Things we learned this year: How coffee can protect people

    Blog

    When I went on a trip in June hosted by our customer Nespresso to Indonesia, I knew I would learn a great deal about coffee and the lives of the farmers. What I didn’t appreciate was the very close connection in this region between coffee, forest and the safety of the community. Following the tragedy of the Tsunami in Palu in October, where again I learned of Olam Indonesian colleagues going out in search parties, this blog resonates more strongly still, particularly in terms of the resilience of the Indonesian people. 

    An unexpected guardian – how coffee is protecting people by protecting the forest in Indonesia

    As you walk under the rustling canopy with sunlight dancing through leaves, you can sense, even if you can’t always hear, how the forest teems with life. As thousands of bronchiole-like branches reach for the sky you can understand why forests are called the ‘lungs of the earth’, breathing out so we can breathe in. 

    But forests do even more to keep us alive; their roots can literally hold our earth together. And nowhere is this clearer than in the Sunda Hejo region of Indonesia whose main city of Bandung sits in the centre of an ancient volcanic crater, surrounded by hills and mountains pushed up through the earth’s crust. Once engulfed from head to toe by forest, the hills gradually saw their lower skirts change to farms and tea plantations. Then, in the late 1990s the steeper inclines became one of the many unknown victims of Asia’s financial crisis. Farming communities, desperately needing income, went further and further uphill replacing trees with cabbages and a spread of other vegetables to sell and feed their families. The extent was too much for the Government’s forestry efforts to contain.

    But as the deep root system of the trees were pulled out so the earth began to move and landslides became the new threat. In 2009, a devastating slide caught the attention of a young Indonesian starting to make his way in the coffee sector. A search and rescue volunteer in the landslide, Dadang Hendarsyah began to look for the catalyst and soon realised it came from the top of the hill – it was bare when it should have been bound together with trees. Released from the roots the soft earth collapsed and descended on the communities below.

    How to stop such a tragedy happening again? How to persuade farmers to leave the forest standing without impacting already precarious incomes? Dadang and his former colleague Eko Purnomowidi thought coffee might have the answer, particularly because unlike tea it requires some shade. It could be grown just within the borders of the forest where the trees are less dense. In turn, this would prevent access to the deeper forest by other farmers and poachers. And, while it was a relatively unknown crop for the farmers in the area, it wasn’t a completely new concept: the Dutch had planted in Arabica in the 1800s although it was wiped out when rust leaf disease decimated the crop before the end of the century.

    Two Indonesian coffee farmers with an Olam buyer.

    So, in 2009, Dadang and Eko began their venture: protect the people by protecting the forest with coffee. They convinced 8 farmers in this community to start planting Arabica coffee on the steep hillsides. And the more they explained about the opportunity, the more farmers wanted to get involved.

    Dadang explains: "When we started out, it was conservation first, business second. So, instead of starting with the coffee plantation, we made the home for the coffee to live in, planting the bushes in the shade of the bigger native forest trees".

    The team also contacted the Perhutani - a for-profit sub-division of the Forestry Department of Indonesia as their activities aligned. For several years, the Perhutani teams had also been trying to protect the forest from the illegal encroachment. They had developed a scheme where they would lease land (no more than 2.5 ha) to farmers to plant crops, like coffee, with strong root structures that could grow in shaded areas. What the Perhutani couldn't provide however, was expertise on how to get the best yields and quality from the coffee, nor reliable buyers who would pay a good price beyond the traditional domestic market. So productivity and income were still very low even for those few farmers who had started growing coffee back in 2004.

    Fortunately, these farmers met Dadang and his colleagues, forming Paguyuban Tani Sunda Hejo Klasik Beans. In 2011, they joined with Olam Specialty Coffee to further develop the cultivation of premium coffee in West Java with Olam linking them to the international export market. It was then in 2014 that Nespresso approached Olam to expand their AAA Sustainable Quality Program to the Sunda Hejo farmers. Globally, Nespresso supports around 75,000 coffee smallholders around the world, always focusing on the importance of building trust with the farmers to encourage take up of new practices the drive sustainability and quality simultaneously at every stage of the process.

    Today, thanks to the ongoing support and training from Nespresso and Olam to produce high quality Arabica, just over 1,000 farmers are getting a much better income from a crop that can live in harmony with the forest. And the forest will flourish further as farmers plant the 100,000 native tree saplings donated by Nespresso, protected by the dark green leaves, delicate white flowers and glistening red cherries of the coffee ‘guardians’.

    A wonderful example of how agriculture can be re-imagined so that farmers prosper, communities thrive and landscapes are re-generated – and a perfect reason to savour another cup of Nespresso Dharkan blend

    Workers work on a coffee plantation in Indonesia, Olam.

    Author

    Nikki Barber, Group Head of Public Relations, Olam.
    Nikki Barber Group Head of Public Relations, Olam International

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