Drizzle accompanies the Swara Owa Foundation team's drive through the forest area of Sokokembang hamlet in Petungkriyono District, Central Java. The Foundation, whose name means ‘gibbon’s voice’, works to conserve the primates and their habitat. Sitting in the pickup truck, the team members stare up through the thickets of trees on both sides of the road. Their eyes continue to search, hoping that the endemic animal that lives there will appear.
"There," exclaims Alifah Dhina, pointing to one of the branches. But the primates hanging from the branches of the trees are not the animals they seek. “No,” says another team member. “The Javan gibbon doesn't have a tail. That's a long-tailed monkey (Macaca fascicularis).”
As their name suggests, Javan gibbons (Hylobates moloch) live only on the island of Java. The species is protected, and is categorized as ‘endangered’ in the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Only a few thousand remain in the wild. The Javan gibbon is also listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meaning that international trade in this animal is prohibited.
After traveling for another 15 minutes, the Swara Owa Foundation team stops at a curve in the road. Gibbons often appear at that spot, says Arif Setiawan, a primatologist from the Foundation who goes by the name of Wawan. The team rushes out of the truck and into the forest. Their gazes scan the tree crowns, which have converged to form a canopy. Their eyes re-focus sharply whenever a branch moves. Several times they are fooled by branches being blown by the wind.
Finally, at around 3:00pm and without a sound, a Javan gibbon appears on one of the branches. While one team member continues to observe the gibbon as it moves, another concentrates on pointing a camera. After hanging around for a moment on one of the branches, the gibbon swings from one branch to another until it eventually disappears from view.
Wawan explains that Javan gibbons used to live all across the lowlands of Java. The loss of their habitat to agriculture and other land uses has meant that most gibbons are found only in higher forested land. Research by the Swara Owa Foundation has identified 16 forest areas in Central Java that provide habitat for the gibbons. Petungkriyono Forest, which includes both highland forest and some of Java’s last lowland forest, is one of these strongholds.
The forest has the highest density of Javan gibbons in Central Java, and the second highest overall, after Gunung Halimun Salak National Park in West Java. Wawan says this is because of Petungkriyono Forest’s high diversity and abundance of plants, and in particular the year-round availability of fruits that gibbons eat.
When Wawan and colleagues surveyed the forest in and around Sokokembang Hamlet in 2009-2010, they spotted 51 Javan gibbons in 20 groups. Based on the potential habitat area of 65.7 square kilometers, they estimated a total population there of 497 individuals, or 7.6 gibbons per square kilometer.
The Petungkriyono Forest is rich in biodiversity. Among the hundreds of other species recorded there are 63 bird species, 104 butterfly species, 46 orchid species, 44 fern species, three more primate species and 51 species of amphibians and reptiles. The forest is managed by the state-owned company Perum Perhutani, which considers it to be the best of the 25 forest areas designated as research sites by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry.
Although Petungkriyono’s 5,500 hectares of forest are officially protected, there is limited enforcement and the Javan gibbons face considerable threats. The forest has long faced pressure from illegal logging, poaching and encroachment. Tasuri, a resident of Sokokembang hamlet, says that in the 1990s most men there worked as loggers. He says they were aware that they were encroaching on state forest, but that as forest rangers were also involved, logging had become commonplace.
“Logging in the state forest was not only carried out by villagers,” says Tasuri. “There were rangers who took part. If there were no rangers involved, how could we have dared?”
At that time, most of the residents in the nine villages in Petungkriyono sub-district exploited forest resources to meet their daily economic needs. Tasuri used to hunt wildlife in the forest. But he stopped in 2012, when Wawan and the Swara Owa Foundation launched their Coffee and Primate Conservation Project and “a spirit of conservation began to emerge”.
Six years earlier, when Wawan began doing research on the Javan gibbon in Petungkriyono, he saw that many local people were still logging, hunting wildlife and clearing forest to expand coffee cultivation. An idea was brewing, as Wawan explains: "Instead of increasing coffee production by expanding into the forest and cutting down trees — which could threaten forest sustainability and endanger animals — I thought why not optimize existing production.”
For decades, local people have been growing coffee in agroforestry systems or among stands of teak and meranti trees in the state forest. In 2013, Perhutani issued a permit called a cooperation agreement, extendable every two years, for residents who manage coffee plants in the forest. The aim of the Coffee and Primate Conservation Project was to increase production of coffee grown under the forest canopy, and increase the value of coffee beans villagers harvest, by providing new varieties to cultivate and training on coffee processing.
