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What do tree kangaroos have to do with coffee?

May 19 marks the first international World Tree Kangaroo Day, established by the UNDP in tandem with the government of Papua New Guinea and the Woodland Park Zoo’s Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program (TKCP). The hope is to raise awareness of the charming marsupial and of the need for global funding to expand protection of the tropical cloud forests that are its home.

It’s also a day to raise a mug of Papua New Guinea coffee to the TKCP itself, and to share the story of how one city zoo and a group of rural coffee growers have effectively conserved a region of rainforest that tree kangaroos depend on for survival. The Seattle-based TKCP did just that, and the story resonates strongly with the Partner Forest Program, which matches cities and producers of forest-positive products in mutually beneficial relationships that conserve and protect tropical forests.

Through the TKCP, these relationships have indirectly taken shape. The City of Seattle owns and supports the Zoo to independently manage its programs, and the Zoo, as part of its conservation work, supports the forest communities to grow the beans that end up, via a local roaster, in the cups of Seattle coffee consumers. With the stable market and monies earned from coffee, families in the Yopno-Uruwa-Som (YUS) region are able to pay for local healthcare and education, establish savings, and invest in their livelihood. Critically, it is also what gives growers the ability to pledge their land to the YUS Conservation Area.

Communities recognized that an innovation was needed to protect the landscape and thereby their own heritage and future. Habitat destruction and hunting of the Matschie’s tree kangaroo, which has been part of local subsistence diets for generations, combined to endanger the species.

Now the tree kangaroo population appears to be rebounding. Since its launch as a conservation research study in 1996, the TKCP has grown to protect 180,000 hectares including a vast rainforest where the Matschie’s tree kangaroo and many other rare animal species live. As we learned from Lisa Dabek, the visionary conservationist behind the TKCP, tree kangaroo populations have recovered to the extent that they’re now found beyond protected areas and closer to villages, which has had the positive pay-off of making hunting easier.

Meanwhile, over 600 families have become involved in shade-growing coffee beans, for which they receive more than 35% above the conventional market price thanks to a direct trade relationship with Seattle-based Cafe Vitta and other buyers. They established an independent enterprise, the YUS Conservation Coffee and Cocoa Cooperative, with the intention to continue growing their opportunities. In 2018, the harvest was over 30 tons of coffee.

Overall the program is a testament to the power of cities and rural communities working closely together, yet much work remains to fully realize the potential of the program for the forest stewards, the forest, and the coffee drinkers who would surely like to know that their caffeine dependence is supporting such important change in the world.

Like everywhere else, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted both the Cooperative’s and the TKCP’s work. Researchers were unable to make their usual visits, and it was difficult to get the coffee beans out of the villages, Dabek said. The YUS region is inaccessible by road and dependent on long hiking trails or limited air transportation.

In that respect, the pandemic years may have seemed a throwback to circa 1960, when coffee growing was first locally introduced. “Elders have told me that they used to carry 50 kilogram bags of coffee a day or two days walk down the coast,” Dabek said. “Eventually it became not possible to do that, and then flying it out was so expensive that they pretty much gave up.” Coffee gardens went untended for decades, until the Zoo approached community members about developing a livelihood-based conservation program. Then coffee came up as a crop to revive in their agroforestry plots.

Dabek is optimistic that 2022 will see things back on track. When we spoke with her, the whole coffee harvest had already been flown out so that it could get into the hands of the roaster-distributors. Caffe Vitta has been involved since the beginning, visiting the villages and buying from the growers directly. Their involvement has been important to the program, providing an alternative pathway to recognizing the special value of the coffee without the expense and procedures of coffee certification that would be difficult for the remote group to comply with.

The coffee is shade-grown and organic but not certified as such. “For us, for the farmers, for YUS, the fact that the coffee is farm direct was the most important label to put on the bags,” Dabek said. “My feeling about certification is that I agree with the intent, but I think that it doesn’t always serve the smaller projects. There need to be other ways to recognize these conservation results.”

Could that other way be to further develop the budding partnership between the forest stewards of the YUS Cooperative and the City of Seattle? Small growers are ready to provide excellent, forest-positive coffee, but they need consumers to come on side and recognize their work through purchases and increasing demand.

Certainly for Dabek the hope is that World Tree Kangaroo Day will help more conservation coffee get into the mugs of coffee drinkers in Seattle and beyond. Coming in 2026 to the Woodland Park Zoo will be a major new exhibit focused on Papua New Guinea forests, tree kangaroos, and the TKCP.

“I'm super excited about it because there's never been an exhibit that focuses on Papua New Guinea in any North American zoo,” Dabek said. “So this will be a chance to really tell our story and try to put Papua New Guinea on the map because it's often forgotten or not seen, and yet it's such an important place for tropical forests and cloud forests in particular.”

All video clips were provided by Woodland Park Zoo. To learn more about the TKCP, watch this video here.

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