Adventure to Sumatra Part 1: A Little Bird

Medan. It’s the kind of hustling developing city one would expect when a country’s population is 250 million and the currency is 10,000 Rupiah : $1.00NZ. The smog, the noise, the thousands of people rushing around grubby streets whilst another thousand simply sit and watch.

It’s a river of chaos, and it’s bliss when you just ride it. Medan is the largest city on the Island of Sumatra, Indonesia and the capital city of coffee on the island. It’s where we, the 8 coffee fanatics of the New Zealand Roasters Guild would spend the first day of our six day trip on the island, visiting exporters and drinking too much coffee, and then visiting plantations and processing areas around North Sumatra and the Aceh region.

In this first post of three I wanted to tell a story of the processes involved in coffee – from the cherry to the cup. I had written statistics and tales to share but I feel upon planning out these three posts a sense of urgency to share the final post first: one about the challenges facing coffee, and more importantly, all of us.

One where coffee, in its delicate climate is considered a canary in the coal mine that is the world. And having visited the heart of that coal mine, it is with a heavy heart I must report: the canary is dead.

The Canary is Dead

I’d read articles about a crisis in the coffee industry before I’d visited origin. A crisis in the form of massive price rises as a result of diminishing coffee yields from an increasingly warmer climate. I’d read about the rampant presence of a plant killing disease called ‘coffee rust’.

But having been able to enjoy a cup of coffee at the same price as always, it never sunk in. In fact, even after visiting the farms and seeing the dead canary right before my eyes it didn’t sink in. The individual pieces only connected when I got back home and as my mind slowly caught up on itself, I realised: all the pieces matter.

Experts consider coffee a ‘canary’ in the coal mine of climate change because it grows at high altitudes where it experiences a more sensitive ecosystem; a delicate environment which feels the effects to a greater degree, and it grows in many nations within the tropics so when something happens across the board, we take notice.

Connecting the dots: the situation

The first dot isn’t so much a dot but an observation, put simply: coffee is huge. The amount of coffee being picked, processed and exported in Sumatra alone is immense, and the number of people who rely on coffee for income is staggering. It’s a labour-heavy industry unlike our dairy farming; many tasks are done by hand for quality and for cost-effectiveness.

Indonesia is the fourth largest coffee exporter in the world (behind Brazil, Vietnam and Colombia) and produces around 420,000 metric tonnes of coffee per year (2007). To put that in perspective, a picker on a good day picks 50Kg coffee cherries. Each cherry contains two coffee beans which come to 20% of the final weight of the cherry. That’s a lot of coffee being picked.

After being picked and processed it goes to an exporter in Medan. We visited four exporters here, including the largest, S.M. Opal which has 500x staff on it’s massive site (you can tell how big an exporter was by the number of motorbikes parked in the gates). We saw green coffee in a constant stream of unpacking, raking on drying patios, sorting on conveyor belts and bagging. All of these tasks done mostly by hand.

It came here from plantations around the Aceh region of Sumatra. Since Medan is a port city, it is easier for exporters to send from here and also have relationships with buyers from around the world.

Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world behind oil. It’s grown in the hot and humid ‘coffee belt’ between the two tropics and requires many ‘hands’ to get it from cherry to export.

The main point here is that it’s a large and important industry for many people. The second point is that coffee grows in the ‘coffee belt’, which also tends to be some of poorest countries.

The second dot: a delicate climate.

We know that arabica coffee grows best at altitude: where the drainage, temperature and soil type all positively affect quality. The plantations we visited ranged from 1000-1600m above sea level: that is, for a NZ context at a low point around the height of Queenstown Hill and at the highest, the Tararua ranges.
Our group was listening to a presentation from Mustafa Ali, the chairman of the Gayo Farmers Cooperative and a few of his colleagues. This is a cooperative with 48,000ha of Fair Trade, Organic and Rainforest Alliance certified coffee. Many in this cooperative are ‘hobbyist farmers’, growers who have one hectare or less, who simply grow coffee along with other crops, but the bulk of the land is dedicated plantations.

As we were pretending to enjoy a terribly over-extracted coffee, doused in sugar to be palatable (all the good stuff is exported), he said in passing, the second dot:

[“Much of our coffee now only flowers once per year instead of twice. This is due to a recorded 2-3°C increase in temperature, and much less rainfall.”]

The impact of this statement is that is that there are lower yields in the same amount of land. It means that since the temperature has been rising, coffee plantations have been moving upward to even higher altitudes. The lack of rainfall means that in some areas, irrigation is needed where it hasn’t been needed in the past.

As the environment and climate change, so do the actions of people in that environment.

The third dot: rusty leaves.

You wouldn’t pick it at first glance but it was prevalent on many of the trees we saw and the more you looked the more you noticed it. It’s the yellow dots, mostly on the underside of the leaves of coffea arabica and it’s a massive problem facing coffee: coffee rust.

Coffee rust is a fungal disease that eats away at coffee plants’ leaves, preventing it from photosynthesizing and eventually, it spreads and kills the plant. It’s existed on coffee for years, with the first recorded sighting in Kenya in 1861 and gradually spread worldwide through all coffee plantations.

But in recent years there has been rampant acceleration of sporulation, influenced by temperature, humidity and a lack of host resistance.

It’s such a problem that in Guatemala, where the problem is the worst in the world, coffee rust blighted 70% of crops and it has been declared a national emergency. It travels through physical contact by pickers and wind can pick it up and spread it as well. Once it starts spreading it kills the tree and leaves it like this.

Dead trees are simply grubbed and replaced.

There is no cure for coffee rust but there is a prevention. It’s a spray that must be used seasonally and once a tree is affected it’s too late, there is no cure. The spray is costly and for the farmer it means losing any chance of organic certification, so many opt not to spray and just deal with each tree as it gets rust. After all, it does keep producing coffee, but the quality is lower as less sugars form in the cherry.

It was expressed as a major issue facing coffee on Sumatra, and it’s an issue facing global coffee production. Last year, coffee rust caused US$500,000,000 worth of damage and lost income, and remember this is to some of the poorest countries in the world. This disease has the potential to wipe out coffee arabica completely, as it has done on Sri Lanka and the Philippines.

Rust is spreading, moreso as a result of increasing temperature and humidity. Is it time to check on our canary?

All the pieces matter

The crux of these dots connecting is that climate change is having a very real effect, now.

The locals’ responses to the increasingly noticeable effects of climate change are irrigation, expanding to new plantations to meet demand, introduced spraying etc. These only create positive feedback loops and exacerbate the greater root of the problem. But the people making these simple retaliatory decisions are not to blame and this is perhaps the tragedy: it is our developed world that creates the problems of climate change and pulls demand from the developing world.

It’s about so much more than a lack of coffee or a price rise in coffee. While we tend to make terrible jokes about global warming being good for Dunedin, the actual effects mean something to a lot of people.

We see pictures of polar bears struggling on ice bergs and graphs with sharp rises at the end. This is simply another tale, another dead canary that maybe, because of our intense love of coffee above all else, it will resonate and create individual change.

Our little bird is dead, what does it mean for the coal mine?

 Words and photos by Arjun Haszard, Quick Brown Fox. Feel free to use and share. Thank you to the coffee people of Sumatra. 

Further Reading and referenced links:

International Coffee Organisation: Leaf Rust (contains a number of articles)

Coffee Strategies: A Canary in the Coalmine (interview with an expert, Andrew Hetzel)

National Geographic: the last drop?

Coffee rust on Wikipedia

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