by Adeline Chang
The Coffee and Primate Conservation Project was started in 2012, by the SwaraOwa team, building upon an earlier project by Arif Setiawan in 2008. The main object is to conserve the endangered Javanese Gibbon and its natural habitat. The spends its time swinging through the rainforests on the Indonesian island of Java. Villages are scattered throughout the rainforest, and community investment is essential! To increase interest in conserving the rainforest, SwaraOwa supports the villagers to (sustainably) scale up production of the coffee that already grows naturally in the forest, learn about proper cultivation and sorting techniques, and obtain better access to the coffee markets.
It was sweltering the day I met Arif Setiawan (he prefers Wawan) at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. We were cocooned in an air-conditioned room, where three different speakers shared their primate conservation projects in Indonesia. When it was Wawan’s turn, he stood up with a big smile and a relaxed nature that bespoke a deep inner peace. Speaking animatedly, he told us about his team’s work with village communities to conserve gibbons and their rainforest habitats. Out in the lush isolation, they had formed connections that were improving the financial security of villagers, and slowly transforming the way villagers saw the rainforest. A truly beautiful long-term project.
What most piqued my interest that day, however, was their leveraging of shade-grown coffee. With the project’s support, the coffee plant already growing naturally under the steady shade and protection of the rainforest canopy became a source of income for the villagers – a clever, economic and biodynamic way of encouraging them to value and live in harmony with the rainforest and its other animal inhabitants.
Coffee! The ex-barista in me was wide awake and at attention.
After the talk, I made a beeline for Wawan, where I asked him curiously about how much income the coffee planting brought villagers (a supplementary amount, as it turns out), and about the sales avenues for the coffee. I was flying to Indonesia the following month for a meditation stay and short holiday, and when I said I’d be in Yogyakarta and would love to visit the forest, this beast of a gentleman immediately invited me to visit their office and roasting facility.
Fast forward a month, and after my first visit to the office, Wawan messaged me to say they were visiting the field site, 7 hours from Yogyakarta. There was a seat for me in the jeep – did I want to come along?
Of course, I said yes!
I arrive late at the building, heart racing. My usually unkempt short hair lies flat, plastered to my head with sweat, as I nudge the helmet off my head and hand it to the ojek driver. “Makasih, pak.” It’s 40 minutes past when I was meant to arrive.
But I’ve forgotten about Indonesia’s jam karet – what they call rubber time, a pointer to that incredible flexibility with which people treat the hours of the day.
As I walk into the office-warehouse-discussion centre rolled in one, apologising profusely, everyone tells me to relax. Wawan is hard at work on his computer, Yoshi immediately starts brewing me a coffee, and our bee expert Sidiq has yet to arrive. The aroma of roasting coffee wafts over from the next room as I sit contentedly.
It’s nearly 12 when we begin our drive in the muggy heat. The windows of the Jeep are rolled down, but only when it begins pouring does the cooling air bring blessed respite. We pass out of the jam-packed city and through smaller towns and streaks of empty surrounded by hulking trees, stopping every couple of hours so Yoshi can take a break. By the time we enter the Sokokembang forest, night has fallen – it’s eerie winding along the road in the dark, car lights at full beam, our eyes peeled for snakes, civets, even Javan leopards. But no luck tonight.
In the village, we are hosted by the Sokokembang village chief and his wife, Pak E and Mak E. Beside the chief’s front porch sits a little Swara Owa office – about 5 by 3 metres, lit up by hydro-powered lights, just like everything else in the village, which doesn’t have access to the electric grid. My room, in contrast, is constantly lit by a light with no off-switch, and permanently damp and cool.
Exhausted by the journey, I quickly fall asleep.
The next day, the jungle swallows us into its wild arms. We walk for an hour, eyes fixed on the green canopies. Wawan is an expert at spotting the groups of primates, scanning the tree canopies and pointing them out to me.
