Caring for Coffee in an Uncertain Climate

Indonesia's top arabica coffee producers are now struggling with an increasingly uncertain climate.
Photo & Text:
Riska Munawarah
Tuesday, 28 February 2023

Thick fog shrouds the coffee plantations on either side of the road as we drive to the Pantan Sile region of Central Aceh in January 2023. There is no conspicuous activity in this area as high as 1,700 meters above sea level. I saw Sutarni (58) going down to her half-hectare coffee plantation not far from her house. She can’t harvest many red (cherry) coffee beans.

Sutarni is preparing to harvest her garden. She had just cleared the dry branches of her coffee plants. Next to the dry branches, empty black coffee cherries are still hanging. The coffee bean boring pest (Hypothenemus hampei) had eaten away part of Sutarni’s garden. The coffee cherries around the dry trees were not harvestable. With her limited knowledge, Sutarni continues to take care of her garden. “I have no other income apart from this garden,” she said. Going up and down the slope of the garden makes Sutarni, who is no longer young, feel exhausted. She then went home and rested at her house.

Sutarni, 58, holds her granddaughter in Pantan Sile Village, Central Aceh, 2022. Sutarni has a 1/2 hectare garden behind her house. This year, the half-hectare garden produced 20 cans of coffee in one harvest. From her garden, Sutarni has supported her three children.
Damaged coffee plants on Sutarni's farm in Pantan Sile, Central Aceh, 2022. Many of Sutarni's coffee plants have suffered from drought and pest attacks for several seasons. As a result, her yields have dropped by 50% from normal.
Damaged coffee plants in a community garden in Pantan Sile, Central Aceh, 2023. Many coffee plants have suffered from drought and pest attacks for several seasons. As a result, farmers' yields have decreased from normal.

The land of Gayo is one of the best arabica coffee producing regions in Indonesia. Coffee from the highlands of Aceh, namely in the districts of Bener Meriah, Central Aceh, and Gayo Lues, is known for its delicious taste. The coffee has been exported to various countries, such as the United States, South Korea, Japan, and other countries. In Pantan Sile, the majority of the people are coffee farmers. And the coffee is known as the best arabica coffee from Takengon, Central Aceh. However, farmers are now facing a lean season due to climate change.

Coffee plants are highly dependent on climatic conditions. Arabica coffee is more sensitive to climate variations, especially during the blooming and fruiting stages. Moreover, coffee flowering is triggered by the first rains at the beginning of the rainy season. If the rain falls or is too heavy, flowers and fruits may fall from the coffee tree.

Climate change has altered the physiology of the coffee plant, forcing some farmers to grow it at higher altitudes. This will also have an impact on the quality of the coffee where it will be more difficult to thrive in areas where the rainfall is too high. These changes often make coffee farmers uneasy.

Female workers sort coffee beans at the Aman Kuba traditional coffee factory in Central Aceh, 2021. Each day, workers sort one sack of coffee beans. After sorting, the selected coffee beans will be weighed and then put into sacks and sent to a large factory to be processed and then ready for export abroad. Climate change affects coffee productivity. At Aman Cuba's coffee sorting station, as much as 18 percent of the coffee was in a damaged condition.
Ucok calculates the results of buying coffee grain from farmers in Aman Kuba, Takengon, 2023.
Damaged coffee plants in a community garden in Pantan Sile, Central Aceh, 2023. Many coffee plants have suffered from drought and pest attacks for several seasons. As a result, farmers' yields have decreased from normal.

Murniati (80), a coffee farmer in Wih Tenang Uken Village, Bener Meriah, doesn’t even know why her coffee plants have been damaged lately. “I have to clean up these damaged plants,” she said. She cut off some branches of coffee plants that had dried up. Some coffee cherries in Murniati’s garden were also rotten due to pests.

The coffee berry borer, often called bean borer, used to be unable to live at an altitude of 800 meters above sea level. However, due to warmer weather, the pest has been able to live at an altitude of 1,200m above sea level, where most coffee fields are located. The assumption is that the increase in temperature affects coffee yields. “In warmer areas, pests grow. The caterpillar enters during flowering. So that reduces the quality of coffee,” said Sri Wahyuni, an environmental activist in Bener Meriah.

In addition, one of the causes of climate change, namely the reduction of forest cover, has also affected the growth process of the coffee plant itself “Rainfall is high, but the absorption capacity of groundwater is decreasing due to many trees being cut down. Coffee trees really need water. That is also what makes coffee plants dry,” he explained.

