Coffee in Sumatra

Posted by Stacy Philpott on December 13, 2006


Stacy Philpott, postdoctoral fellow with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, journeyed to Sumatra to study biodiversity in coffee farms.

Sumatra is a large island in Indonesia, a country made up of many islands that are located between Australia and China in southeast Asia.

In recent years coffee farming has expanded dramatically in southeast Asia, creating a glut on the world market and depressed prices.

As it does in other areas of the coffee world, Asian coffee production typically emphasizes increased production through higher yields (amount of coffee per unit area) by managing sun coffee, often at the cost of the local environment.

Bustling Cities

Cities in this part of the world, similar to those in many developing countries, draw people from the countryside and can be rather crowded.

But Stacy's destination was in the rural interior regions where coffee is grown.

Rural Farming

Coffee beans drying on mats in this small, agrarian village will eventually find their way to the international market.

Many of the coffee farms in this region are more aptly called home gardens, where a few dozen coffee plants are cultivated in plots alongside mangos, citrus, and other food crops.

Have Truck, Will Travel?

Getting from the city to the study sites can pose some challenges.

A four-wheel drive vehicle is stuck in deep mud, evidence of how tropical rains and unpaved roads can make getting from one area to another almost impossible.

Obviously, such a climate makes erosion a serious problem, especially where landscapes have been transformed from forest or forest-like land cover to open hillside agriculture.

While tropical soils appear very rich, due to the abundant vegetation present, in fact they suffer from leaching (washing away of nutrients) and are quite fragile.

Most of the nutrients are locked up in the vegetation, which, once removed via deforestation, are gone for good.

Alternate Transport

Sometimes motorcycles make for better transportation, along narrow, dirt trails.

Peter Bichier, bird researcher extraordinaire, makes sure the gear is safely secured.

Sun Coffee

In southern Sumatra, many coffee farms exist as row after row of coffee plants.

These are robusta coffee plants (as opposed to Arabica), grown on a hillside of bare dirt with few shade trees.

Coffee cultivated in this manner requires a great deal of effort to maintain by the farmer.

A virtual monoculture (single species of crop), the system has few natural insect predators.

Therefore, pesticides and herbicides must be applied to control pests and weeds that might otherwise be kept in check by the more diverse insect community that is associated with an agroforestry setting.

Moreover, fertilizer is necessary as the soil and its nutrients wash away in torrential rains.

More Sun Coffee

Here is another sun coffee farm, visible beyond the makeshift leanto.

This provides little habitat for animals and a meager income for the farmer.

Shade Coffee

In northern Sumatra, coffee is sometimes grown in a more environmentally friendly way, in the shade of a jungle canopy.

This farm, with its overstory of spice trees like pepper and cinnamon, provides habitat and resources for insects, birds, and other organisms.

In addition, the farmer is rewarded with extra crops of fruits and spices.

Moreover, the need to apply pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers can be reduced in an agroforestry setting where shade trees provide habitat for a diverse insect community (including predators that can control pests) and a constant rain of organic matter onto the ground.

A number of roasters maintain that coffee ripened in shade is more flavorful.

And we now have evidence that it also commands a higher price on the market.

Coffee Research

Research is just beginning in Sumatra on the effects of coffee farming on the local economy and wildlife.

One challenge for the shade-coffee market is to find, inspect, and certify some of Sumatra's coffee as genuine shade coffee with the Bird Friendly® seal.

Bird Survey

Pictured here is a researcher and his guide conducting a bird survey at a shade grown coffee farm.

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