How Coastal Coffee Farmers Are Counteracting Climate Change in Jambi, Indonesia

Picture of a coffee tree
Mongabay Indonesia
Jambi, Indonesia
How Coastal Coffee Farmers Are Counteracting Climate Change in Jambi, Indonesia

"Coffee is the most vulnerable crop to saltwater intrusion," explained Nurul Amin, 34, a liberica coffee farmer from Sungai Beras village in East Tanjung Jabung Regency when we met at a coffee exhibition in Jambi, Indonesia last year. Amin recounted how the intrusion of seawater killed his plants when sea level rise affected his plantation in 2019.

"In just 2 days, the coffee trees withered, and the leaves started to fall," he said.

Amin's coffee plantation, like many plantations in swamp and peat areas, has small canals used for draining the water inside the soil to prepare it for planting. In general, plantations on peatlands have two types of canals: main canals 3-4 meters wide and worm (small) canals 1-2 meters wide. 

In 2019, Jambi province experienced a long dry season that lasted for 3 months, and Amin's liberica coffee plantation was also affected. The canal on his plantation began to dry up, but because the canal connects to the river, he opened the floodgates, hoping the river water discharge would revive his plants. 

Only two days after the water entered, his coffee plants suddenly withered. "Salt contained in river water due to saltwater intrusion caused the coffee plants to wither and die," Amin said. Coffee plants were not the only ones affected: Other trees such as Cempedak, (Artocarpus integer), a fruit tree, also withered. 

Instances like this — made more common because of climate change — are affecting agriculture throughout Indonesia, making it difficult for farmers who depend on crops like liberica coffee for their livelihoods. Impacts like sea level rise, increased rainfall and severe flooding are causing major problems in coastal plantations. As farmers wait for solutions from the government, they’re developing their own strategies to protect their land and livelihoods.

According to Amin, this saltwater intrusion has been happening for years, yet most farmers are unaware of it. "Farmers usually say it is shrimp fishing season when the tide starts to rise," Amin said. But they don't realize the high tide also means that seawater enters their rivers and canals, he added.

“It just so happens that my farm is close to the river, so the water from the canal can be directly discharged into the river," Amin said.

Picture of a coffee plantation
Liberica coffee farm / Credit: Lili Rambe via Mongabay Indonesia.

In 2018 when he started working on his farm, he made the canal the same height as the river. His father, who is also a farmer, told him how to build a more effective canal: Building it higher than the river allows water from his canal to flow more smoothly into the river, rather than the other way around, reducing the impact of saltwater intrusion and flooding. Being close to the river is an advantage for Amin because he can build shorter canals to reduce excess water from saltwater intrusion on his plantation directly to the river. 

"Many coconut farmers have taken the initiative to excavate the land so that their plantations are not easily flooded," Amin says. But as this is a costly endeavor, it prompted Amin to find a different solution to the problem of saltwater intrusion.

After the incident in 2019, Amin made some discoveries: He found that if during the dry season water is gradually introduced to the canals, the coffee trees and other plants do not wilt or die. "It seems that plants can adapt if water is introduced gradually," Amin said.

Liberica is certainly not the most common crop in the country, as it accounts for only 1-2% of global coffee production. But there are other reasons to preserve this important crop. Research in 2022 demonstrates why liberica coffee is receiving greater attention and focus: It’s less susceptible to climate impacts like increased temperatures than other coffee varieties like arabica and robusta. 

Since 2018, there has been a growing number of articles online about liberica and increased retail availability, especially via the internet. Farmers in Africa and elsewhere in Asia have also adopted it as a new crop. As climate change starts to impact coffee production, as a 2014 study predicted, liberica may find a new popularity — if solutions can be devised to protect Indonesia’s coastal plantations.  

People standing in a muddy dirt path
Construction of Sungai Sayang micro-water system / Credit: Jambi Disbun. 

Climate change impacts

KKI-Warsi, a non-governmental organization working for environmental conservation in Jambi, predicts that by 2100 there will be 197 villages affected by sea level rise in the coastal areas of Jambi province. As the sea level rises, the potential for further saltwater intrusion increases.

