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Jakarta Post

Luwak coffee: From animal welfare to national heritage

  • Andrea Peresthu

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Thu, October 31, 2013   /  09:49 am

Recently the BBC broadcast their undercover visit to some civet cat farms in the northern part of Sumatra. They discovered how wild civet cats were placed inside very tiny cages and forced to eat coffee cherries to produce luwak coffee.

The report triggered condemnation from wildlife activists over the cruel practice of luwak coffee production. Boycotts of the product in the western world are inevitable. Harrods luxury retailer from the UK has finally excluded luwak coffee from its shelves.

After gaining wide support, PETA has started to apply pressure on the Indonesian government regarding the matter.

PETA activists came to Indonesia and asked the government to take action over the mislabeling of '€œwild'€ luwak coffee in order to ensure the product does not involve any aspects of animal cruelty. PETA even contacted some Indonesian luwak coffee producers to reduce their trade.

It is clear that producing food by killing or abusing animals is a stain on human civilization. But there is little that can be done about the issue due to the food commodification regime, which was pioneered by the western world.

Eggs, meat, fish and all dairy products are basically produced through animal cruelty. We put livestock in cages, raise them in very bad conditions and then kill them to bring food to our table. Common sense would seem to dictate that luwak coffee should not be excluded by Harrods if other animal products continue to be sold as well. Will Harrods take the same action for other similar products?

Authentic luwak coffee is not produced in that manner. Greed has turned some businesspeople to engage in farming civet cats to produce luwak coffee.

A simple coffee grower, who lives in a remote area, lacks education as well as an understanding of Western values while not being aware of animal welfare issues.

They just see the opportunity to get additional income by catering to the needs of their consumers. The buyers who encourage and finance the luwak farms are the ones who bear the responsibility.  

However, the public has to know the other side of the story. Not all wild luwak coffee products are mislabeled.

Some of them are in fact wild and the wild coffee luwak has an excellent taste and cannot be compared with the caged luwak coffee.

There is a very close and genuine business relationship between coffee growers and small independent coffee roasters that have a high standard cupping score for wild luwak authenticity.

They have a niche market of knowledgeable regular clients. They have already established loyal customers who are luwak coffee connoisseurs. Their customers are able to distinguish what is wild luwak or caged luwak through the aroma, flavor and sweetness balance.

This established business model involves picking up civet droppings in the wild, living harmoniously with nature and respecting the animal welfare. Compared to farming civets, the traditional way is cheaper for the farmer.

They do not need to purchase the wild civets, build the cages and feed them on a daily basis. Harvesting wild luwak coffee is free for the farmers. Wild luwak is always available every day in nature as long as they are willing to walk far and work hard to visit the peripheries of nearby preserved rainforest.

Also important in perceiving the phenomena of wild luwak coffee is having an understanding of the engendered cultural economic values among small farmers and micro independent coffee roasters.

Although at that scale, the trade volume is not as big as other normal coffee businesses, but it is a significant additional income, which is enough to sustain lives without harming the environment like illegal logging.

At least this micro-scale business relation exists. It runs independently without any foreign aid, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds or other charities.

A real and solid small-scale business provides solutions. It touches the real issues of independent microeconomic sovereignty with no help from the government or international NGOs.

Luwak coffee is not only giving us national source of pride through a delicacy but also independent economic solutions for the people. It becomes a reinventing icon of our food culture for us to be proud of (although bizarre for some people).

Therefore, superimposing foreign values over the food heritage that involves a cultural economy is totally misleading and unfair for the majority who do practice good values in the wild luwak business.

Especially through a global megaphone, criticism and condemnation without solutions will remain mediocre hippie voices without a solid vision to solve poverty alleviation and manage the future of the world'€™s rainforests.    

It is clear, because of its historical, cultural and natural dimensions as well as generating people'€™s economy at a micro-scale; we should see luwak coffee as part of our national interest.

It is part of the sovereignty of our cultural heritage, and we must use our self-determination to develop the luwak coffee economy so we can help reduce poverty and save our rainforests independently.

The writer is a coffee enthusiast.

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