Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive: The Social World of Coffee from Papua New Guinea

From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive: The Social World of Coffee from Papua New Guinea

by Paige West

See All Formats & Editions

In this vivid ethnography, Paige West tracks coffee as it moves from producers in Papua New Guinea to consumers around the world. She illuminates the social lives of the people who produce coffee, and those who process, distribute, market, and consume it. The Gimi peoples, who grow coffee in Papua New Guinea's highlands, are eager to expand their business and


In this vivid ethnography, Paige West tracks coffee as it moves from producers in Papua New Guinea to consumers around the world. She illuminates the social lives of the people who produce coffee, and those who process, distribute, market, and consume it. The Gimi peoples, who grow coffee in Papua New Guinea's highlands, are eager to expand their business and social relationships with the buyers who come to their highland villages, as well as with the people working in Goroka, where much of Papua New Guinea's coffee is processed; at the port of Lae, where it is exported; and in Hamburg, Sydney, and London, where it is distributed and consumed. This rich social world is disrupted by neoliberal development strategies, which impose prescriptive regimes of governmentality that are often at odds with Melanesian ways of being in, and relating to, the world. The Gimi are misrepresented in the specialty coffee market, which relies on images of primitivity and poverty to sell coffee. By implying that the "backwardness" of Papua New Guineans impedes economic development, these images obscure the structural relations and global political economy that actually cause poverty in Papua New Guinea.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Coffee is a global and of course a ubiquitous commodity. And here lies its analytical challenge: how to grasp the full complexity of a drug whose path from production to consumption entails a world of enormous semiotic, cultural, institutional, political, economic, and ecological complexity. Paige West takes us deep into the heart of coffee's image world, as a spectacle, as a brand, and as a carrier of forms of certified value. But she also pursues the bean into the highlands of Papua New Guinea, where the crop, paradoxically, has little cultural value, and through the global supply chains of corporate shippers and processors. Here is an ethnography which exposes our morning cappuccino to the bright light of modernity. From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive does for coffee what Sidney Mintz in Sweetness and Power did for sugar: here in short is a meditation on caffeine and power."—Michael Watts, Chancellor's Professor, University of California, Berkeley

"Paige West writes against two kinds of flatness: the flatness of commodity chain studies and the flatness of ethical consumption's marketing spin. She offers, instead, a richly peopled ethnographic account of coffee's trajectory through time, space, lives, and imaginations, and takes us deep into the contradictory heart of our neoliberal times. Penetrating, provocative, and moving, this is an excellent read."—Tania Murray Li, University of Toronto

Sarah Lyon

From modern production to imagined primitive is a unique and valuable contribution owing to its geographical focus, its topical attention to gender roles, the complexities of co-operation, and the poorly understood world of commodity distribution. It also deepens our anthropological understanding of the social imaginary and the problematic consequences of identity-based marketing.... West builds on the work of critical geographers to argue convincingly that the specialty coffee industry reproduces troubling stereotypical images while occluding the real history and political economic position of the producers.”
David Sutton

From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive provides a compelling picture of the people and images that have created the commodity chain of New Guinean coffee, and it will make a stimulating touchstone for future studies on this topic.”
American Ethnologist - Rebecca Mari Meuninck
“This well-written ethnography contributes to several bodies of literature including those on coffee production and commodity chain studies, and ethnographic accounts from Papua New Guinea. It would be useful for graduate or undergraduate courses on globalization, as an example in graduate courses on writing ethnography, and for those scholars studying commodity chains and third-party certification systems.”
Ryan Schram