"If the prediction we made based on data from Climate Central becomes reality, the livelihoods of people on 3 regencies in Jambi province will be at risk," said Rudi Syaf, Communication Manager of KKI-Warsi. Rudi said if the average rise in sea water due to melting ice in Antarctica is 5 meters then three regencies located in the coastal area of Jambi province — West Tanjung Jabung, East Tanjung Jabung and Muaro Jambi — will be affected.

High rainfall followed by saltwater intrusion has worsened the conditions in the coastal area of Jambi. This area has become flood-prone and there are even some areas that are inundated for months.

"From the trend of rainfall in the last 32 years, there has been an increase in rainfall but with a low level of confidence," said Arif Marufi, a forecaster at the Jambi Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) Muaro Jambi station. Low level of confidence means that climate phenomena La Niña or El Niño create variability from year-to-year, meaning it’s not guaranteed rainfall will increase each year.

According to Rudi, coastal mangrove forests are an important factor in coastal protection. "If the condition of mangrove forests in coastal areas is still good, the impact of saltwater intrusion will be minimized," he said.

However, mangroves in coastal areas are currently not in good condition, says Misriadi, head of the Production Forest Management Unit (KPHP) of West Tanjung Jabung Regency. "Enrichment planting is needed because many are degraded," he said.

"Based on BRGM (Peat and Mangrove Restoration Agency) data in 2021, total area of mangrove areas in the eastern coastal areas of Jambi is 12,236 hectares," said Risti Putri, Head of Economic and Natural Resources Division of Bappeda (Development Planning Agency at Sub-National Level) Jambi Province. Based on the study of mangrove density and shoreline changes on Jambi province coastal zone from 1989 to 2018 there are changes in mangroves density. In 1989, there were 7,442.39 hectares of high density mangroves in Jambi’s coastal area, but in 2018 it had decreased to 3,275.079 hectares, almost 60% less. These significant changes were primarily caused by land conversion into plantations, as well as exploitation by the community for economic purposes.

According to Misriadi, mangrove planting activities have been going on since 2002. "This activity is carried out by various parties including private companies and universities," he explained. Based on data from the KPHP West Tanjung Jabung from 2002 to 2021, there are almost 100 hectares of mangrove areas that have been reforested. Despite this achievement, 100 hectares is still only a small percentage of the 1989 mangrove forests.

The main threat faced by mangroves in this area is land conversion. "On average, the mangroves in this area have been turned into coconut plantations, but there are also some areas where only the timber is taken," said Misriadi. He realized that the role of mangroves in Jambi's coastal areas is important, especially since in early 2023 West Tanjung Jabung Regency experienced flooding due to severe sea tides.

Liberica coffee tree
Liberica coffee / Credit: Lili Rambe via Mongabay Indonesia.

"Recent flood in Kuala Tungkal, capital of West Tanjung Jabung Regency can be said to be the worst flood in history because it lasted more than a month even though the weather conditions did not often rain," Misriadi said. "Mangrove planting is a simple mitigation effort that can be done by everyone.”

Government programs fail to reach farmers

Elsewhere, Ario Munanda, 34, a liberica coffee farmer in Betara sub-district, West Tanjung Jabung Regency, has had similar struggles with liberica coffee farming. In 2017, he started growing liberica coffee on 18 hectares. The land belongs to a businessman in the district and Ario serves as the manager. The yield of liberica coffee on this farm can reach 4 tons of coffee cherries per year.

"At the end of 2022, this land produced 1.5 tons of Liberica coffee," Ario said.

The businessman landowner bought the land from a local resident at a cheap price because it was always flooded and prone to fires during the dry season. In 2015, he took the initiative to prevent flooding by filling and elevating the land, creating a canal water system and providing a machine to suck up excess water.

He also helped farmers who have land around his land to build the embankment and formed a farmer's cooperative in 2020, called the Areca Sejahtera Bersama Cooperative, which currently has 30 members. Now all farmer’s cooperative members can cultivate their land without worrying about impacts of climate change such as floods and followed by saltwater intrusion or fires.

