Protecting Sumatra’s coffee and orang utans

What do the orang utan and Sumatran Arabica have in common, other than being two of the most recognised and loved symbols of the Indonesian island? Due to the rapid expansion of palm oil production in Indonesia and demands for timber, the Sumatran rainforests that both call home is fast disappearing. And the already critically endangered orang utan and quality Sumatran Arabica are disappearing with it. But now, a group of conservationists are teaming up with coffee farmers on the island to do what they can to save both. The Orang Utan Coffee Project sets down guidelines for coffee producers to adhere to – such as organic and sustainable farming practices – and in turn is marketing its high quality product to the world, with a brand that will benefit both the farmers and the conservation efforts on the island. Starting as a post-tsunami reconstruction programme in 2005, the Orang Utan Coffee Project is a partnership between the PanEco Foundation and smallholder coffee farmers who are willing to manage their plantations in a sustainable way. This ensures protection of the rainforest ecosystem, which creates the necessary conditions high quality coffee production. An important part of the partnership are coffee professionals, including roasters, who are concerned with the responsible sourcing of their coffee. In this manner the Orang Utan Coffee Project demonstrates how to balance sustainable economic activity, resource efficiency, climate protection, and social responsibility. The aim is to create a brand representing highest quality Arabica coffee from which local people and animals can profit. Regina Frey is one of the co-founders of PanEco with more than 40 years experience working with Sumatran orang utans. She says that while the conservation message is an integral part of the project, its success depends on the quality of the coffee. “We do not want to be just another project coffee that comes and goes because the quality of the coffee is not satisfactory,” Frey says. “We strive at offering the market an Arabica of highest quality.” And with more than 50 tonnes of green beans sold in Europe last year, as well as a Gold Medal from the German Roasters’ Guild, it seems they are off to a good start. Frey says that they hope to double their sales this year, with plans afoot to expand into the UK and US, and interest from Japan and Australia. However, while the coffee may be well received abroad, they still face an uphill battle in their conservation efforts on the ground in Sumatra. While rainforest once covered the whole of Sumatra, it now just accounts for 20 per cent of the sparsely populated island. These areas of rainforest have been listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 2004; however the threat from deforestation has not abated. There are currently 6 million hectares of palm oil plantation in Indonesia, with that industry aiming to expand to cover a total of 20 million hectares. PanEco estimates that if the present rate of destruction persists, 98 per cent of Indonesia’s tropical rainforests will be destroyed or degraded by 2032. This is not just a disaster for the orang utan – numerous other species such as the Sumatran tiger, the Sumatran elephant and the Sumatran rhino are also on the brink of extinction due to this destruction. Conservationists had a significant win in this battle in January of this year when Indonesian courts fined a palm oil producer a total of US$30 million for the illegal clearing of an area of the environmentally important Tripa peat swamp forest in Sumatra. The decision could set a favourable precedent for a series of similar actions that are going through the Indonesian courts at the moment. “The decision also serves as a deterrent,” Frey says. “It creates a precedent and the hope that Indonesian courts will prosecute violations of conservation and environmental regulations more severely in future.” In the meantime, Frey says that so long as the product is out there, so too is the message. “We invite traders and consumers to come and see for themselves,” she says. “Come and see the destruction of the unique ecosystem of Sumatra’s tropical forests, come and see our struggle to save the Sumatran orangutan. Come and see our Orang Utan Coffee producers and their organic coffee gardens in the Gayo Highlands of Central Aceh. “We hope to influence the coffee market through raising environmental awareness among the consumers. Through the consumers we hope to influence the coffee market, which in return, could influence production practices. But it’s a David and Goliath affair.”

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