Is it too latte for Sumatra's lowland
25 April 2003
Coffee prices are at their lowest in 100 years.
"If we do not act soon, our next cup of java may have the
bitter taste of extinction." So says Timothy O'Brien, an ecologist
with the Wildlife Conservation Society in Bogor, Indonesia.
In a report published today1, O'Brien and fellow conservationist
Margaret Kinnaird warn that unregulated coffee prices are threatening
precious forests and their endangered inhabitants on the Indonesian
island of Sumatra.
The crisis is part of a broader problem affecting coffee-growing
regions worldwide. Although the caffeine-fuelled economies of the
West are demanding more coffee than ever before, and paying accordingly,
the revenue reaching farmers is plummeting. Coffee retail in the
U.S. nets $70 billion each year; coffee producing countries reap
just $5.5 billion.
Rich nations, in particular the United States - the world's biggest
coffee consumer - must intervene to harmonize the international
coffee trade, the report urges.
Struggling to make a living in the face of falling prices, farmers
on Sumatra - Indonesia's main growing region - have been hurriedly
planting more and more coffee. "They're having to grow more
just to break even," O'Brien explains.
Between 1996 and 2001 the acreage devoted to coffee on the island
increased by 28%. Some 70% of these new plantations are in or near
the Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park.
As a result, the park - which preserves the last remnants of Sumatra's
lowland forest - has shrunk by 28% since 1985.
The critically endangered Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae)
and rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) will be the first to suffer
says O'Brien. There are fewer than 400 of the tigers and 300 of
the rhino left in the wild. Needing wide ranges to survive, "they
will disappear long before the forest," he says.
The predicament described in the new report is a familiar one.
"Agricultural encroachment on forested areas is a widespread
problem and one that we are very concerned about," agrees Richard
Perkins, an agricultural-policy officer with the World Wide Fund
for Nature. But this is the first that he has heard of the plight
of Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park, he admits.
Supply and demand
Underlying the environmental crisis is the fact that, in real terms,
coffee prices are at their lowest in 100 years, despite demand being
higher than ever. A pound of coffee, which fetches around $5 on
the US high street, is worth only 35-45 cents to Indonesian farmers.
The impact of this mismatch is widespread. Farmers in South America
and Africa are replacing biodiversity-friendly, shade-grown coffee
with pasture, and other Asian growers such as Vietnam are clearing
more forest for coffee. "Inevitably, pressure is being put
on what land remains," says Peter Baker, a coffee-production
expert with Commonwealth Agricultural Bureau International in Egham,
UK.Reform is certainly on the cards
Plus squabbling over fair prices between coffee-producing nations
led the United States to leave the International Coffee Organization,
a United Nations regulatory body in 1989. Without the United States,
many conservationists argue, the body lacks the power to tackle
the myriad middlemen responsible for coffee pricing.
But the United States may itself be taking on the job. With consumer
prices continuing to rise in the U.S. the disparity in price is
becoming impossible to justify. Last November, the US Senate proposed
a new plan to address fairer trade rules for coffee.
"Reform is certainly on the cards," says Baker, but pressure
must also come from within coffee-growing nations to regulate their
farmers' activities and to provide sensible alternative crops.
1. O'Brien, T. G. & Kinnaird, M. F. Caffeine and conservation.
Science, 300, 1728 - 1731, (2003).
© Nature News Service / Macmillan Magazines Ltd 2003