Your Cup of Coffee May Have an Unpleasant Origin Story

'NYT Magazine' explains how small, illegal farms are shrinking a jungle in Indonesia
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 14, 2021 7:30 AM CDT
Your Cup of Coffee May Have an Unpleasant Origin Story

When you're pouring a cup of coffee, whether humble drip or some more exotic concoction, it's a safe bet you don't spend much time wondering exactly where those beans come from. As Wyatt Williams writes for the New York Times Magazine, coffee behemoths like it that way. Many Western coffee drinkers might have a vague notion the beans are "grown somewhere hot, humid and very far away," but the specifics don't matter much. Williams' piece explains why they do, and it focuses on Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park in Indonesia. In 2015, an adviser for the Wildlife Conservation Society named Matt Leggett noticed that the park kept shrinking, year after year, in satellite photos. When Leggett dug in to find out why, he discovered that the park was being decimated a few acres at a time by illegal coffee farmers.

His ensuing investigation uncovered the pattern. An impoverished farmer would clear maybe two acres, grow his beans, then sell them to middlemen around the park. Those middlemen would obscure the illegal purchase by mixing the beans with ones grown legally elsewhere. The upshot is that beans grown inside a supposedly protected park end up in the hands of giants including Nestle, Olam International, and the Louis Dreyfus Company. And the farmers make so little money they keep expanding their farms to grow more beans. Fixing all this turns out to be way more complicated than you might imagine, and wildlife authorities are experimenting with a novel if controversial approach involving what Leggett calls "acceptable losses." The idea is to help the existing (illegal) coffee farmers get better at their jobs and improve their yields, so no further clearing would be needed. (Read the full story.)

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