absent in spaces outside, even to a degree in his coffee farm (seen in fig. 1 in the foreground, prominently at the right). Shade is also a crucial indicator for forest health in contemporary forest restoration practices. In a study that the Forest Restoration Research Unit, Chiang Mai University, did to measure forest growth, they assigned a shade score (on a scale of 0 to 3) to measure its density and spread (Elliott et al. 2019: 11–16). Their paper argued that key to rapid forest restoration are tree species that grow dense, broad crowns, shading out weeds and attracting seed-dispersing animals to their canopies. In its projected ideal, restoring shade benefits the forest and its species.
Farmer Lee quipped, however, that those big, tall trees with their perfect shade were out of bounds for the Akha villagers. Since the 1980s and 1990s, the Akha had only been given title deeds to coffee farms to manage and cultivate. The farms’ shade, we later realized, was uneven, patchy, sometimes barely even there. Their access to forests grew increasingly limited to the community forests allotted by the Thai state.
In another coffee farm on the other side of the hilly village, managed by Phaew and his wife, we could clearly distinguish between the controlled shaded areas inaccessible to the local Indigenous group and the open-air land cultivated by the local community (fig. 2). Cutting through the shaded and nonshaded areas (not pictured here) was a recently minted concrete road joining the village to Chiang Rai, a major Thai town at the foothills.
Thinking about shade needs an architectural attunement to the forest. One has to consider both the height and spread of the tree canopy and how deeply the tree roots penetrate in relation to the roots of coffee shrubs, since this enables nutrient flow. Lastly, one must think of the arrangement and various species of trees that can be planted alongside coffee. Shade is thereby managed architecturally, by a volumetric consideration of the forest's height and depth and the distance between trees, but also by the relations between various plant species. In a 1982 study on the arrangement of coffee shrubs beside shading trees, carried out by the Royal Forestry Department (Preechapanya 1986: 82–85), four squarish plots were planted with coffee and one of the following species of tree: Pinus kesiya (khasi three-needled pine), Calliandra callothyrus (powder puff plant), or Docynia indica (pome fruit tree), and Prunus meme (plum). While the results—height, tree health—varied considerably across tree species and the year of study, it interests me that the study was nevertheless premised on alternating between forest (or shade giving) trees and coffee shrubs on single rows—each row of coffee and shade tree separated by two meters. So while coffee production in Thailand was initiated within a larger practice of foresting and growing a canopy, it was nonetheless designed along the lines of plantations: where neat linear rows of singular coffee species alternated with shade trees. The following page shows a hand-drawn copy of the Royal Forestry Department's gridded arrangement (fig. 6).
While the scientists at this project laid out coffee and shade trees in alternating rows and columns, for farmers like Lee, coffee—whether planted with forest trees or in open, unshaded terrain—had to follow the slope of the land. The hills gave coffee plants a cooler microclimate to grow in, but nevertheless, its cultivators had to be more attentive to the degrees and contours of their farmland. By sketching lines on the wooden railing, Lee explained that while some communities like the Akha—given their long history of terrace farming—till coffee on a semiterraced slope, others plant the shrubs directly along the hill slope (fig. 7). Farming coffee on hills thereby necessitates a finegraine attunement to the topology, soil, and water conditions of a place. Coffee farmers in Pangkhon and elsewhere tend to plant coffee with bamboo and bananas—plants that, Lee argues, hold water closer to the roots, which the coffee shrub can use in different times of the year. Lee could not tell us if the bamboo groves or the coffee was planted first, but they somehow now work in tandem.