The first time I catch sight of a leaf monkey is magical. In the gentle morning light, the heart-shaped silver of its face gleams, while its body shines black and glossy. Through my binoculars its eyes seem to gaze straight into mine.
(Photo by Arif) A lutung and her young, pausing on a branch.
The silvery gibbon (owa, in Indonesian) – the namesake of this conservation project – is, in contrast, far less delicate in appearance. Warm grey, it fills out its curves and swings with easy agility from branch to branch.
(Photo by Arif) A Javan gibbon, its strong, endlessly long arm stretched high for support.
Visiting Gondang Village
It takes us half an hour to curve northwards, hugging the cliff, as the paddy fields fall away into sparse forest. The last stretch of our journey can barely be called a road, and I feel myself slip-sliding as our black four-wheeler bumps its way, snail-like, along the rocky track.
As we move inwards from the cliff edges, the view is stunning – grey puffs caressing the lush, verdant fields.
On this last stretch of road, the drive becomes extremely slow going.
I feel a sense of relief when we arrive; my bum is beginning to hurt.
Inside the Gondang village chief’s house, darkness reigns. Sparse daylight filters into a space that’s both living room and kitchen. For chairs, we arrange tiny wooden blocks around the low table: I imitate Yoshi, who stacks two together to make a more comfortable seat.
Pak Untung, the chief, is dressed neatly in a blue polo, with a kind, handsome face and crow lines that crease every time he smiles or laughs. Everyone shakes hands with him before bringing them, gently, towards their chests. He grins when Wawan gives him a box of bak pia, a pastry filled with crumbly green bean, and passes it to his wife.
After we settle down, they begin a long chat. Their words are interspersed with easy silences, funny stories, and dramatic jokes which leave everyone roaring with laughter. Pak Untung tells them about the most recent harvest (“bad”, he says, but the men needle him and everyone laughs). Another man enters the house, an unplanned and unannounced visit – he joins us at the table. The men smile and tell me that in the village, you can talk to anyone you bump into. Everyone knows everyone else, and everyone is welcome, always. Already feeling the fatigue of so much interaction, I remain nevertheless charmed by the tightness of their social circles, and the warmth with which they treat each other.
I am the only woman at the table. On the floortop fireplace two metres away, his wife cooks for us, spicy onion leaves, slices of omelette, fried fish, and souped up vegetables with corn rice. Soon the table is heaped with dishes, and we pile in. “No corn rice here means no rice at all,” Wawan remarks matter-of-factedly.
Pak Untung eating a banana from the huge stalk that Wawan has brought, earlier, Wawan received the banana fruits from the swaraOwa nursery plot in Sokokembang.
How Appropriate is Direct Trade?
Interpersonal ties are absolutely key in these sequestered mountain villages. Here, direct trade (which involves farmers trading directly with roasters, in small quantities and for higher buying prices) seems like it should have potential. But as we sit on the bamboo gazebo out front (Pak E built it on his own from the bamboo trees that are abundant all around us), Wawan explains how some farmers, buoyed up by the high prices fetched by their first mini batch of beans sold via direct trade, shift their land to farm far more coffee, not realizing that the amount the direct trader can purchase from them is limited. And what about fellow villagers, drawn by monetary promise into an enterprise that then blasts away at ecological stability and biodiversity in the area?
Everything is interlinked in a web of cause and effect, and the best overall outcome from direct trade may be effected only if we recognize that its ripple effects extend beyond just the two parties who engage in the sale, and far beyond the money – with implications for both community ties as well as environmental sustainability.
|Robusta coffee in the shaded canopies of Hutan Sokokembang|
Coffee naturally grows under shaded tree canopies, and traditionally this has allowed coffee cultivation to be a key part of sustainable agro-foresty systems combining tree species, coffee, and other agricultural commodities. Due to the forces of capital supply and demand, however, monoculture and sun-grown coffee are now de rigour.
Should this transition from shade- to sun-grown take place here, in the villages of the Sokokembang Rainforest, the future of the primates who dwell in the canopies will be hit, hard. This is part of a trajectory that SwaraOwa hopes to prevent.
