Nature & Conservation / Southeast Asia

Buzzkill: coffee & the future of biodiversity in Indonesia

by Vinita Ramani
Length 14 min

Over 2 billion cups of coffee are consumed daily across the globe, making it one of the world’s most traded commodities. As growing demand threatens to increase deforestation, a small group of farmers and conservationists in Java, Indonesia are growing shade coffee to provide a refuge for biodiversity.

A Fading Forest Opera

A gif of a map showing where Sakakembang is located in Indonesia.

Early mornings in the forest of Sokokembang, in Central Java can be quiet. So there is nothing quite like hearing the song of a female Javan gibbon echoing across mist-covered canopies. Her song marks territory for her family; it tells other troops that this is her turf and intrusion is not permitted. It is so distinctive, that the Javanese name for the primate is “owa jawa”.

Video of Javan Gibbon. Credit: Swara Owa

The population of these endangered primates has dwindled to around 2,000. Several other species endemic to the forests of Central Java—like the langur, slow loris, hawk eagle and the leaf monkey, as well as other species of birds—are being threatened by hunting, deforestation and forest conversion for agriculture.

Deforestation is a global phenomenon, driven by illegal logging for timber, extractive industries, and an increase in agriculture. In Southeast Asia, Indonesia tops the list. Since 2011, a two-year moratorium on forest clearance has been imposed and extended, but the country continues to face problems. Cash crops like palm oil, tobacco, rice, soybean, potato and coffee, contribute to deforestation and soil erosion.

Then there is the ever-burgeoning human population.

More than 56 percent of the country’s total population, estimated at over 260 million people, live on just 7 percent of its total land area, making Java one of the world’s most populous islands.

A data visualisation showing the total population of people living in Java, Indonesia, and the total land area of Java, Indonesia.

How can smallholder farmers struggling to make a living be persuaded to care about conserving endangered wildlife?

Around 2012, several forestry and primatology students from Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta thought they had an answer to the conundrum when they looked down at their morning mug of coffee.


The One Beverage to Rule Them All

Coffee is the most consumed psychostimulant in the world and the most popular beverage after water.

In the past year, global coffee production hit 158.93 million 60kg bags and the value of global coffee exports exceeded US$32 billion.  Like many lucrative commodities, coffee flows from the global south, to the north.

Top 10 coffee producing and consuming countries. Data from International Coffee Organisation, Accessed July 2018.

Coffee is a tropical plant that thrives in areas with stable temperatures, rich soil and moderate rainfall. Discovered in Ethiopia in the 9th century, it was exported from the port of Mocha in Yemen from the 15th to 18th century until the Europeans chanced upon it. Thereafter, coffee was cultivated in European colonies across Latin America and Asia to meet the continent’s growing demand for the stimulant.

A map showing the coffee belt of the world.

The most popular species is Arabica (Coffea arabica), followed by Robusta (Coffea canephora). The two species have several distinguishing characteristics. Arabica is largely grown in Latin America, and is generally favoured by the global (and largely European) market.

Robusta is often used in blends for instant coffees or 3-in-1 mixes called “kapalapi”, drunk by the vast majority of Indonesians. It is often seen as the cheaper, stronger, bitter sibling of the two species. The bulk of Robusta coffee is grown in Vietnam and Indonesia and it represents over 80 percent of Indonesia’s coffee production.

An infographic detailing the difference between Arabica and Robusta coffee beans.

Different shades for coffee

The students from Gadjah Mada University weren’t aware of global statistics on coffee, or how the crop grows, until they arrived in Sokokembang.

Two students from the Gadjah Mada University researching on the coffee trees in Indonesia.
On the left: Anto. On the right: Arif.

What 39-year old Arif Setiawan and his university classmate 38-year old Meiradhy Mujianto (known to friends as Wawan and Anto) needed was a tracker who could help them navigate the trails in the broader area of Petungkriyono where Sokokembang is nestled. At 3,000 hectares, it represents some of the last swathes of unprotected forests in Java. The area has a population of about 800 individual gibbons, making it the second largest population on Java island.

