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Story Publication logo February 26, 2024

Guardians of Gayo: Preserving the Legacy of Wild Kopi Luwak in Gayo Highlands



The international demand for kopi luwak inherently caused the industrialization of civet coffee...


A tray of washed kopi luwak beans naturally dry in the sunlight outside Wahyuningsih’s home in Uning, Indonesia. Image by Abigale Kreinheder. Indonesia, 2023.

In the heart of the Gayo Highlands in Sumatra, Indonesia, not only do the Gayo people seek out coffee, but so does another forager that lives in the jungle neighboring the coffee farms—the luwak, Indonesian for civet, a small mammal native to the forests in Southeast Asia. Together they brew a unique specialty coffee known internationally as poop coffee or kopi luwak liar—Indonesian for wild civet coffee.

The allure of this luxurious coffee has come at a cost—both in price and in ethics. The exorbitant price tag and desirable status of kopi luwak have sparked a troubling trend of unethical production across Southeast Asia. While the world expresses outrage over the cruelty of the kopi luwak industry, another story awaits.

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Amidst the outrage, there exist local coffee farmers from the Gayo Highlands whose commitment to their craft and environmental protection of nature remains unyielding. These farmers, the people of the Gayo Highlands, Gayonese, or as they say, “urang Gayo,” preserve the essence of authentic wild kopi luwak, making them unrecognized heroes of the coffee world.

“When you cut my hand and my blood comes out, if my blood can tell you some word, my blood will tell you, I am kopi [coffee].” 

—Nurdin Ali, a local Uning resident in the Gayo region and advocate for community development

Coffee, Coffee, Coffee—It Is Everywhere

Imagine a place where coffee trees span as far as the eye can see—this is Gayo. They run along the Alas River, up the steep hillsides of the Damaran Baru jungle near the active Burni Telong volcano, and line the streets of the lakeside town of Takengon. 

The Burni Telong volcano stands tall, breathing life and awe into the landscape of Bener Meriah. Image by Abigale Kreinheder. Indonesia, 2023.

All three regions of the Gayo Highlands—Aceh Tengah, Bener Meriah, and Gayo Lues—are blanketed in lush green coffee trees. This area in the Aceh Province of Sumatra is well-known for its Arabica coffee production. Coffee trees grow at higher and higher elevations and eventually reach above the cloud line. While riding in the back of a truck to visit Tiara Global Coffee, atop the mountainous highlands, Nurdin Ali said, “Here we call, ‘di area di atas awan’ (the area above the clouds)… Here the coffee is everywhere.”

The Gayo Highlands boast some of the most well-known and unique coffee in the world. The highlands sit at a thousand meters above sea level, with long rainy seasons, cooler temperatures, and active volcanoes like Burni Telong enriching the soil. As a result, Gayo kopi is internationally recognized by Q-Graders—coffee sommeliers—as one of the highest quality types of coffee to exist. 

Almost everyone in Gayo is affiliated with the coffee industry, resulting in a coffee-loving society and a coffee-dependent economy. Without a fruitful coffee harvest season, 80% of Gayo’s economy and the people will suffer.

A Hike Into the Bamboo Forest

While hiking through the Damaran Baru jungle, a woman wearing a green and black striped shirt with a yellow hijab was picking the ripe coffee cherries from her trees. Her twin daughters ran around the trees giggling and nibbling on the sweet cherries while her husband was working on coffee tree maintenance on the hill above. Pak Saleh and Pak Agustian Rasyid, who goes by Ian, stopped to say hello and share a smile as they walked through the farm towards the bamboo forest just over the steepest, densest mountain ever seen. 

In the heart of the Damaran Baru jungle, a mother plucks the coffee cherries from her trees as her daughters run around playing. Image by Abigale Kreinheder. Indonesia, 2023.

The Damaran Baru Jungle is filled with wild coffee trees and Arabica coffee farms like Pak Saleh’s and the young family’s. Indigenous luwaks have adapted to living on the outskirts of cultivated farmland. 