“West’s account of the production and consumption of PNG coffee is… unbounded…. she does not limit herself to one setting, perspective, or community and focus on how coffee intersects with this. Rather she combines observations.… This imagination is what makes coffee valuable in different ways to the agents involved in its global journey. West’s wide-ranging approach points to an important aspect of the overall framing of each book…. [She] is most explicit in thinking through what kind of an analysis she can give in this manner.”
American Anthropologist - Daniel Reichman
“Although many anthropologists have traced paths traveled by specific commodities around the world, no study can match the ambition and sweep of Paige West’s book.
Oceania - Tuomas Tammisto
“A very powerful account of contemporary Papua New Guinea and global capitalism. It critically examines the fantasy images so known to us through popular media and advertising of commodities and shows how very real consequences these fantasies have. Written in an extremely clear and vivid style, the book makes excellent reading for courses on environmental anthropology, neoliberalism and Papua New Guinea. It critically examines the seemingly well meaning certification schemes, which raise questions among both academics and consumers alike, and this should allow for a wide-based readership. Finally, it simply is a very solid and well written ethnography based on long periods of fieldwork, which gives a thorough account of global coffee markets.”
Social Analysis - Robert W. Thurston
“Readers must be grateful for this ‘rich’ look at the Gimi people and for West’s challenge to analyze the images attached to them and to coffee.” 
Contemporary Pacific - Larry Lake
“This fine study could be useful in anthropology courses, area studies of Pacific culture, and courses on food studies, as well as a satisfying accompaniment to many hot cups of coffee.”
Electronic Green Journal - Amy E. Harth
“West provides an excellent ethnography that covers a wide variety of issues regarding coffee production in Papua New Guinea. Her analyses are complex and her research detailed. This work is of great value to increasing our understanding of Papua New Guinea as well as the creation of the imagined primitive in order to sell coffee.” 
Southeast Asian Studies - Hilary Howes
“West balances vivid description with thoughtful analysis throughout, avoiding the temptation to oversimplify the complex and often contradictory ways in which coffee helps shape people’s lives...I found From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive both engaging and thought-provoking.” 
Pacific Affairs - Bryant Allen
"A book that has as its main themes criticisms of neoliberal economics and fair trading could have been rather dull. But Paige West brings these themes to life by using her ethnographic skills to meet and talk with the growers, the buyers, the traders in PNG and overseas and the coffee shop owners."

Product Details

Duke University Press Books
Publication date:
Edition description:
New Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt


The Social World of Coffee from Papua New Guinea

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2012 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-5136-8

Chapter One


One way that scholars have tried to understand the social effects of global capitalism has been by looking at the production, circulation, and consumption of commodities. Coffee is a commodity par excellence that has been uniquely important to Papua New Guinea and its citizens historically and currently, particularly in the Highlands Regions of the country. Historically, coffee spread through capillary social networks and in many ways grafted onto and complemented existing Melanesian ideas of personhood and sociality. Today new neoliberal forms of capitalism have brought fair-trade, organic, and other coffee-certification schemes to Papua New Guinea—schemes which impose fully formed prescriptive regimes of governmentality at odds in many ways with Melanesian ways of seeing and being in the world. These same forms of capitalism have brought into being the specialty coffee market, a market in which coffee is valued, bought, and sold based on images of coffee producers and locations of production. This book uses coffee to understand labor, and the multiple forms it takes in our global economy, value, and the ways it is produced today with regard to both objects and human lives, images, and how specific ideas about nature and culture are made to adhere to objects, and the politics and material effects of the circulation of images of Papua New Guinea and the people whose labor brings Papua New Guinean coffee into being. With this, the book examines the world of coffee from Papua New Guinea, including its political ecology, social history, and social meaning, in order to contribute to anthropological discussions about circulation and neoliberalization. The book explores these issues ethnographically.

Senses of Coffee

Coffee is a plant native to Ethiopia, which has, over the past two thousand years, become a commodity powerhouse producing physical spaces and human subjectivities on a global scale. Coffea, the genus that encompasses the multiple species of coffee, is part of the enormous family Rubiaceae, which includes six hundred genera and about ten thousand species (Clifford and Wilson 1985; Wrigley 1988). Within the genus Coffea are ten species, two of which—Coffea arabica and Coffea robusta—have radically transformed ecologies and societies in the equatorial and subtropical parts of the world. Today 25 million people in sixty countries produce 12 billion pounds of coffee a year, and each year coffee generates retail sales of over $70 billion, the vast majority produced in tropical countries and 75 percent of it imported by the United States, Europe, and Japan. In the world market of commodities only petroleum has greater monetary value and is traded more frequently than coffee (Donald 2004).