Damaged coffee plants in Murniati's garden in Wih Tenang Uken Village, Bener Meriah 2021. Erratic weather changes have damaged the growth process of new coffee plants. Murniati admitted that many coffee plants in her garden were damaged.
Coffee plants attacked by bean borers in Pantan Sile Village, 2023. This coffee fruit borer pest is often called a bean borer or coffee bean driller. Initially, it could not live at an altitude of 800 meters above sea level. But as the weather warms up, it can already live at an altitude of 1,200m above sea level, where most coffee plantations are located.
A coffee berry borer pest that is often also called a bean borer or coffee bean driller. Originally, it could not live at an altitude of 800 meters above sea level. But as the weather warms up, it can already live at 1,200m above sea level, where most coffee plantations are located.

Continues to Decline

According to the International Coffee Organization, Indonesia is the fourth largest coffee producer after Brazil. In the 2014 and 2015 harvest seasons, Indonesia contributed to the total world coffee production by 7.3 percent. Meanwhile, in the 2018 and 2019 harvest seasons, Indonesia’s coffee production decreased by 5.5 percent. The decline in Indonesia’s coffee production is of course due to the problem of crop failure. “We failed to harvest this season,” complained Murniati. In the past, her coffee production could reach 200 cans per harvest. However, now it is only around 70 cans.

Her neighbor, Win Irbi, also complained about the same thing. “Now we often suffer losses due to the weather,” he said. Unpredictable weather changes make farmers worry about crop failure. Win Irbi says the bees that help with pollination no longer land because of the heavy rainfall during the pollination season. Instead, when farmers need rain, the season turns dry. “We had to pull water from the mountain with a hose,” he continues. Unpredictable seasonal changes have always been a problem for coffee farmers in Tanah Gayo.

When harvest time is supposed to be hot, it rains continuously, making it impossible to dry the coffee beans properly. In these conditions, farmers usually ferment the coffee beans in water until the sun comes out. It usually takes about two or three days.

Murniati and her husband sit at the fireplace in their home in Wih Tenang Uken village, Bener Meriah, 2021. Gayo people call the fireplace activity 'muniru'.

The Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that one of the climate anomalies affecting coffee production is the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO). The influence of ENSO is stronger in the tropics, which is also the world’s coffee-producing region. The warm phase of ENSO, known as EL Nino, causes the dry season to be two to four months longer than normal.

Coffee plants only require a dry month of two to three months. However, the longer dry months caused by EL Nino have led to a decline in coffee production. Droughts of more than three consecutive months cause leaves and twigs to dry out and many beans are empty. In addition to dry months, wet months that occur throughout the year also reduce the pollination process of coffee flowers by up to 95 percent. This results in a lower population of productive plants.

A farmer dries coffee in his front yard in Wih Tenang Uken village, Bener Meriah, 2021. What makes the coffee taste special here is the natural peeling process. This method was developed throughout the region's history due to its economic and climatic conditions. Natural husking allows farmers to sell their coffee beans faster than in other areas. The outer skin of the coffee beans is peeled off with a hulling machine and fermented overnight, then dried for 2-3 days. Once ready, collectors will buy the dried coffee beans (gabah).

According to data from the Directorate General of Plantations (Ditjenbun), the Ministry of Agriculture targets coffee production in 2019 at 0.79 million tons. However, in the period 1970-2015 coffee production did not increase significantly, only one to two percent per year.

Productivity issues also affect Gayo’s forest coverage. Farmers tend to clear new land to create new gardens. The old, deciduous gardens are abandoned. Climate change, on the other hand, will also affect the land area for coffee plants in the future. The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), one of the environmental research institutions, found that by 2050 the amount of land for arabica coffee plants will decrease by 80 percent.

“It can be concluded that this climate influence is very threatening to the future of coffee. Because this has an impact on the decline in quality and the land that can be planted with arabica coffee is getting smaller,” said Sri Wahyuni.

Sri Wahyuni, who is also a coffee farmer, also voiced the impact of the climate crisis on the environment. “I have a garden. I used to be active in an organization that often campaigned on environmental issues. Then I took up farming. I am mostly in the garden now, witnessing the condition of the forest around the garden now. How my garden has water shortages and so on. It’s all because of poor environmental management,” he explained.

He admits that there are many factors that have led to the reduction of forest cover in Central Aceh. Among them are illegal logging, expansion of potato plantations, and coffee plantations. “But, what we see today is more in coffee plantations,” she said. Sri Wahyuni’s concern for the future of her environment is also carried out by reporting to the authorities to follow up on actions that damage the environment. However, her reports are often not followed up.

“I and the people who live very close to the plantation do not feel a better impact from the government’s law enforcement efforts. Even though the condition of environmental damage has affected us this badly,” said Sri Wahyuni.