The vibrant rainforest is key to preserving the endangered Javanese gibbons and leaf monkeys in the region.
Kula boten mangertos – I don’t understand. This is the extent of my Javanese, so in the villages, where most people speak only Javanese, what I gather from the conversations comes from my fragments of Bahasa, and Wawan, Yoshi and Sidiq translating interesting bits into English for me.
In Sokokembang village, where we spend three nights, the camaraderie between Pak E, Mak E and the Swara Owa team is palpable. We spend the afternoons on the front porch, chatting, sipping tea and coffee while sitting on lesehan (floor mats prevalent throughout Central Java). The coffee is thick and heavy with grounds, and on the second day I opt for tea. Once, the sole village midwife – an elderly lady who’s at least 70 years old, and hobbles swiftly on bare feet – stops by, sits down for a chat, and asks me if I’m a man or woman, a question I’ve become used to by then; my short hair perturbs people. And sometimes, we simply sit in silence, listening to the birds calling from the trees.
During our trip to Gondang village, we spend two hours in the chief’s house. For most of that time, the conversation covers everything except coffee and the forest. We eat lunch, laugh uproariously, and smoke countless cigarettes, tossing the finished butts into the low wood fire. Once, Sidiq heads out and when he comes back, tells us: “There was a minor earthquake!”
The biggest element in this conservation project is trust-building. It is the iffiest element, impossible to copy and paste wholesale, and the fruits that I witness are thanks to years of trial and error by Wawan and his team. “Each village is different. For example, in Gondang Pak Untung is very well-loved by all the people, so we began circulating our posters through him. When he needs help at the house, everyone shows up, even when he doesn’t ask. But Sokokembang is totally different; most of the houses here are families [blood-related in some way], and so everything we do is a little trickier, more complicated. People are more difficult to convince. But over the years we build trust with the people.”
All this requires endless patience and commitment, and in this environment one begins to appreciate that one of the ingredients for success is the passage of time.
What’s a coffee drinker to do?
1. Ethics and Sustainability: This is a toughie. Fair Trade coffee beans are not equal – their sale doesn’t benefit all member farmers equally; this depends on the cooperative the farmers belong to. Rainforest Alliance certification is far more holistic in its concern for both financial and environmental sustainability, but only requires that 30% of the beans in certified bags satisfy these conditions. There’s also another certification that’s a radical breakaway from these – called the Small Producers’ Symbol, it’s owned and run by producers in the South (instead of the North), and is meant to ensure that administrative fees are far lower (one-fourth) and that more of these (a third) go back into the cooperatives. Still, for now it remains carried by just a handful of roasters in the USA, Canada, and France. Ultimately, your choices will depend on what’s available around you and on the kind of information you can get about the specific farms or beans you’re purchasing.
2. Taste: What about us coffee snobs? Those who look out for acidity, body and sweetness in their cuppa? Those sneaky ones who know the difference between an Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Kochere and a Panama Geisha? Despite its limitations, buying direct trade coffee can offer a good balance between coffee quality, monetary fairness for the farmer, and sustained biodiversity in the coffee-growing region. Generations will feel the impact of our choices today - it's a small world that we share with wildlife and nature!
3. Everything: We can start by genuinely caring about our neighbours near and far, and acknowledging the implications of the coffee we buy without allowing uncomfortable knowledge to paralyze us. Instead, turn that into a positive emotion! The most impactful people I know are always fighting for change whilst staying grateful for what they have access to.
Ultimately, that hardest bit might be recognizing the issue for how complicated it is, and reigning in the temptation to simplify things and magic up silver bullets to make ourselves feel better. Using that knowledge to move in small ways closer towards fairer trade is perhaps the best that any of us as consumers can do.
Adeline is a restless ex-barista who's fallen in love with growing food sustainably, breathing in the splendour of wilderness, and dancing through the thick and thin of life.