Coffee grows on trees that thrive at altitudes between 1,800 and 3,600 feet in the subtropics and between 3,600 and 6,300 feet in the tropics (Illy and Viani 1995, 21). In these environments you can easily take a ripe, pulped, and fermented coffee bean, plant it, germinate it, and then propagate it as a coffee-tree seedling (Mitchell 1988, 46). You can then plant that seedling, once it reaches about 30 centimeters in height, in a field or a mixed-crop garden, and in three to four years your seedling, now a tree, will produce tiny white flowers. About thirty-five weeks after the flowers are pollinated your tree will be covered in ripe, red coffee "cherries" that are ready to be harvested.

While there are some farms that use harvesting machines, the majority of coffee is harvested by hand, which allows farmers and pickers to go tree to tree and harvest only the ripest "cherry." Pickers can also return to trees over and over again to make sure that every cherry is eventually harvested. Once the cherries are harvested they must be pulped, fermented, dried, processed, shipped, roasted, packaged, and marketed before they are consumed. Throughout this process the beans are bought and sold many times over and moved to numerous locations. With each relocation their economic and social value as well as their social and symbolic meaning changes.

Coffee moves around our planet. It is carried by farmers on their backs, in donkey-drawn wagons, and in wheelbarrows. It is loaded into trucks, cars, airplanes, boats, and ships. It moves down walking tracks through dense tropical forests and well-worn paths across deforested land. It travels on dirt and gravel roads, on regional highways, and on superhighways. It moves across our airways and shipping lanes. At every moment, every second of the day and night, there is coffee moving around our world. And it has moved like this for a very long time (Schivelbusch 1993; Wild 2005). Coffee has been at the commodity forefront of what is today described as "globalization" since the social, economic, and political processes and configurations that we name with that term began (Schivelbusch 1993).

The smell of coffee is one of my first memories. When I was a child I spent a great deal of time at my grandparents' house in the rural mountains of northern Georgia. My grandfather's father built the farmhouse in 1882, and its old wooden walls allow for sound and smell to flow through it freely. As a child I slept in the room across the hall from the kitchen, and I remember waking up in the big, old bed, deep with quilts even during the hottest days of July, hearing my grandparents' voices and smelling my grandmother's coffee. I would lie in bed and let the sense of safe calmness wash over me before I sneaked into the kitchen. There my grandfather, eating a bowl of Kellogg's Corn Flakes, and my grandmother, drinking a cup of watery black instant Maxwell House coffee, would greet me.

Instant coffee—dried, crispy, diamond-like granules—was the staple coffee in most households from the end of the Second World War until the late 1980s. Between the late 1940s and the mid-1980s the global market for coffee was internationally regulated and dominated by large corporate roasters like Maxwell House and Procter and Gamble. These roasters produced what many coffee drinkers and coffee marketers today consider low-quality, homogeneous coffee, coffee that mirrored the Fordist industrial economy in which standardization and mass production were central goals (see Harvey 1990).

Today when I visit my grandmother, I bring the coffee. On most days she still drinks Maxwell House, but in the early mornings when I find her in the kitchen, I make a pot of what Roseberry (1996) calls "yuppie coffee," formally known as "specialty coffee." This kind of coffee gained entry into the global coffee market when it was deregulated in the late 1980s and when the International Coffee Agreement (ICA)—a global price stabilization agreement—fell apart in 1989. The term "specialty coffees" includes flavored coffees, "single-origin" coffees (e.g., Papua New Guinea coffee marketed as such and Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee), organic coffees, fair-trade coffees, and other seemingly socially responsible coffees that are usually brought to market by small coffee companies—roasters, distributors, and coffee shops. Specialty coffees are often marketed to communicate an evolution in our discerning palette, and their high prices convey their exclusivity. But in fact the availability of these diverse coffees reflects structural changes in the global economy. Their market is flexible, consumer-oriented, and specialized; we might think of them as post-Fordist coffees (Doane 2010; Harvey 1990).