Wandering about, what they saw instead were wild coffee trees growing in the forests. They stopped at the roadside kedai kopi or coffee stall to try the village’s Robusta coffee. Small packets were also being sold for home use.

A woman pouring coffee made at the kedai kopi in Sokokembang.
Coffee being made at the kedai kopi in Sokokembang

The duo wondered if coffee could be grown in a way that benefited the environment and the farmer; if there was a “business case” for investing in community development, sustainability and conservation.


Why coffee?

Sumatra and Java produces most of Indonesia’s coffee and it is a smallholder crop in the country, supporting the livelihoods of over 1.5 million farmers and their families.

Coffee in particular, had the potential to benefit both livelihoods and the environment. Coffee, like cacao, is an understory shrub or tree that thrives under the shade of diverse forest trees.

An illustration showing how the growing of coffee can affect the ecosystem surrounding it.

The species that inhabit such environments are dispersers of seeds. Coffee trees that grow in forests need no fertilizers or pesticides. Shaded conditions also mean that the coffee cherry takes longer to mature, creating a better “fruit set” and a better-tasting cup of coffee.

Agroforestry also benefits the environment because it integrates planted trees, forest trees, vegetables and fruit crops. This method protects farmers in times of crisis when the price of a particular crop falls because they have other food crops to subsist on.

Many factors have drawn farmers as a whole, away from rustic and traditional polyculture farming towards the “intensified and technified” system that dominates the global coffee industry today.

Coffee leaf rust (Hemileia vastatrix) proved to be lethal and in the late 19th century, vast swathes of Arabica plantations were lost to the disease. When it reappeared in the 1970s, the industry responded by creating resistant, hybrid varieties of the coffee plant and cleared land to grow coffee with absolutely no tree canopy cover. The rationale was that the sun would reduce moisture and the development of fungal diseases in general.

But the industry has turned a blind eye to the financial and environmental costs of growing coffee in full-sun plantations. Coffee plants tend to grow quicker and age faster in these conditions, which means they need to be replaced more often. The absence of shade increases weed growth and pathogen infection. There is no mulch and nutrients from dead leaves that canopied conditions provide. Pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, as well as nitrogen (which would be available in dead leaves and understory foliage), are needed. This eventually enters the watershed system.

An illustration of the coffee layers, from modern to traditional.
Coffee layers

While research shows that at least 25 percent of Indonesia’s overall land is still dedicated to growing shade coffee, the global trend has seen a 20 percent decline since 1996 in land dedicated to shade coffee. That trends looks set to continue.

Bird hunters become forest guides

Arif and Anto decided to focus on the gibbons first, and then coffee. They were introduced to the village chief, Pak Tasuri. A soft-spoken 50-something year old, he brought them to his house, where they were greeted by rows of birdcages. It was not what they expected, but it was unsurprising.

ak Tasuri at his kedai kopi, where he serves the village’s shade-grown Robusta coffee.
Pak Tasuri at his kedai kopi, where he serves the village’s shade-grown Robusta coffee

Keeping birds in cages at home, or trading rare songbirds for competitions, is widely practiced in Indonesia, and the industry has threatened hundreds of species of birds, with over a million traded every year in Indonesia alone. The culture is so prevalent that the government caved into pressure from songbird traders, recently removing three threatened species from its protected list.

Instead of asking questions, Wawan and Anto accepted Pak Tasuri’s hospitality and later, his field guiding expertise. A relationship evolved built on mutual trust. As word got out, Pak Tasuri became a field guide to students visiting from Java. The birdcages were set aside, then they were put away altogether.

Drone footage of Sokokembang Credit: Swara Owa

Eight hours south of Sokokembang, a similar phenomenon has taken root in the village of Jatimulyo, nestled in the Menoreh Hills in Kulon Progo regency, Central Java. About a 100 families here own close to 1,000 hectares of land on which they practice agroforestry. Farmers grow both Robusta and Arabica alongside a suite of subsistence crops like coconut, arenga, banana, papaya, cardamom, cassava, clove, rambutan, cocoa and seasonal fruit like durian, dragonfruit and snake fruit.