While most farms are furrowed on straight terraced lines or follow the contours of the hilly slope, thus maintaining access to equal nutrients and light/shade throughout the day as the sun turns on a valley, a few farmers alter this basic schema. Phaew took over a rather unmanaged farm from his mother. While he had planted some coffee trees before going to Korea, the farm had irregular patches of banana, wild tea, unpruned macadamia trees, and even some sakura. In Phaew's absence, some of the wild grasses had grown taller than five feet, and the grass seeds clung onto our clothes as we walked through. It was hard to spot the coffee shrubs tucked away between tall grasses, old-growth trees, or the newer wild tea trees (fig. 8). Shade here was quite uneven and patchy, and some coffee trees had been left in the open, unshaded areas. I kept joking that Phaew and his wife were trying to restore the forest using agro-forestry, while they in turn kept apologizing for not having had the time to prune the shrubs, cut the grass, and weed the fields. It was an agro-forest that was being aggressively auto-rewilded by weeds and itch-grass, perhaps at the cost of other slow-growing weeds and grasses. At Wini's coffee farm (fig. 9) tucked far away from the village, coffee is planted under the arch of a half-century-old Japanese plum tree. While the plum tree's main trunk looks open, receiving light in a shaft, the coffee plants get shade from its branches that spread out like an umbrella, giving the site a feel of chiaroscuro. In art, chiaroscuro is the manipulation of light and shade, often to the effect of using strong contrast and shadows, to provide volumetric depth in an image. Taking a photo under the plum tree felt like an exercise in chiaroscuro lighting and settings adjustments, resulting in burned-out highlights and strong, obscuring shadows. And in doing so, one realized that this chiaroscuro arrangement had been made into an extractive zone in the coffee agro-forests. Shade was not the absence of visual information or of light. Shade was the regulation of light for photosynthesis, along with the creation of cooler microclimatic conditions in the tropics in which coffee production could thrive.
While shade is a necessity, financial debt and the ever-expanding needs for fertilizers and chemicals make it harder for coffee growers to maintain plots of land with shading trees that offer no immediate financial value. Large coffee farms are often without shade, and they quite aggressively tend toward monocultural plantation logics. Maintaining open-air, nonshaded coffee farms also disturbs the soil, which rapidly erodes under the dry open-air heat. Growing coffee requires the soil to be loosened up, but, bolstered by fertilizers, it loosens and crumbles further on the hill slopes or terraces. Shade-grown coffee farming in Thailand is predominantly dependent on inorganic agro-chemicals and fertilizers (农药 nóngyào), as Lee insisted. On the hilly terraced slopes, soil in an unshaded patch of land is the thinnest: without mulch or moisture, it crumbles beneath one's feet before one can gain a footing. Coffee, grown under shade and even more so on unshaded land, thereby produces the need to “soil surf” (as my collaborator Huiying Ng put it). One must learn to flow, move sideways, skid horizontally on fast eroding soil, know when and how to brake and shift pressure with one's feet. Surfing on loose red soil is then a necessary cultural or bodily technique, a kind of attunement to the interaction of one's body and the soil, produced by coffee—bolstered by fertilizers and the open-air monocultural tendencies underpinning its cultivation. Soil surfing therefore points to an ambivalent history of coffee cultivation in the region—to both a restorative capacity or promise through diverse practices of shaded planting in agro-forestry, as well as an extractive commercial endeavor that forces one to live with and walk on eroding soil crumbling down the valley. Even more so, if the coffee remains unshaded because of the politics of land use and forestry in northern Thailand.
While some agro-forests in Pangkhon are patchily shaded, and some have slowly converted into open-air plantations, others look ahead to the kinds of transitions into increasingly shaded agro-forests that have already happened elsewhere. On this note, Waew mentioned Doi Chang (a small Akha-run farming village at the heart of Thailand's coffee industry) and, while showing us images on her phone, pointed out how the Sirinya coffee farm had transformed from a relatively barren landscape in 2013 to a relatively thickly shaded one by 2022. For Waew, the future was increasingly forested, with more density of shade and canopy cover. For the resident coffee farmers in Pangkhon, such an imaginary of the future is mediated by images of such transformations elsewhere. The image-from-elsewhere conjures a forested future-to-come: a coffee farm increasingly lined with tall trees that cast a neat shade across its understory coffee bushes. This future is increasingly shaded, but its aestheticization and intensities of shade differ. Instead of the densely cast shade of state-controlled forests, here shade is shifting, a lot thinner, and cast patchily across the lines of coffee bushes. What the farmers aspire for is not a preserved virginal forest with dense, impenetrable shade, but open-air land increasingly forested, that is, converted into shaded canopied space. To be forested in this imagination, then, is to think and act processually, to cast a canopy on their land, an uneven wavering patchwork of light and shade. For the Akha farmers, a forested future also means the ability to run and manage this land for themselves. Shade in the forest and coffee farms, as well as our perceptual and kinesthetic experience of this space, is therefore already shaped by the histories of cold war and contemporary politics, military coups and war (such as fertilizer prices soaring owing to Russia's war on Ukraine), cycles of rain and debt, and the mediated desires for canopy cover. Shade necessitates the management of light, trees, soil, and crops at a place, but—as I have just argued—its maintenance, as well as the pruning and picking of coffee shrubs, is also deeply shaped by Indigenous labor, working on the fields with little to no money.