"The construction of the embankment was done twice because the initial embankment was not high enough, so the land was still flooded," Ame said. He is not sure how much it cost to build the embankment on the 40 hectares of land. "It was more than 1 billion rupiah, although the excavator was our own," he added.

He also said around the land managed by the cooperative, there is a lot of abandoned land because landowners do not have the money to build embankments to overcome flooding.

"I heard that there is a program to help build a water system from the government, but no farmer here has submitted a request because the administrative process is complicated and must be submitted in farmers groups," Ame explained.

Water systems in peat, swamp and coastal areas are important. According to Wetlands, a global non-governmental organization that works to conserve and restore wetlands, there are two types of water systems: Macro water systems operate in large areas to control water in every season, meaning they prevent floods in the wet season and drought in the dry season; while micro water systems are used in smaller areas, like farmland. Because macro water systems are large, they are usually built by the government or private companies.

Suepri, Head of the Land and Water Management Section of the Jambi Provincial Plantation Office, said there was a provincial government assistance program for farmers in coastal areas to obtain micro water systems. "To overcome tidal problems in coastal areas, the Provincial Plantation Office has a program to build a micro water system for farmers," he explained.

He said in 2019, micro water system development was carried out in Sayang Village, Sadu Raya Sub-district, East Tanjung Jabung Regency for 2 farmer groups, Gadis Remaja and Adil Makmur. In 2020, the program ended on the provincial level but is still carried out on the regency level.

Ardani, Head of the Plantation Division of the Plantation and Livestock Service Office of East Tanjung Jabung Regency confirmed the implementation of this program in his area. "This year the plan is to develop in two locations, Nipah Panjang and Mendahara Ulu sub-districts," he said.

Ardani said that there is no specific direction regarding the commodity crops that farmers plant because the key is in the micro-water system. According to him, if a micro-water system is applied to an area, various commodity crops such as coffee, areca nut, and coconut can grow well.

"All farmers in East Tanjung Jabung Regency can submit a request for the construction of a micro-water system to the Plantation Office," Ardani said. The proposal will then be discussed in the village-level development planning meeting (Musrenbang), followed by the sub-district, district, provincial and central government levels.

Ardani admits that the application process does take quite a long time. "To speed up the approval process, if a farmer group submits an application, we will submit the farmer group's proposal through the e-proposal system so that it can be submitted directly to the central government," Ardani said.

Liberica coffee’s popularity dwindles

The total area of coffee plantations in West Tanjung Jabung Regency in 2018 was 2,676 hectares managed by 2,341 households and produced 1,354 tons. In the same year, East Tanjung Jabung Regency had 3,323 hectares of coffee plantations managed by 2,557 households and produced 1,237 tons of coffee.

However, in the report of The Central Bureau of Statistics (Biro Pusat Statistik) Jambi Province in 2023 there was a decline in the area of coffee plantations. In 2021 there were 31,355 hectares of coffee plants but in 2022 it decreased to 27,350 hectares.

Coffee is often synonymous with highlands, but not liberica (Coffea Liberica). This variety is able to live in lowlands and even peat soil, such as in East Tanjung Jabung and West Tanjung Jabung Regencies. These two districts are the largest Liberica coffee producing areas in Jambi province, which is located on the eastern coast of Sumatra island.

This makes Jambi a special region because it produces three varieties of coffee: arabica, robusta and liberica. In the global market, liberica coffee varieties are only around 1-2% of total global coffee production, making this coffee quite difficult to find.

According to the Geographical Indication of Tungkal Liberica Coffee, the variety first entered Jambi province in the 1940s, brought by Haji Sayuti, a resident of Mekar Jaya village, Betara District, West Tanjung Jabung Regency. He brought Liberica coffee seeds from the Johor Bahru area in Malaysia.

Liberica coffee in this area is also known by the name Libtukom (Liberika Tungkal Komposit). The coffee is the result of participatory selection conducted by Liberica coffee farmers in West Tanjung Jabung and researchers from the Coffee and Cocoa Research Center (PUSLITKOKA) in 2010, to explore the local genetic potential of Liberica varieties in West Tanjung Jabung Regency. In 2013, liberica coffee grown in Tanjung Jabung district was designated as a superior variety by the Indonesian Ministry of Agriculture.

