it looks like a gaggle of birdwatchers enjoying El Salvador’s avian splendor. The group is walking along what appears to be a path in a park, peering into the treetops and poking into bushes. It’s an agronomist, a biologist and a former banker guided by three farmers that are part of Coop Las Lajas, a large cooperative in El Salvador’s Sonsonate region. The visitors are inspecting the farm according to international standards for sustainable farm management. Las Lajas is Rainforest Alliance Certified and must be re-inspected every year to maintain the seal of approval.
Las Lajas is just one of a rapidly growing number of farms throughout Latin America that have subscribed to sustainable production methods in order to conserve natural resources, reduce pollution, improve conditions for workers, control costs, improve quality and make their coffee more attractive to buyers. The sustainable coffee concept, once considered an impractical whim of birdwatchers, maverick farmers and elite marketers, has blossomed into a movement that embraces the entire coffee industry, from farm to cup. Tea & Coffee will cover this awakening in a three-part series. We will begin this issue with sustainability on the farm, move to trading coffee sustainably and conclude with the sustainable marketplace.
When a farmer with five acres of coffee in remote Santa Barbara, Honduras, says, “Estoy manejando mi finca en forma sostenible” (“I’m managing my farm sustainably”), we know that the concept of sustainability is penetrating the furthest reaches of the sector. The term “sustainable development” came from the arcane language of the United Nations and was adopted by private groups working on conservation and rural development the world over. Now the coffee industry has adopted the concept. For example, the executive director of the International Coffee Organization, Nestor Osorio, gave a presentation titled “Global Coffee Crisis: A Threat to Sustainable Development” to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in August 2002.
Of course farmers have known about sustainable land management practices for centuries; they just didn’t call it that. Farmers generally know when their farm is healthy and when it is degrading. They know that it’s not sustainable if inputs are costing more than outputs earn. They know if their farm has a future, if it is something that will support their children’s children. Unlike many crops, coffee can be environmentally benign, producing steadily with minimal inputs while supporting rural families - in a word, “sustainable.”
The taproot of the sustainable coffee certification movement can be traced back to a group of biologists surveying wildlife populations in the Tres Volcanes coffee-growing region of Guatemala in the 1980s. These scientists, from the Interamerican Foundation for Tropical Research (FIIT in its Spanish acronym), knew that traditional coffee farms can host abundant wildlife. Luis Gaitán, then a student researcher and now executive director of FIIT, says, “The value of forested coffee as habitat was obvious to any naturalist; what we did was begin to quantify the impacts on biodiversity as coffee farms were deforested for the new monoculture growing systems.” Prices were high in those days and farmers were replacing forested farms with the high-yielding “full-sun” monocultures.
The plight of the world’s vanishing rainforests - home to half of all the plant and animal species that share this planet with us - was much in the news as FIIT and other researchers began revealing that traditional, forested coffee farms were “the next best thing to real rainforest.” This news spread like Hollywood gossip, and “shade coffee” soon became a cause celebre. Audubon magazine, a bible to 60 million birdwatchers in the U.S., published an article called “The Birds and the Beans” in 1994, and a few years later magazines such as The Atlantic were running stories with titles like “Can Coffee Drinkers Save the Rainforest?”
FIIT brought their research findings to the Rainforest Alliance, an international, non-profit, conservation organization with a reputation for merging business and environmental interests. The Alliance had already established guidelines for low-impact banana farming and for responsible forest management. Together with coffee farmers, exporters, national coffee associations and other groups, the FIIT and the Rainforest Alliance coordinated the development of measurable standards for sustainable coffee farm management.
Of course there was a lot of debate about what, exactly, “sustainable” means. The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, the Natural Resources Defense Council, regional agronomic research institutions and multilateral development agencies such as the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development and its German counterpart, the GTZ, specialty coffee associations and dozens of local groups in the coffee growing countries all contributed to the discussion.
The debate continues today, but there is wide agreement on the basic tenets of sustainability. According to Juan Marco Alvarez, executive director of SalvaNATURA, El Salvador’s leading conservation organization, “Almost everyone agrees that sustainability means giving equal attention to social, economic and environmental questions. If one of those three elements is weak, the business is not sustainable. This holds true whether you’re talking about a coffee farm or a shoe factory.”
The farm management standards developed by the Rainforest Alliance and its partner groups cover the full range of issues, including: smart farming practices that conserve forest, water, soils, wildlife and other natural resources; collaborative community relations; fair treatment and good living and working conditions for workers; and recordkeeping and monitoring to ensure continual progress in all areas. The standards are concrete, measurable, practical and applicable to farms of all sizes, from large estates to cooperatives to small, family gardens.