Some of the Swara Owa Foundation team went to Aceh to learn how to produce Gayo coffee, an Arabica variety that is very popular in export markets such as the United States and Europe. Upon returning to Sokokembang, they shared their knowledge with loggers and hunters. The project also brought in Mukidi, a famous coffee farmer from Temanggung, to teach residents how to process forest coffee beans, so that they produce a taste worthy of sale for a high price.
"Before learning how to process beans, farmers sold coffee in the form of wet beans,” says Tasuri, the former hunter who now leads a farmer group called Wiji Mertiwi Mulyo and operates a coffee roaster at his home. “The price was very low, only Rp. 3,500 per kilogram."
But after gaining knowledge through the project, the farmers started sorting and processing their coffee beans. They now sell green beans at the local market, while they sell red picked coffee to Tasuri, to be processed into roast beans or ground coffee under the brand name ‘Kopi Owa’, which means ‘Gibbon Coffee’.
“Once a year, many farmers bring dry coffee beans here,” says Tasuri. “After learning the processing technique, the price for green bean coffee, which was previously a maximum of Rp. 13,000 / kg, can now reach Rp. 40,000 per kilogram.”
Some of the trainees also went to study at the Mukidi Coffee House in Temanggung. One of them was Sukirno, another resident of Sokokembang hamlet. In 2015, he applied what he had learned and opened a shop selling palm-sugar coffee near the Sibedug waterfall, one of the tourist attractions in Petungkriyono.
“I roast the coffee beans I harvest at Tasuri’s house, then I use them to make coffee that I sell at the shop,” he says. “The price is Rp. 5,000 per glass.”
The Swara Owa Foundation also markets the green beans collected from various villages to overseas buyers. Since 2016, it has exported its Kopi Owa gibbon coffee to Wildlife Reserves Singapore, which manages most of the country’s zoos.
"Every year, we send at least 800 kilograms of Kopi Owa green beans to Singapore, at a price of Rp 35,000 / kg,” says Wawan. “The Robusta coffee we send is first mixed with Arabica, according to the tastes of the coffee connoisseurs there.”
Supporting the family economy
The Kopi Owa gibbon coffee owes its success to the women who help determine the product’s quality by sorting and drying the red coffee cherries, and roasting and grinding the green coffee beans. Some residents of Sokokembang Hamlet have been cultivating coffee and processing it into drinks since childhood.
"Forest coffee existed in Petungkriyono long before I was born,” says one of the women there, Sariah. She describes teaching herself how to process forest coffee grown by her parents, first roasting the coffee beans in a frying pan, then pounding them with a pestle and mortar. For the past two years though, Sariah has been able to simply pay Tasuri to roast her green beans using a roasting machine at his house that the Swara Owa Foundation’s project provided.
Sariah’s family can harvest 300-400 kg of coffee in a typical year. Before receiving coffee processing training through the Swara Owa Foundation’s project, Sariah sold coffee as the ‘wet’ beans freshly removed from coffee cherries, for which middlemen paid only Rp. 2,000–3,000/kg. Today, she can sell dried green beans for Rp. 20,000/kg. She says the money she makes will support her and her husband in their old age.
Another woman, Tasuri’s wife Kunapah, is in charge of drying and sorting coffee beans harvested from plants her husband grows in the forest. She says that, after receiving training through the project she can now tell the difference between good and bad coffee beans.
Once she has sorted the beans, Kunapah separates broken beans, which will be sold at the local market, and whole beans that her husband will roast to sell as Kopi Owa coffee. The couple’s adult daughter Ismiati helps with the marketing of ‘Kopi Owa’ and her father has also taught her how to roast coffee beans.
“At first, I was confused,” she says. “I didn't know what medium, light and dark roasts were, so my father accompanied me. But after three tries, I could do it on my own.”
Coffee and Covid-19
Incomes and livelihood have improved since the Coffee and Primate Conservation Project began, but the Covid-19 pandemic has changed everything. Sales of Kopi Owa coffee fell by half after the government introduced a policy restricting community activities in order to control the pandemic. Exports of Kopi Owa to Singapore stopped.