Initially, farmers here practiced intensive monoculture farming, focusing on rice and corn. But disease and crop-raiding macaques decimated their crops. The community got together and switched to agroforestry. They established a policy that outsiders without a village ID would not be permitted to purchase land in Jatimulyo.

The village also has its own version of Pak Tasuri. Suparno, an experienced bird hunter, decided to trade in his hunting tools for a Canon DSLR camera. The 38-year old is known as a documentarian of Javan endemics and has catalogued 50 species of birds so far. He and his fellow farmers have also spearheaded the village’s own bird-friendly, shade-grown Robusta coffee—a classy 250g packet with the “sulingan”, or blue flycatcher, as its icon.

Suparno (left) and Arif take a break and review photographs of Jatimulyo’s birds.
Suparno (left) and Arif take a break and review photographs of Jatimulyo’s birds

Coffee & conservation

Unlike Jatimulyo and Sokokembang, many areas in the Dieng plateau region are already degraded. In villages like Gondang, Kayupuring and Wanayasa, there is little to no forest cover left. Here, farmers grow Arabica coffee as part of mixed crop farms on 50 to 60 hectare plots of land along with carrots, potatoes, spring onion and other vegetables, or in shaded monoculture plantations of albizia or pine trees, with very minimal shade.

Expertise in harvesting, pulping, washing, drying and ultimately hulling the coffee is lacking in all these villages. Without this, the end product—green coffee beans—could not command a better price with traders. Teaming up with others from Yogyakarta, Anto and Wawan began working with the farmers to address these shortcomings and encourage natural fertilizer use. A roastery was set up in Yogyakarta, which became the team’s “headquarters” to bring green beans from across different villages, for roasting and sale to traders. Years in the making, with poor harvest seasons and unpredictable weather conditions to contend with, the result was a high-end product, which the team has marketed as “owa coffee”, using the Javan gibbon as its flagship species and icon. With funding support, that coffee has now made its way to Singapore, where it is sold at the Wildlife Reserves Singapore, to promote Javan gibbon conservation efforts in Central Java.

Farmers at Gondang village in Central Java.
Farmers at Gondang village in Central Java

Technically, many of these areas in Central Java are already degraded and offer little refuge to biodiversity. But as researchers have pointed out, when it comes to shade coffee and agroforestry, it is not the scale of the land matters, so much as its location. Where land is already degraded, villages like Gondang or Kayupuring act as buffer zones between Central Java’s remaining forest patches.


Too lucrative, too long to wait

But market forces may spell danger for Java’s forests. In the past year, coffee prices in Indonesia have been steadily rising as the appetite for specialty coffee in the country increases.

Roasters are also contributing to these shifts in pricing, demand and supply. Engaging in a form of “direct trade”, many go straight to farmers and offer a premium price for a small supply of coffee. Villagers, buoyed by the experience of one farmer, try to peg their coffee price to this. However, if the quality of their beans do not meet the roasters’ expectations, they do not return. The one-off deal—which involves a small quantity of coffee that happened to be a good batch—creates a climate of uncertainty. It has also contributed to a culture of competition and mutual distrust in the villages that could be counterproductive for community-building in the long-run.

The future continues to look daunting. Conservation International conducted a comprehensive study in 2016 to look at how climate change may affect the coffee industry as a whole. The results predict that by 2050, as temperatures climb and rainfall declines, many coffee growing areas will no longer be viable. Already, unpredictable weather conditions are contributing to lower yields in Indonesia. This spells disaster for millions of smallholders who rely significantly on coffee for their livelihoods.

Efforts by farmers and conservationists like Pak Tasuri, Suparno, Wawan and Anto may not be enough to protect Java’s remaining endemic species threatened by deforestation and climate change. But it is, like shade coffee itself, a small and vital refuge for biodiversity.