Although it has a geographic significance and has become a superior variety of the Ministry of Agriculture, the fate of coastal liberica coffee is unknown. "The price of Liberica coffee ripe cherries only ranges from 3,500 to 4,500 rupiah per kilo," Amin said. Meanwhile, prices of arabica and robusta ripe cherries are around 25,000 to 30,000 rupiah per kilo. According to him, the low price has caused many coffee farmers in his area to choose other commodity crops with better economic value.

Harihadi, head of a coffee farmer group in Mekar Jaya village, Tanjung Jabung Barat Regency, said that last year, one of his members cut down all the Liberica coffee plants that grew on about 2 hectares of land. This was despite the fact that the coffee was in its harvest period.

"It was cut down because no one wanted to harvest it," Harihadi said, and explained the farmer will replace it with areca palm. As an illustration, an area of 0.5 hectares can produce about 400 kilograms of coffee cherries per year.

Harihadi said that the coffee pickers, who are mostly women, prefer the post-harvest process of areca palm trees because they can earn more money and avoid working outside where they can be stung by bees or bitten by snakes. For harvesting coffee they get a wage of 75,000 rupiah per day, while for areca nuts they get 5,000 rupiah per kilo. If they reach 200 kilograms, for instance, they could earn 1 million rupiah a day, significantly more - and it can be done at home or in the warehouse.

"Changing the type of commodity crop often happens, depending on the market price," Ardani said. Because palm oil prices are currently good, he explained, many farmers ask for palm oil seedlings. When prices change again, the situation will be repeated, he added.

A man standing on top of coffee beans and bending down to pick some up.
Post harvest process / Credit: Lili Rambe via Mongabay Indonesia.

The Future of Liberica Coffee

While Liberica’s resistance to warm temperatures could be an opportunity for the variety to become a coffee commodity, Davis, the researcher, said many factors must be addressed first, including increasing interest from both the farmer and consumer side and improving the post-harvest process.

Farmers in some areas have already begun implementing improvements in the post-harvest process, such as drying coffee cherries in adequate drying beds instead of on the ground. 

Yet there are issues: "Many coffee farmers are still unable to implement good post-harvest processes coupled with high rainfall," Ario said. Infrastructure developments such as drying racks and adequate drying floors require considerable costs, especially given the difficulties farmers face in acquiring government assistance. 

Adi Taroepradjeka, a coffee quality tester (Q Grader), lecturer and owner of 5758 Coffee Academy, said Liberica coffee has the opportunity to compete with Arabica and Robusta coffee. "At the World of Coffee event in Milan in 2022 we served liberica coffee and the visitors enthusiastically tried it," Adi said.

A man standing on dirt next to a small body of water.
Building the Sayang River micro-water system / Credit: Jambi Disbun.

According to him, there are still many who do not know about the variety because the yields are still small. "Improvements in post-harvest processes and plant care such as fertilizer application must be improved so that liberica coffee production increases," he explained.

"Decreased production is the impact of climate change," said Dini Astika Sari, Head of the Coffee and Cocoa Research Center (PUSLITKOKA).

To overcome this, according to her, cultivation must be carried out in accordance with the GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) process, which recommends proper fertilization, pest control, drainage ditch creation, pruning and processing practices. In addition, PUSLITKOKA is also currently conducting research to improve Liberica coffee varieties by selecting trees that have uniform bean size and specialty quality, she added.

Despite these advances, Amin still hopes that the government can provide more specific assistance, such as capacity building, for coffee farmers. "It would be nice if the capacity building is not just training but there is a special school for coffee farmers," Amin said. Because according to him, there are so many things that coffee farmers must learn in order to produce good quality coffee.

This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Bahasa in Mongabay Indonesia on 1 December 2023 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Liberica Coffee / Credit: Lili Rambe via Mongabay Indonesia. 


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