When I've recently returned from Papua New Guinea, the country where I have conducted anthropological research since 1997, I have brought Arabicas Coffee, Goroka Coffee, or Kongo Coffee for my grandmother, brands that are produced, processed, packaged, and marketed locally in Papua New Guinea. Arabicas Ltd. and Goroka Coffee Roasters are in the town of Goroka, the capital of the Eastern Highlands Province, and Kongo Coffee Ltd. is in Kundiawa, the capital of the Simbu Province. If I have not recently been to Papua New Guinea, I bring coffee from Coffee Connections, a Goroka-based company that exports to Vournas Coffee Trading, a small importing company in California that buys organic and fair-trade-certified coffees from around the world and sells them to roasters and distributors across the United States.

Among coffee experts, often called "cuppers" in the coffee business, Papua New Guinea coffee is variously described as "sweetly acidic with mild to medium body and fruity undertones," having "uniquely wild notes in the cup with a fruity endnote," "bright, clean, fruited," "rustic," "rich with good acidity and a rich chocolaty finish," "what Jamaica Blue Mountain used to taste like, primitive flavors," and "full-bodied with a thick texture and a smooth and soft aftertaste." Papua New Guinea coffee, which is often described as one of the Indonesian coffees, is also discussed with other single-origin coffees. It is compared to coffees from Java and Sumatra because of similar "notes" in flavor and because of its shared Indonesian origin; to coffees from Jamaica's Blue Mountain region because of taste, and because seedlings planted in Papua New Guinea in the 1930s came from Jamaica; and to coffee grown in the mountains of Tanzania, because the flavor is derived from similar high-altitude, volcanic-soil cultivation.

My grandmother loves both the flavor and the packaging of New Guinea coffee; the Arabicas and Goroka coffee packages are the ones she likes the best. Arabicas Ltd. has a series of New Guinea Bird of Paradise paintings on its packaging. The bags are metallic blue, orange, or black, each with a different bird. The orange bag, the Paradiso Organic blend, has a Raggiana Bird of Paradise (Paradisaea raggiana) on it, the national symbol for the country of Papua New Guinea: it is depicted on the country's flag, and is the emblem of the Coffee Industry Corporation (CIC) of Papua New Guinea, the national agency for coffee. Birds of Paradise are also on the Goroka coffee packages, which are deep green, golden yellow, bright red, and sky blue, while a drawing of a man wearing face paint and a feathered headdress is on the white bag.

The feathered and painted man on the white bag of "Goroka house-blended coffee" from Goroka Coffee Roasters is reminiscent of much of the packaging on coffee that is marketed as New Guinea "single-origin" coffee. New Guinea is known throughout the world for its cultural, linguistic, and biological diversity. According to the Ethnologue bibliography of world languages, Papua New Guinea has 841 living languages, while West Papua has 263. This linguistic diversity, coupled with the unique and very recent history of exploration, colonization, and independence of Papua New Guinea, has lodged the place and its people in the consciousness of the rest of the world in compelling ways. The entire island of New Guinea is often represented in popular media as a remote, Edenic paradise replete with undiscovered species of plants and animals and colorful, partially clothed natives, a beautiful and noble people balanced on a cliff between the savage, dangerously primitive aspects of humankind and a modernization which will destroy their pristine nature and culture. The packaging and marketing of much Papua New Guinea single-origin and certified coffee draws on this imagery, as does much of the other marketing associated with coffee.

Arabicas Coffee, Goroka Coffee, and Coffee Connections all buy coffee from people in Maimafu village, a rural, Gimi-speaking village in the Lufa District, on the border of the Eastern Highlands, Gulf, and Simbu provinces. I've spent over fifty months in Maimafu over the past sixteen years working as a cultural and environmental anthropologist, and much of the social and economic life that I have documented there revolves around coffee production. But not just rural villagers are connected to coffee production in Papua New Guinea. One of every three people in the country is connected to the coffee industry in some way, and between 300,000 and 400,000 households depend upon it as their only source of income.8p People work as growers, workers in the processing factories and coffee transport industries, and businesspeople in the processing, transporting, and distributing industries. Thousands of people support the industry as security guards, cleaning women, clerical and accounting staff, and truck drivers. In the Eastern Highlands most other regional industry depends on coffee to keep the cash flowing: the secondhand clothing industry sees an increase in business during coffee season, the trade-stores see profits increase during the season, and the restaurants, shops, car dealerships, and other small businesses depend on the coffee season to make yearly profit margins. In Goroka women in the craft and fresh vegetable markets say that their profits go up every coffee season. Many people in the country call coffee "the people's industry" because it directly links people throughout the country with each other socially and economically, and it links Papua New Guineans with other people across the globe.

