Elephants and Tigers Are Dying for a Cup of Sanka

So you go to the diner and have a cup of coffee. You order decaf, milk and sugar on the side.

Where it comes from is not at the top of your agenda.

But the World Wildlife Fund, in a report titled "Gone in an Instant," says some coffee beans are being grown illegally by poor farmers in a nature reserve called Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

Nearly 20 percent of the jungle there, the group says, has been hacked down by farmers so they can grow coffee.

So elephants, rhinos, tigers and other wildlife, the report says, are losing habitat so that people elsewhere can have instant coffee.

Is Anyone to Blame?

The farmers are not necessarily shooting the animals, but "they might as well be," said Carter Roberts, the organization's president, "since habitat destruction is the main cause of the decline of these species."

The group documents how peasants, trying to make a living any way they can, clear away jungle foliage to find more land to plant coffee beans.

When the peasants harvest their crop, bringing it to market in carts or on motor scooters, the illegally grown beans are mixed in with beans grown on regular farmland.

The coffee involved comes from a type of plant called robusta coffee, typically used in instant coffee and in energy drinks. Premium coffees mostly come from other plants.

Large importers indirectly subsidize the habitat destruction, the environmentalists said. Coffee beans from the Bukit Barisan Selatan park make their way to 52 different countries.

This is not a simple case of good guy, bad guy, though. As the report concedes, coffee importers "may have been unaware that the coffee they were procuring was grown illegally at the expense of protected elephant, rhino and tiger habitat."

"Yet the international coffee market," the report says, "played and continues to play a key role in creating market forces that drive deforestation in Sumatra."

The largest importer of coffee beans from the region is Kraft Foods, producer of such brands as Maxwell House and Sanka, followed by several companies from Europe, Hong Kong and Japan.

"You've got big brand names, like Kraft and Nestle, who are working with us at different stages to address the problem," Roberts said.

"There are other players who run the gamut, from showing some willingness in participating in some round tables, to denying the problem exists," Roberts said.

Company Response

Kraft has a mission statement on its Web site, promising to make sure it knows the sources of its raw materials. It says it already works with another environmental group, the Rainforest Alliance, to protect habitat and people's rights in Africa.

Kraft issued a statement in response to the World Wildlife Fund report, saying, in part, "We acknowledge WWF for shedding light on this important conservation issue. However, we also recognize that preventing land encroachment and conversion of forest for agricultural purposes requires the participation of a broad coalition of coffee growers, exporters, roasters and civil society, working in conjunction with the national and local governments of Indonesia."

Roberts says he hopes for more. Environmental groups estimate that the habitat for tigers in Asia has been reduced to 7 percent of what it was a century ago.

Industry can make a positive difference. Coffee, he points out, is a $50 billion worldwide business that employs 20 million people.

"We're talking about the second most-traded commodity in the world after oil," he said.