Coffee Glut Brews Crisis For Farmers, Wildlife

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Liam Brody, a program coordinator for Oxfam America in Boston, which is promoting the trade of coffee at fair market prices as part of the solution to the coffee crisis, said hundreds of thousands of coffee farmers in Africa and Central and South America have lost their jobs as farmland is converted to other agricultural uses such as livestock grazing or the cultivation of illicit drugs.

"There is a pretty magnificent intersect between the price farmers are paid and their ability to be good stewards of the environment," said Brody.

Other farmers in Central and South America have converted their high-quality, shade-grown coffee plantations to lower quality sun-grown varieties in order to remain competitive. "While this may seem a reasonable idea at first, one must remember that in many parts of Central America shade-cover coffee farms are practically the only forest cover remaining," said O'Brien.

Indonesian Java

O'Brien and Margaret Kinnaird report in the April 25 issue of Science on the impact of the coffee crisis on farmers and the environment in Indonesia.

Of particular concern in Indonesia, say the researchers, is the increasing amount of coffee planted in and around the Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park on the island of Sumatra. The plantations are putting pressure on the island's last protected lowland forests and populations of Sumatran tigers, rhinoceroses, and elephants.

The researchers say that better agricultural practices and a reduction in production are needed for local farmers and conservation. "If we do not act soon, our next cup of java may have the bitter taste of extinction," O'Brien and Kinnaird conclude in their paper.

Indonesia is the world's fourth largest producer of coffee and the second largest producer of robusta after Vietnam. Robusta is the hardiest of the coffee species and commonly found in inexpensive instant coffees and flavored coffees.

Unlike arabica coffee, which accounts for over 70 percent of world production according to the ICO, robusta is easier to harvest because it ripens and remains on the branch. It is also more disease-resistant, requires less maintenance, and usually has a higher yield than arabica, said O'Brien.

In Lampung province of Indonesia, the country's core coffee growing region, the area planted in coffee increased by 28 percent between 1996 and 2001, according to the researchers' study. In the same time period, yield declined by 25 percent.

The decreasing yield is thought to be a combination of a lack of quality seeds available for the farmers and less willingness and ability of the farmers to pay for fertilizer and pesticides. The low price their coffee fetches in the marketplace leaves the farmers with less money to spend.

"Most farmers in the world are facing a very similar crisis," said Brody. "Most tend to be the most marginal folks in society, and tend not to have lots of skills and training."

Without skills and training, which activists say is the responsibility of consumers, governments, and corporations to provide, farmers overcome the lower prices and yields by cutting down forests to plant more coffee. O'Brien and Kinnaird say this response threatens the large animals that call the Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park home.

According to an earlier study led by Kinnaird, Sumatran tigers, rhinoceroses, and elephants avoid forest edges by nearly 2 miles (3 kilometers). As a result these animals are disproportionately affected by deforestation, since their preferred habitat shrinks more rapidly than the forest as a whole.

"Edges are dangerous places for large animals and the edge forest is an unfriendly forest where the likelihood of encountering humans, snares, and traps increases," said O'Brien. "And that means the chance of mortality increases, so as the secure habitat disappears, the wildlife are left with only the edge forest and their risk of mortality increases."

Solutions Brewing

Conservationists and industry analysts say that resolving the coffee crisis will require creative efforts by both the coffee growers and the coffee drinkers.

Growers need to plant other crops than just coffee and when they grow coffee, they need to grow higher quality beans. Better beans fetch higher prices on the market, thus reducing the acreage required for the crop and bringing the farmers more money.

"The International Coffee Organization has encouraged the production of higher quality and less quantity of robusta coffee, but this is a slow process," said Osorio. "Unfortunately, some coffee roasters seek out low price coffee and give prices priority."

Wildlife conservationists O'Brien and Kinnaird say that enforcement of protected areas needs to be improved in regions where coffee production conflicts with biodiversity conservation, such as Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park. Outside the park boundaries, they advocate crop diversification assistance programs.

Nelson of the National Coffee Association says in addition to diversification and other aid programs for the coffee growers that the organization supports, attention needs to be focused on increasing coffee consumption. The association promotes increased consumption in the U.S. market as well as increased consumption in coffee producing nations such as El Salvador.

On an individual level, Brody suggests coffee drinkers purchase only beans that meet Fair Trade certification criteria, which are widely available in supermarkets and specialty coffee shops. The coffee certifies that farmers were paid at least US $1.26 per pound and $1.41 if the coffee is also certified organic.

"Consumer action really has a significant impact," he said. "Together people can change the world one cup at a time."

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