Between 86 and 89 percent of coffee grown in Papua New Guinea is "smallholder" coffee, grown by landowners who live in relatively rural settings with small family-owned and family-operated coffee gardens, and with little to no support from private or government agricultural extension. Of all the coffee produced in Papua New Guinea, 95 percent is arabica coffee grown in the Highlands of the country. Among Gimi-speaking people, families run these small coffee businesses, which often serve as their only source of income. During the coffee season men, women, and children work on coffee plots, and social life revolves around this seasonal agriculture. The season, which in Maimafu runs from late May to early October during the southwest monsoons, is the driest time of year in a place that is always hot, wet, and humid. During these months families pick their coffee. They begin in groves at the lower altitudes and move up the sides of the mountains as the coffee ripens. Maimafu is located in the high mountains and is made up of family group-based hamlets on fifteen ridge-tops that span a topographic range between 1,500 and 1,700 meters. Coffee groves have transformed the landscape in and around Maimafu village just as they have transformed landscapes across the Highlands.

Families go to their coffee groves together, and everyone spends days picking the ripe, red cherries from the coffee trees. Women carry cherries back to the hamlet or to the closest source of running water—either streams or the village water system—and wash them. After washing, cherries are put into white coffee bags until the family has enough of the crop to begin the village-based wet processing. When a sufficient amount of coffee has been picked, the coffee is washed again and the red cherry (the pulp), which is held to the coffee beans with a thick, sticky-sweet substance, is taken off the beans. This can be done by hand or by using a hand-turned coffee-pulping machine. The coffee is then placed in clean bags to ferment for twelve to twenty-four hours so that the sticky substance can be removed with a final washing. Once the water runs clean, the coffee beans are laid out in the sun to dry. Depending on the amount of rain that falls, the drying process may take a few or many days. Once the beans are dry the coffee (now called "parchment") is ready to be sold. Unless these rural smallholders have a direct relationship with a coffee-buying company, they usually sell their coffee to intermediary buyers who visit villages and transport the coffee to Goroka.

Once the village-dry coffee is ready to be sold to buyers, women pack it in 60-kilogram bags and carry it to the village airstrip. In Maimafu this trip may be a ten-minute or one-hour walk, depending on the distance of a family's hamlet from the airstrip. After the coffee arrives at the airstrip it must be weighed by a buyer or by the village-aviation coordinator. The airfreight cost is calculated, and if the smallholders are selling to a buyer or a company with which they have a direct relationship, they receive the daily price of coffee in Goroka minus the freight cost. On occasion growers take the coffee to Goroka themselves—this is rare but does happen when smallholders can get a better price in town than what is being offered to them by village-visiting buyers. Regardless of who takes the coffee to Goroka, all of this coffee is known as "airstrip coffee." When fuel prices rise, as they have done dramatically over the past several years, flying in and out of rural airstrips becomes more expensive, and since the cost of transportation is passed on to growers, coffee profits from airstrip coffee go down.

Whether purchased directly from coffee producers by a company or moved through an intermediary coffee buyer, once the coffee is in Goroka the parchment is usually dried a bit more and the waxy, white skin, the "silver skin," is removed. At this stage of development beans, until roasted, are referred to as "green bean." The green bean is either processed in Papua New Guinea (roasted and packaged for shipment to stores in Papua New Guinea and abroad) or sold for export to those who will then ship the beans through the international port in the Papua New Guinean city Lae, and then all over the world.


Excerpted from FROM MODERN PRODUCTION TO IMAGINED PRIMITIVE by PAIGE WEST Copyright © 2012 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Paige West is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Barnard College, Columbia University. She is the author of Conservation Is Our Government Now: The Politics of Ecology in Papua New Guinea, also published by Duke University Press, and a co-founder and co-editor of the journal Environment and Society.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews