Coffee bean cartel

The high demand for Panama's "geisha" coffee beans have lead some growers to plant them illegally inside a protected forest.

by: Andrew Beatty: Reuters | 08 Aug 2008

Panama's Environmental Protection Agency has discovered 40 acres of clandestine coffee trees nestled deep in the Volcan Baru National Park, sparking fears that more forest could be cleared as prices rise.

The nature preserve is ringed with coffee farms growing the country's "geisha" beans, often described as the champagne of coffee for their subtle jasmine-like taste highly sought after by boutique roasters from North America, Europe and Japan.

Now, sky-high prices for geisha beans have lured some growers well inside the park's boundaries.

"There is a grave threat to the park. People do not respect laws and the (government) has not done its part to ensure compliance," said Ezequiel Miranda, head of an environmental group in the western Boquete region near Costa Rica.

Last year a batch of the famed coffee fetched a world record price of $130 a pound in an international online auction.

While the coffee plant only takes up a tiny fraction of Volcan Baru's thousands of acres, the invasion could disrupt the wildlife living around Panama's only volcano, including pumas, quetzal birds and rare orchids, environmentalists say.

Bad name
Many specialty coffee producers decry the practice of encroaching on park land, saying a few rogue growers are giving the geisha business a bad name.

Established growers in the region have built up reputations for running environmentally and socially responsible farms.

"This is certainly not what our organisation or members are about. We really take care of the environment," said Ricardo Koyner, president of the Panamanian Specialty Coffee Association.

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