Apart from Pangkhon and other Highland Agricultural Research Centers, I found the Highland People's Discovery Museum in Chiang Mai a curious location to think of forests and mountains, of Indi'ous communities and their relations to cash crop production, particularly opium and coffee, and to Thai state-building initiatives. The three-floored building tells a linear tale of the state's entry and enfolding of ethnic minorities into state practices. The first floor serves as a record of the “primitive” lives of Thailand's Indigenous groups, stultifying their culture, costumes, and culinary habits in detailed tableaux vivant. The second and third floors provide an exhaustive twentieth-century timeline of state-based initiatives that offer development opportunities and thereby enfold otherwise nomadic, impoverished Indigenous communities into modern practices like plantation agriculture, mineral and coal extraction, and forays into tourism and sustainable agriculture, among other trades. Media infrastructures form a central account of the state's developmental practices here. In the middle of the second floor lies an array of different media objects—from film projectors, 16mm reels, cassette recorders, VHS players, to CRT screens. While the wall text next to the 16mm projector highlights the apparatus’ portability, and hence the ability to screen developmental films to different groups—nongovernmental organization workers, state authorities, or Indigenous groups—it also mentions how 16mm film cameras could easily be carried to the forested hills and record the lives of people in the highlands. Media infrastructures here enter the logic of the Thai state's internal colonization efforts—to enfold its impoverished marginal communities through extractive relations.
While I found some of the VHS labels on display at the museum online, videos such as Phi Tong Lueang Hill Tribe People (1990) from the TV show Lok Salab See (The World Has Turned Color), or Hilltribes in Thailand (1970) by the Tourism Authority of Thailand, an algorithmic deep dive also revealed the German documentary filmmaker Werner Ropke's 1973 Super 8mm film Royal Hilltribe Project: Ban Khun Chang Kien, Chiang Mai. The film painstakingly documents both King Bhumibol's trips to Ban Khun Chang Kien (Chiang Mai, Thailand) and the state's efforts to overcome poverty among the Hmong. The documentary thereby weaves together the benefits of transiting from opium and swidden agriculture to multicrop cultivation, from burnt forested lands to spaces of fertile greenery: a newfound access to roads, clean water, and schools. Ropke's film ends with Hmong children lining up to greet and welcome the royal family. As Nadine Chan (2022) and other scholars have argued, cinema has always been a handmaiden of the creation of colonies and empires, in which state building is tied to the formation of extractive plantation economies. Cinema has been a useful medium for states, recording and circulating the productive life worlds of plantation spaces and the ideological projects tethered to it (Wasson and Ackland 2011: 4–5). Ropke's film serves such a dual purpose too: locating the supposed harm of opium and swidden agriculture on Indigenous life (burning and destroying forests), as well as the developmental promise accrued through state-led plantation cropping. Through this developmentalism, all Indigenous land is claimed as state land: rendering a space of Indigenous commons into demarcated state-owned forests, agro-forestry, and plantation zones for communities who have historically been without citizenship papers or title deeds (even today, to an extent). The film marks this statist appropriation of land with aerial reconnaissance shots hovering between forests and their outsides, images of surveyors with theodolites and measuring instruments demarcating forest and nonforest lands, and with cinematic intertitles and slides foregrounding this history. Here, in this demarcation between the forest, the agro-forest, and the plantation, I am reminded of Lee's pithy quip on land and shade. While the tall dark trees are state-owned forests, as he said, I realized that community-managed land was marked by open air and uneven, patchy shade—taken care of and forested by communities that live through debt, price fluctuations, and land tenure conflicts, and who learn to farm crops that the state has handed over onto them.
This project would not have been possible without Huiying Ng and Kanchana Di-ut, my collaborators, coresearchers, and cotranslators for this research on coffee, and especially my field visits to Pangkhon, Thailand. I would also like to extend my gratitude to Do Tuong Linh and Abhijan Toto for including a different iteration of this work in their show Foliage IV, at the Vincom Center for Contemporary Art, Hanoi.
Disclaimer: To protect their identities, the names of all coffee cultivators in this photo essay have been changed.