Why Pirates Target Coffee


The word ‘pirate’ seems to conjure up bumbling, drunk fools like Captain Jack Sparrow – those pesky sailors-gone-bad with a thirst for liquor and treasure. But the reality of modern pirates is actually a lot more sinister. These a desperate people who will stop at nothing to gain access to the ‘loot’ and one of the most profitable ‘finds’ is actually coffee!

Where are all the Pirates?

To landlubbers like us, the idea of pirates boarding boats and hauling off treasures seems like something that would have happened back in the 1600s. But the reality is quite scary for those transporting goods like coffee across the ocean. According to the 2016 ICC International Maritime Bureau’s (IMB) Report, piracy locations keep shifting which makes it really hard to police.

In 2014, the United Nations named the Malacca Strait as one of the most dangerous places in the world – an area that stretches from the western corner of Malaysia to the top of Bintan Island, Indonesia. Why? It’s been dubbed a maritime ‘superhighway’ with more than 120,000 ships sailing through its waters every year. Boats are generally targeted when they come out of the narrow straits into wide open sea where there’s less chance of being caught by authorities.

But the Somalian and Nigerian coastlines are also hot spots for pirates, as well as the Sulu Sea southwest of the Philippines. The apparent random style of attacks is what makes piracy so hard to control or predict – most attacks are simply opportunistic, although there are cases where the pirates have received inside information.

Coffee & Pirates

Coffee may seem like a strange thing for pirates to target but apparently it’s actually viewed as an easy target. It’s highly lucrative as containers full of coffee can fetch between US$40,000-$120,000 or even more for micro-lots! And it’s not just the loss of product that can create a headache for the coffee industry but delays due to crew kidnappings or just waiting for ransom demands to be met can mean a loss of income for roasters and traders alike.

Combatting Piracy

Thanks to the introduction of armed security guards, piracy has seen a reduction over the past 10 years. However the losses to the coffee industry and the world as a whole is still out of control. Check out these stats…

Image: ICC
Image: ICC

And even more stats…

  • 246 attacks reported in 2016 down from 439 in 2011

  • Value of piracy still between US$7-$12 Billion per year
  • 23.5% of 141 attacks in 2016 were in Indonesian territory


High Tech Attacks

While these incidents are reducing in number, pirates are actually changing their tack, increasingly focussing on cyber hacking, gaining information about navigation plans and contents of containers. Some pirates even clear out containers before they’re even loaded onto the ship. It has been reported that they’ve also used drones to assess the level of security on board a ship – targeting those with the weakest links.

But the coffee industry especially has hit back using tiny GPS trackers in coffee bags to keep tabs on their goods. This is especially helpful with attacks on land-based transportation in places like Peru where many coffee plantations can be found in isolated areas. Poor quality roads slow down vehicles that rarely have security on board are the perfect target for thieves.

While piracy is still a serious issue, the fact is that most coffee makes it safely into the hands of roasters, baristas and eventually in your beloved cup ‘o coffee. Having good security measures, knowing you counterparts and taking precautions remains the best way to limit your risk.

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