As the moon rises in the Gayo Highlands, so do the luwaks. Seeing them in the wild is a rare occurrence considering they rest during the daytime, linger in the treetops, and are timid animals. However, sometimes it is possible. Ian heard a rustle in the leaves, turned his head, and whispered, “luwak.” 

The luwak was about a foot long, slender, with crystal eyes and a furry brown coat. The timid yet curious luwak took slow steps towards Ian and his wife Rossa Rasyid. “You are lucky, you are lucky,” she said to me.

The baby luwak crept closer and then ran off into the bamboo forest. A few hundred feet away, Pak Saleh discovered their golden treasure: excreted coffee beans left atop a bamboo leaf.

The timid baby luwak stands atop bamboo leaves in the Damaran Baru jungle curiously staring at the human giants it has encountered. Image by Abigale Kreinheder. Indonesia, 2023.

Pak Saleh

The subsidiary income Pak Saleh receives from selling the beans is used to support him and his family with everyday living expenses such as groceries, his sons’ school uniforms, and livestock and farming necessities. 

Depending on the market and buyer, farmers are currently able to sell one Bambu—a small tin can—filled with 1.2 kilograms of unwashed, raw green coffee beans still unprocessed and in dung form for 50,000-70,000 Rupiah [about 3.17-4.44 USD] to their regional collectors like Pak Hamdan for instance. 

“It [wild kopi luwak] is not my main income. I have a farm of Arabica coffee trees… without it, I would hurt because it is still crucial.”

—Pak Saleh

In comparison to kopi luwak, the value of Arabica coffee cherries fluctuates depending on the market, but averages 15,000 Rupiah [about 0.95 USD] per Bambu. The collectors and cooperatives must collect a large number of cherries to produce a bag of green coffee beans. Ian explains 12.5 kilograms of coffee cherries will produce two kilograms of green coffee beans after they are sorted and processed. Similarly, only 20-30% of wild kopi luwak collected will be salvaged for export. 

Gayo farmers who gather wild kopi luwak take comfort in the ability to earn subsidiary income and thus advocate for environmental protection and education. While Gayo coffee farmers continue to pursue sustainable and ethical production, they do not reflect the mass.

Market Defamation Weakens the Kopi Luwak Reputation 

Once the Dutch learned of kopi luwak from the Gayonese, they realized its potential in the European market. Kopi luwak began being exported as a luxury commodity in Europe during the 19th century and eventually around the world. True wild kopi luwak is now sold at an average price of 100 USD per 100 grams [for reference, an average bag of coffee at Starbucks is 340 grams]. 

The luxury status and subsequent high price of wild kopi luwak have led to unethical production that diverts from tradition. Thousands of luwaks are captured from their habitats, caged, force-fed a restrictive coffee cherry diet, sedated for tourist attractions, and left untreated when diseased.

A luwak is held in a cage at a kopi luwak farm in Bali, Indonesia. Image by Abigale Kreinheder. Indonesia, 2023.

The international demand for this commodity and lack of scalability inherently caused the industrialization of luwak coffee across Southeast Asia. Despite the decreasing population of wild luwaks in the jungles, the market sees an increase in falsely labeled ‘wild’ kopi luwak products.

Animal rights organizations such as PETA outwardly condemned the entire industry in hopes of promoting change. The BBC also filmed a documentary exposing the kopi luwak market in Bali, Indonesia.

When the film aired in 2013, many called for a halt to all kopi luwak production to protect against luwak exploitation; however, doing so has caused unintended consequences for the people and luwaks Indigenous to the Gayo Highlands sustaining the traditional ways of collection. 

The documentary portrayed the entire kopi luwak industry across all Southeast Asia and Indonesia as exploitative, capturing only a small percentage of the market. Gayo was looped into that narrative and has struggled to rebuild the wild Gayo kopi luwak reputation.

