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Last Updated: Sunday, 27 April, 2003, 13:25 GMT 14:25 UK
Cheap coffee 'threatens wildlife'

Demand for coffee in the West is threatening to destroy already endangered wildlife, according to new research.

Sumatran tigers, AP
Tigers could be at risk from coffee production

Conservation experts say overproduction of cheap robusta coffee beans - commonly used in instant coffee - may be contributing to the loss of tigers, elephants, orang-utans and rhinos in Sumatra.

A study by the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society says that large areas of Indonesian lowland forest are being cut down to make way for coffee plantations.

Land cleared for coffee production increased by 28% in Lampung province in Sumatra, the heart of Indonesia's robusta growing region, between 1996 and 2001.

About 70% of Lampung's coffee production occurs inside and adjacent to Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park - one of the few remaining strongholds of Sumatran tigers, elephants and rhinoceros.

Populations of these animals are now declining due to the loss of their forest home.

Dr Tim O'Brien, who headed the research published in the journal Science, said: "If we do not act soon, our next cup of Java may have the bitter taste of extinction."

International deals

He said deforestation rates within the Bukit Barisan Selatan Park were directly related to the price of coffee paid to farmers.

This was in turn influenced by coffee supply and demand worldwide.

If you compare coffee cultivation with other economic activities, such as mining or even rearing livestock, coffee is pretty eco-friendly
Pablo Dubois, International Coffee Organisation

Between 1962 and 1989 coffee production was regulated by the International Coffee Organisation (ICO) with strong support from the United States.

But in 1989, the US left the ICO and the international agreements expired.

Throughout the 1990s, coffee production accelerated - especially in Indonesia and Vietnam - while prices plummeted, creating a coffee crisis.

Meanwhile, Western consumption and demand for coffee continued.

Coffee was the second leading export product from developing countries after oil, and the US the biggest importer.

Per capita coffee consumption in the US averaged 4.2 kilograms in 2001.

In the same year, Britain imported 10,000 tonnes of coffee from Indonesia - mainly the cheap robusta variety.

Coffee farmer in Sumatra, BBC
It is easier for coffee farmers to grow the cheaper robusta coffee

Despite recent low prices, Indonesia has announced plans to expand robusta coffee production in Lampung as part of its rural development programme.

But Dr O'Brien and his wife and co-researcher Dr Margaret Kinnaird warned: "Plans to expand Lampung's coffee production will almost certainly target forest inside the national park and result in increased threats to large mammals."

They are calling for a return to regulation, with the US re-joining the ICO, adding that higher yields of quality coffee would allow a reduction in acreage while boosting prices.

The quality arabica coffee is best grown in the shade and can be grown among indigenous shrubs and trees.


The beans fall to the ground making harvest more difficult than that of robusta beans, which ripen and remain on the branch.

But robusta is usually grown in full sunshine and areas are cleared to make room for the coffee plants.

Dr Kinnaird said large mammals, such as the Sumatran tiger, rhinoceros and elephant avoided forest boundaries.

"This means they are disproportionately affected by deforestation because their available safe habitat... is dwindling faster than the rate of forest clearance."

Pablo Dubois, head of operations at the ICO, which is based in London, said: "I think this is a fair assessment in respect of conditions in Indonesia in that area, but should not be generalised internationally, because conditions vary very much from place to place.

"If you compare coffee cultivation with other economic activities, such as mining or even rearing livestock, coffee is pretty eco-friendly.

"In many habitats coffee will co-exist with a quite considerable degree of original biodiversity."

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