Coffee Tourism Is a Pile of Shit
I drank a cup of shit today — and I’ve concluded I’m not okay with it. I should clarify: I drank a coffee that was literally made from shit. Specifically, out of coffee cherries that had passed through the bowels of Indonesian civet cats (otherwise known as luwaks), to become coffee beans, to then become the steaming liquid in the cup sitting in front of me. This coffee’s called kopi luwak, and you can’t visit Southeast Asia without encountering it.
What worries me isn’t the whole “eww—it’s poo” thing; it’s that this cup of coffee is supporting an industry that completely disregards the plight of the animals involved. Due to the high economic value of the coffee and pressures from the success of wildlife tourism, the mass-farmed luwaks are treated like the crap they churn out.
I was recently in Bali, and stopped in at one of the many coffee plantations and “agro-tourism” centres that sell kopi luwak in Indonesia. I consider any wildlife tourism suspicious until proven ethical, so I came to see if my scepticism was warranted. A young Balinese woman guided me around the gardens, reciting a spiel while she showed me how the excreted cherries are peeled by hand.
I asked if the luwaks always live in the small cages I saw sitting on the barren ground. “Just the ones on show,” she said. “All the others run wild.”
I can’t help but suspect that these wild luwaks, the ones we’re not given access to, are the agro-tourism version of when my childhood dog went to stay forever with “a nice old lady at another farm”. The research backs this up. Kopi luwak practices come in at number eight on the World Wildlife Protection Checking Out of Cruelty Report, due to the intense manner in which the animals are tightly caged, fed unbalanced diets and denied their nocturnal body clock. According to the report, in their tiny concrete prisons, the luwaks are force-fed and many show signs of great stress, including pacing back and forth and self-mutilation. Sitting alongside bear parks, elephant rides and the now notorious tiger temples, it’s not the hotlist you want to be on.
I know that it’s easy to get caught up in the faces of cute animals, and swept up by the thought of the Insta-caption pun potential — there’s clearly a drawcard there. Even if you check TripAdvisor before you travel, you’ll find only five and four-star reviews raving about the free tastings and gorgeous locations, with no mention of the cuts and scratches on the unhealthy luwaks. If your gut says it mightn’t be okay, your gut’s probably right.
The selling point is that the animals only select the best beans to eat, whilst their unique digestive systems, including the luwak’s special stomach enzymes, are supposed to even out the bitterness of the coffee. When I taste it (and according to international baristas), the coffee itself is pretty mediocre and certainly not worth the 50,000IDR ($5AUD) a cup, let alone the $30USD you’d pay if you drink it in the States. In Australia, with the rise of specialty coffee that makes us the fussiest sippers out there, the novelty of kopi luwak has worn off. It’s a fat old gimmick, a product that doesn’t taste as good as that of its competitors and impedes our ideals of animal rights. And generally, the locals drink ‘Bali coffee’, so why is kopi luwak still so popular to foreigners?
I’m sure kopi luwak tasted better, back in the day, when some Dutch colonisers of Indonesia made the bold move to try making coffee from luwak shit. At another little restaurant in Bali, the day I drank the blasted cup of cat shit, I met a restaurant owner and farmer who told me about how he was brought up in the mountains. I was standing in the doorway of their home, that annoying foreigner waiting for change to a 100,000IDR note.
“Up in the mountains, I would go with my dad when he picked the luwak cherries from the ground,” he said, sitting on the ground while his wife dotted oils on his back in a Bali massage. “We’d be there all day and only take home a handful of poos.” I nodded. I’d read that skimming the forest floor for the digested cherries wasn’t an easy task.
“We had one here in a cage, but I let it go. Too sad, you see, in the cage.” He screwed up his face to further make the point.
As the cruelty involved in kopi luwak comes to light, there are a few sustainable and cruelty-free companies cropping up that use the old-fashioned wild method — but unsurprisingly, their yield is low. These sustainable productions are a small reminder though, that there are alternatives; there are ways that Indonesian coffee farmers can make a good living in a manner that doesn’t hurt the luwaks. It’s hard to blame the farmers — they don’t necessarily have the luxury of putting animal welfare before feeding their family. The supply will follow the demand, so it’s up to the drivers of that demand: tourists.
I shouldn’t have bought that cup of kopi luwak today because it directly supported the excessive consumption of this product. Void of the high demand, the luwaks would be left on their own to forage and poo the day away, and coffee farmers would focus on other means of income. Boycotting unethical wildlife tourism is the key to forcing practices to become sustainable: look at how SeaWorld’s visitor numbers dropped dramatically after the documentary Blackfish revealed the terrifying truth of keeping killer whales in captivity. The only real answer is to do our research; prove to ourselves that no lives involved are being exploited, human or otherwise. Spread the word like an 18-year-old boy on a gap-year spreads his wings. Let’s start thinking more about our impact on the world, rather than just “bean there, done that”.
Cover by Stefan Magdalinski