Pak Hamdan

As Hamdan walked through his two-hectare coffee farm in the region of Gayo Tengah, situated at 1,500 meters above sea level upon a steep mountainside, he voiced the struggles he and other farmers faced after the release of the BBC documentary. Many buyers were hesitant about the source of the wild labeled kopi luwak they received. Hamdan admitted that one of his importers even returned the coffee to Indonesia. He was able to retain most of his business relationships by reassuring them of the authenticity of his wild kopi luwak through certification processes; however, like Ian, Hamdan has struggled to attain new buyers for wild kopi luwak since 2013.

Hamdan walks atop the steep hillsides of the Gayo Highlands where he tends to his coffee farm. Image by Abigale Kreinheder. Indonesia, 2023.

Nevertheless, Hamdan remains diligent in his work. With the use of cherry skins as a natural fertilizer, tree and weed maintenance, and planting high-looming fruit trees for shade, Hamdan’s farm is a buffet for luwaks. As the cherries begin to ripen, wild luwaks venture onto his land eating temur fruit from the overhead trees and the coffee cherries below. 

Hamdan gathers the luwaks’ excrement on top of tree stumps within his farm and collects kopi luwak dungs from 90 surrounding farmers in his village of Pantan Tengah to sell to the Rahmat Kinara cooperative for export. Rahmat Kinara is Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance certified which allows the farmers to receive a premium price for their coffee.

Excreted coffee beans from a luwak lie upon a tree stump in Hamdan’s coffee farm. Image by Abigale Kreinheder. Indonesia, 2023.

Hamdan, like many other farmers in the area, has faced the consequences of the negative press towards the kopi luwak industry.

“I will always continue to source kopi luwak from the wild because I am certain it is the only way; I know this is the best tasting and so I give you a challenge. I want you to try a cup of wild kopi luwak and caged kopi luwak side by side and tell me, do you taste the difference? They are very different.”


Guardians of Gayo Kopi Luwak Liar

Pak Mahdi, a certified Q-Grader, was quick to denounce the comparability between caged and wild kopi luwak. Coffee is not simply a commodity to the Gayonese—it is seen as a craft, and wild kopi luwak is included in that mentality. 

The process begins with the land, the soil, and the bean. The seedlings are nurtured by mother nature to grow into lush trees and bear sweet red cherries. The luwaks graze the jungle at night feasting on small animals and local vegetation only choosing the ripest, sweetest fruits in the jungle including tamarillos, timor fruit, and coffee cherries. 

Both ripe and unripe coffee cherries grow from the branches of the tree in Hamdan’s coffee farm in Gayo Tengah. Image by Abigale Kreinheder. Indonesia, 2023.

As the cherries travel through the luwaks’ bellies, the skin and glucose film are digested, the caffeine and acidity levels are extracted through a natural enzymatic process, and the green bean encased in a parchment hull is partially fermented and infused with the essence of the exotic fruits. Before the sun rises, the luwaks meander home to the bamboo forests leaving remnants of their midnight feast behind.

As a Q-grader for the Gayo Cupping Team—a certifying organization responsible for grading the quality of Gayo coffee and determining its authenticity—Pak Mahdi can distinguish the positive and negative characteristics in a cup of coffee during what is called the cupping process. Negative notes would include grapefruit or dirt flavors, while positive elements include chocolate and fruit notes.

Each batch of wild kopi luwak from coffee cooperatives, individual collectors, and other associations must be cupped by an unaffiliated Q-Grader from the Gayo Cupping Team to be verified and receive proper certification. 

The coffee must also be verified by Masyarakat Perlindungan Kopi Gayo (MPKG)—the Gayo Coffee Protection Association—to be granted Geographical Indication. For the coffee to be labeled as ‘Gayo Arabica Kopi’ and ‘Gayo Kopi Luwak’ the coffee must be cultivated and processed within the three regions of the Gayo Highlands.

These organizations safeguard the quality of all Gayo kopi luwak and in return the farmers make a higher profit with the inclusion of ‘Gayo’ on their label. 

“The difference is up to 2 USD per kilo. For example, Brazilian coffee is 5USD, and Gayo coffee is 7 USD.”

—Anzar, owner of Muniru Coffee Company

A farmer rakes coffee beans that lay out to dry in the sun at Muniru Coffee Company. Image by Abigale Kreinheder. Indonesia, 2023.

