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SOS Rhino : In the News : Coffee trade threatens rare species

Coffee trade threatens rare species


Is it too latte for Sumatra's lowland forests?
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

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