Deforestation from commodity coffee drags on

by JulieCraves on August 11, 2021

The New York Times Magazine published a well-written account about the ongoing illegal coffee growing in Sumatra’s Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park. The article focuses on the Wildlife Conservation Society’s investigations into continued forest clearing in the park by small farmers who sell their coffee at rock-bottom prices to middlemen, who then sell to large coffee companies. The article notes this probe began around 2015. However, the World Wildlife Fund put out a detailed report on this issue in 2007, and a paper in a well-respected peer-reviewed journal in 2009 outlined that this problem had already existed for 30 years. Below I list all the posts in which I summarized or wrote about the illegal coffee growing (and purchasing) in this region.

The Times piece nicely laid out the complexities of the situation and the plight of the exploited farmers. The Wildlife Conservation Society concluded the certifications and traceability were not working because the supply chain was so complicated that the auditing was “too expensive for exporters specializing in cheap, bad coffee.” Nor was expelling or punishing farmers the solution, so WCS launched a program to help farmers improve their yields and livelihoods, even at the borders or within the park with the goal of reducing additional deforestation and eventually reforesting plots.

I’m not going to delve into the pros and cons of this approach, other than to say that I don’t think conservation organizations need to be in the business of agricultural extension services when the giant corporations raking in billions of dollars of profits at the expense of farmers and the environment could and should easily be funding and executing these efforts in totality*. Once again, the responsibility for ensuring environmental ethics and sustainability is fobbed off on a third party. There is no mention in the article on the importance of the “demand” side of the equation, although the author provides this brilliant and not-so-subtle hint:

The reality is that such beans are sold into the anonymity of a commodity market designed to make uniform products for placeless destinations. The point of this coffee was to forget that it had ever come from anywhere at all.

A company can decide to sacrifice profit for ethical responsibility, but only to the degree that shareholders allow them to. And it is the people who buy the products that influence the bottom line which pushes the shareholders to make a company change policies. The article, while illuminating, leaves the average reader feeling rather helpless, or at least with the impression that some organization out there is working to solve the problem.

The average reader is you, and there is something you can do to move the needle in this complex situation. It’s simple and elegant: Remember that your coffee does come from somewhere, and make the choice not to buy and support cheap, anonymized, corporate coffee.

My posts — tons of background:

*And indeed some of them are partnering with WCS to tackle this problem, such as Olam International and JDE. If you believe that corporate giants are sincere or effective in their efforts, consider Nestlé’s “zero deforestation” claim. Despite the fact that Nestlé purchases more coffee than three of the five raw products included in the plan (soy, meat, or palm oil), it was not a commodity Nestlé chose to include in this plan.

Revised on October 6, 2021

Posted in Coffee regions,Corporate coffee,Nestlé/Nespresso

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