A panoramic view of the forest in Bener Meriah, Aceh, 2022. Sri Wahyuni-spokesperson for the Bener Meriah Environmental Awareness Forum-said that people in Permata Subdistrict, Bener Meriah, are getting restless because the water discharge in their area is decreasing.
Residents utilize the flow of a freshwater lake in Kampung Baru Village, Central Aceh, 2022. Researchers from Syiah Kuala University said the shrinkage of freshwater lakes is closely related to the increase in coffee plantations, because the leaves on each coffee tree hold rainwater up to 70%, not touching the ground.
Coffee plantation area in Wih Tenang Uken village, Bener Meriah, 2021. This village, established in the 1970s, was a new opening area for translocations and transmigration from Java. The government has regulated forest openings for community management.

Life Support

Coffee is the mainstay of life for the Gayo people. It’s like the breath in the body of everyone who lives there. Maryani (67) decided to stay and buy a 2-hectare farm in Takengon 43 years ago. Mariyani’s coffee plantation has supported her and her four children. “From this garden, I managed to send my four children to school. Two of them have become civil servants,” she says.

That day Mariyani was resting on the edge of the garden. The breeze accompanied our conversation. There was not a single handful of coffee in the gembol (bag made from a rice sack) tied around her waist. “Yesterday we only harvested five cans. During the coffee season, I can usually harvest up to 80 cans,” Mariyani said. Lately, she has often experienced crop failure. The coffee fertilization process does not go well. “Many coffee flowers fall because of the wind, so the coffee yield is very small,” she said.

However, Mariyani and her family must survive. The decline in coffee yields led Mariyani to plant cabbage next to the coffee trees. “It seems that coffee alone is not enough for our needs now,” she concluded.

This threat to the future of arabica coffee has also deeply affected the Gayo community. The atmosphere can be seen from the coffee shops in this area. At that time, the cold air accompanied by a thin fog enveloped the lower market area of Takengon, Central Aceh. In a coffee shop, Rifin, a migrant who has lived in Tanah Gayo for decades, was brewing coffee for a customer. “It’s quiet, sis. I don’t think there’s enough coffee,” he complains when I ask about the daily life of his stall.

The results of coffee plantations greatly affect the economic activities of the Gayo people. Almost 80 percent of Gayo’s population are farmers. “Here, the main income of the community is from the garden. If garden yields decline, other economic activities are also affected,” Rifin said.

Only a Quarter Stay

The decline in coffee yields is not only felt by Mariyani. It was also felt by several members of the Gayo Women’s Coffee Cooperative (Kokowagayo). Dewi Wahyuni, one of the cooperative managers, admitted that her members have lost a lot of their harvest. “According to the farmer women, only a quarter of it is left. So, about 75 percent of the crops were lost due to climate change,” Dewi said when I met her in her office.

Dewi admits that climate change has been affecting her for the past two to three years. She then worked with a fair trade organization to apply for insurance for farmers who suffered losses due to climate change. “They will cover farmers’ losses due to climate change. We have proposed a program for that,” he said.

Two villages are currently being used as research examples to see the graph of the impact of climate change. “One of them is Wonosari Village. In about two months the results will come out. After that, we can see the graph of coffee productivity of farmers in the two villages that we have insured,” he explained.

Mariyani (33), Leli (36), Ria Tantia (28), and Yuni (24) stand in a coffee plantation in Wonosari Village, Bener Meriah. They are members of the Gayo Women's Coffee Cooperative (Kokowagayo) group.
Yuni (24) stands under a coffee tree damaged by pests in Wonosari Village, Bener Meriah, 2023. Wonosari is a village that is being tested for climate change impacts.

Kokowagayo is one of the cooperatives that has been verified as fair trade. “This means that the coffee we take from our farmers must be organic,” Dewi emphasized. Fair trade coffee is coffee produced by smallholders where the products from these plantations are then used as a regular supply for institutions such as coffee beverage manufacturers or coffee shop chains and cosmetics that use coffee-based ingredients. These coffee suppliers then agree to pay a fair price, in other words a higher price, in exchange for the quality coffee produced by the farmers.

“We get a premium fee. For example, if we sell coffee for 50,000 rupiah, the premium fee is around 5,000 rupiah per kilo. The proceeds from the premium fee are then returned to the farmers in the form of training, basic necessities, tree seedlings, coffee seedlings and anything related to the environment and the welfare of farmers,” he explained. Some time ago Kokowagayo gave avocado seeds to its farmers to increase the income from their plantations.

To maintain environmental stability, Dewi hopes that the community can also be more aware of protecting the environment and reforesting the forest.

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