The Drop

Hamdan and others involved in the wild kopi luwak market distinctly remember its drop in value following the exposé in Bali. Depending on the market, Hamdan can currently sell one bamboo tin container—which is 1.2 kilograms of washed, processed, and sorted green kopi luwak beans ready for roasting—for 300,000-500,000 Rupiah [about 19.04-31.73 USD] to the Rahmat Kinara cooperative.

In the years prior to the documentary on the Balinese kopi luwak market, Hamdan could sell the same product for almost double the price, but the value dramatically dropped in 2013. In comparison, Hamdan can sell one Bambu of regular, processed, green Arabica coffee beans for 100,000-150,000 Rupiah [about 6.35-9.52 USD].

A jar of roasted kopi luwak beans is available at a local coffee shop, A.R.B. Coffee, in Takengon, Indonesia. Image by Abigale Kreinheder. Indonesia, 2023.

“We are here to protect the civet, because we both have a mutual benefit. Where the farmers don’t consider the luwak the pest, they protect their home and natural habitat in the jungle because they can get the economic benefit from the kopi luwak. We live side by side peacefully…you [the world] are supposed to support us in doing that.”

—Pak Mahdi

Environmental Stakes and Conservation Efforts

Environmental protection is vital for wild kopi luwak production. The conservation of the animals’ natural environment ensures the longevity of the luwak population and in turn the ability for farmers to economically profit from their presence. 

Farmers previously considered luwaks pests since they eat the coffee cherries from their farms, leading to hunting and killing; however, the farmers adopted a conservationist mindset once realizing a mutually beneficial relationship was possible, thus protecting the luwaks and their habitats.

Previously a wild hunter, coffee farmer Pak Saleh is also a Damaran Baru Forest Ranger. He now dedicates his knowledge of animal tracking and forest navigation to conserving the environment. 

Pak Saleh uses his machete to hike through the dense Damaran Baru jungle. Image by Abigale Kreinheder. Indonesia, 2023.

Twice a month, all current 16 Rangers spend five consecutive days hiking the jungle in the Bener Meriah region to conserve the 251 hectares protected under the Damaran Baru LSM Foundation. This area is home to Indigenous elephants, tigers, orangutans, and luwaks, but is threatened by illegal logging, wildlife hunting, natural ecological disasters such as flooding, and mining. 

The Rangers, including Rossa Rasyid, the first female Ranger, and Ka Sumini, the head of the Damaran Baru Forest Management in association with the foundation, work collectively to protect the ecological biodiversity of the Damaran Baru. They exemplify the communal attitudes of the Gayonese on habitat conservation for the luwaks and other species.

The Future for Gayo Kopi Luwak Liar

The dedicated coffee farmers are the backbone of the kopi luwak industry in Gayo. Their expertise, coupled with a deep connection to the land, contributes not only to the richness of the coffee but also to the sustainability of the industry. 

Gayonese and Indigenous luwaks were once in competition for the same sweet coffee cherries found in the highlands resulting in their extermination from the farmers’ land. That was until the farmers found solace in having a more symbiotic relationship through the mutually beneficial process of creating wild kopi luwak. This harmonious relationship financially aids local coffee farmers such as Hamdan, Pak Saleh, Ian and their families, and sustains environmental conservation of the jungles and the Indigenous luwak population.

Pictured from left to right: Pak Saleh, Ka Diitha, Abigale Kreinheder, Rossa Rasyid, Ian Rasyid in front of a small waterfall just beyond the bamboo forest in the Damaran Baru jungle. Image courtesy of Abigale Kreinheder. Indonesia, 2023.

Wild kopi luwak is not the primary income for these farmers, but if the market ceased to exist it would be a significant loss to the Gayo community. They have held onto hope that the perception of the kopi luwak industry will change. 

“Positive thinking is power.”

—Darmawan, secretary at MPKG

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.

Editor's note: Quotations were translated from Indonesian to English by Ka Diitha.


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