Tasuri says that, before the pandemic, he could sell 200 packs (each 100 g) of Kopi Owa coffee, for a total of Rp. 3,000,000 each week. But during the pandemic he can only sell half that amount. Sales to local traders fell because they were told to close their stalls at 9pm, when usually there are many buyers, he says.
Sales also fell by half at Sukirno’s coffee shop during the pandemic. He says he relied on selling coffee on weekends, because the shop was usually crowded with customers. "But now it can't be a mainstay,” he says. “This year my business has been crushed. In the past, I would average sales of Rp. 150,000 a day. Now it is only half that. Sometimes I even make a loss."
In May 2021, Wawan, the founder of the Coffee and Primate Conservation Project, published an article in the conservation journal Oryx, highlighting the impact of the pandemic on the project.
“Typically, communities working with agroforesty have the capacity to survive such situations by relying on the food commodities they produce themselves,” he wrote. “However, in this case the cessation of coffee sales has had an impact on the income of the local community. From this experience, the Coffee and Primate Conservation Project has recognized that it is important to consider the choice of agroforest commodities based on their resilience and to reduce dependency on a single commodity.”
One attractive option is cardamom cultivation, which some of the women in villages that support the Petungkriyono Forest have already pioneered. Munjanah, from Sokokembang Hamlet, has been growing the crop for five years. She says that with cardamom she can play a bigger role — from planting to harvesting — than with coffee cultivation, for which her husband Munadi does most of the work.
"The coffee plant is high,” she says. "When harvesting, my husband climbs, and I help pick up fallen coffee beans. When I harvest cardamom, I do it myself because the plants are low.”
Every 15 days, after she has finished cooking and housework at around 7.00am, she goes to the forest and spends a few hours removing weeds. A single harvest can yield 200 kg of cardamom. In the rainy season, it sells for Rp. 10,000 to 20,000 per kilogram, but in the dry season the price reaches Rp. 30,000 to 40,000 per kilogram.
Another woman, Ariah, started growing cardamom two years ago. She says she got interested in the crop because it sells for more than coffee and can be harvested up to four times a year, unlike forest coffee that is harvested only once a year. Growing cardamon also made more sense to Ariah than growing rice, which depends on rainfed irrigation and has a low market price if not hulled. So, she decided to convert her rice field and grows cardamon there now. Instead of producing 70 kg of low-value rice, she can harvest up to 400 kg of higher-value cardamom.
"The first time I sold wet cardamom for Rp. 3,000/kg, but now I sell dried cardamom for Rp. 26,000/kg," she says. "In the past, I planted rice for our own consumption, but now I prefer cardamom because I can rely on it to meet the daily needs of the family.”
"If we manage the forest better, it can actually be more productive,” says Wawan. “For example, sugar-palm juice can be made into ‘ant sugar'. This sugar has a longer shelf-life and it sells for a higher price."
Wawan says honey production is another way for farmers to increase their incomes. In 2017, the Swara Owa Foundation organized training for villagers on forest beekeeping and established an information center and a demonstration plot producing forest honey in Lebakbarang Village. The honey business was promoted because the stingless ‘klanceng’ bees (Trigona species) are pollinators of coffee plants.
"It's starting to produce, but it's still minimal,” says Wawan. “In three months, only one liter of honey has been produced. But this forest honey business is very promising, and will sustain the productivity of the coffee plants in the future."
It is part of Wawan’s vision to ensure that sustainable forest-based livelihoods contribute to gibbon conservation. He says the Kopi Owa branding was chosen to show that this coffee comes from the habitat of gibbons, and to make coffee farmers and consumers agents of forest conservation. His team are encouraged by an apparent increase in gibbon numbers and they plan to survey the population later this year.
“We invite coffee shops to tell visitors the origins of gibbon coffee and the importance of gibbon conservation in Petungkriyono,” he says. “Likewise, we ask coffee farmers to remind people not to hunt. What we are selling is not only coffee but also the narrative of gibbon conservation.”
Hartatik and Isnawati produced this story with a grant from EJN’s Biodiversity Media Initiative. It was first published in Indonesian by Suara Merdeka in two parts on 30 June 2021. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.The Biodiversity Media Initiative is supported by Arcadia — a charitable fund of Peter Baldwin and Lisbet Rausing.
Banner image: A Javan gibbon on a tree in the forest / Credit: Kanenori via Pixabay.