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Project November 29, 2023

The Last Traces of Kopi Luwak in the Gayo Highlands of Indonesia



A local Gayonese woman, Makipul, sorts a pile of green coffee beans by hand. For generations, kopi coffee has been interwoven with Gayonese culture. Image by Abigale Kreinheder. Indonesia, 2023. 

In the Gayo Highlands of Sumatra, Indonesia, local coffee farmers and wild civets—small mammals native to the forests—harmoniously exist alongside each other, creating a unique coffee. This symbiotic relationship between humans and nature financially aids local farmers and their families, sustains environmental conservation of the jungles and the Indigenous civet population, and brews a cup of specialty coffee known internationally as wild civet coffee: kopi luwak liar.

Rooted in colonial history, the production of kopi luwak grew out of a loophole to policies under the Dutch Cultivation System forbidding the people from enjoying the fruit of their labor; however, nothing forbade them from picking the beans from animal dung found in the forest to brew a cup of coffee.

Indigenous civets freely graze the highlands, filling their bellies with exotic fruits and ripe coffee cherries, only digesting the cherry skins. The green coffee beans left behind are collected by local coffee farmers to create kopi luwak. 

While some Gayo coffee farmers continue to pursue sustainable and ethical production, they do not reflect the majority. The lack of scalability in the natural process undermined the incentive for many to ethically produce kopi luwak and led to the manipulation of the process where various civet species are now caged and force-fed a restricted coffee cherry diet.

The international demand for this commodity inherently caused the industrialization of civet coffee across Southeast Asia. Media platforms have exposed these practices and animal protection organizations have denounced the entire industry, yet thousands of civets remain in captivity, the population of wild civets in Southeast Asia continues to decrease, and the volume of falsely labled ‘wild’ kopi luwak in the market increases. 

Protesters have called for a halt to all kopi luwak production to protect against civet exploitation; however, doing so has caused unintended consequences for the people and civets native to the Gayo Highlands who do sustain the traditional ways of collection. 

The Gayo kopi luwak story is representative of the symbiotic relationship humans can have with nature. Yet, this story has been excluded from the mainstream perspective of the kopi luwak industry that has traversed across seas and screens worldwide. The Gayo people want to be included in the narrative and to tell their story about some of the last traces of true wild kopi luwak.


navy halftone illustration of a halved avocado


Food Security

Food Security