The seal of approval is the farmer’s badge of honor, proof that his or her farm meets the most demanding social and environmental standards. It is also leverage at the time of sale, as more and more buyers want coffee from farms that are making positive contributions in their areas and are well managed, assuring that they will continue to supply quality beans for many years to come.
SalvaNATURA, which is accredited to certify farms with the “Rainforest Alliance Certified” seal of approval, is demonstrating that coffee farms and farmers can be important actors in major conservation initiatives. The group is recruiting coffee farms to protect precious watersheds, serve as buffer zones around parks, and even create biological corridors, which allow wildlife to migrate from one area to another in search of food, mates or refuge. This is important everywhere in the tropics, but especially in countries such as El Salvador, which has lost most of its native forest and suffers water and fuelwood shortages as a result. Much of the forest remaining in El Salvador is in fact coffee forest.
Cooperative Las Lajas, for example, is 613 hectares (1514 acres) of coffee forest that supports 2,000 people and produces 20,000 bags of coffee. SalvaNATURA scientists have counted an amazing 103 species of trees on the farm and a wild range of birds, from raucous parakeets to reticent warblers. Acting as a buffer, the farm helps protect neighboring Los Volcanes National Park.
Simon Antonio Chavez, president of the cooperative, proclaims, “The certification program has helped us protect nature and make life better for the families of the cooperative. Now that we have the ecolabel, we can sell our certified coffee for a better price.”
Not far away, Luis Ernesto Urrutia manages Finca Monte Sion, a farm that meets all of the Rainforest Alliance’s standards and is experimenting with better ways to incorporate coffee mill byproducts into the soil. Dr. Urrutia - a cardiologist whose family has grown coffee since 1907 - began an ambitious health-care program for coffee workers and their families. The program includes a mobile medical center, a health education facility and literary centers. In addition, Dr. Urrutia helped organize the Sustainable Certified Coffee Association of El Salvador, which has already landed contracts in Taiwan and Japan.
Forested coffee farms serve as kind of a country store and pharmacy, providing fruits, firewood, flowers, construction materials, honey and medicinal plants. While workers on certified farms have access to professional health care, they also make good use of local cures, many of which grow right in the farm. For example, Salvadorans use the chichipince plant to treat infections, insect bites and menstrual pains.
The coffee certification program is managed by a coalition of outstanding conservation and rural development groups, the Sustainable Agriculture Network. In Colombia, the network member is Fundación Natura, based in Bogotá and with projects throughout the country. Fundación Natura manages a forest preserve in the Santander region, where some say coffee farming in Colombia was born. The preserve, a last redoubt of an endangered species of Andean oak tree, is bordered by coffee farms. The farmers, eager to be good neighbors to the park, have entered their lands into the certification program, and a coalition of farmers called Grupo Kachalu was the first to win the seal of approval.
The Colombian Coffee Federation supports certification of sustainable practices and will even help producers win the Rainforest Alliance guarantee - so long as there is a ready market for the better beans.
Carlos Alberto Gonzales, head of the federation’s specialty department, sums it up this way: “We see great potential for Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee, because the concept covers both social and environmental issues and can cover the range of farm sizes we have here in Colombia, especially the numerous smallholders. It’s a good marketing tool and, equally important, it gives producers guidelines for managing their farms in harmony with nature. For us, ‘sustainability’ is more than marketing; it is a way of life. We expect to be still growing the world’s best coffees, sustainably, in the next century.”
The first farm to win certification, in 1996, was Finca El Jute in Santa Rosa, Guatemala. FIIT was the certifying agency, and Luis Gaitán says that the farm served as a laboratory for testing the early standards. The owner, Fausto Aguilar, a third-generation producer, already knew that the nature he was protecting was providing free ecological services, such as biological pest control, water and natural fertilizer in the form of nitrogen-rich falling leaves. Workers in El Jute have their own gardens, a clinic, a school and steady jobs in a time of turmoil in the coffee producing sector.
Finca Santa Isabel, also in Guatemala, won certification at about the same time. This estate delivers 10,000 bags of SHB and HB well regarded for its careful preparation. Farm manager Martin Keller and his engineers seem to have a new idea every morning for making life better for workers. They invented a tortilla-making machine, so that women can save an hour in the kitchen every morning, and clothes washing and bathroom facilities that are sensitive to the cultures of indigenous workers, including season pickers. The mill at Santa Isabel is state-of-the-art, with unique pollution control features and efficient use of water and energy. A large piece of forest on the farm has been registered with the government as an official wildlife refuge.
There are three international certification programs for coffee that are mission-driven and managed by nonprofit, non-governmental groups: organic, fairtrade and sustainable. Operators of all three systems belong to the International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labelling Alliance (ISEAL). While the certifiers have different missions, they work together through ISEAL to improve the effectiveness of voluntary social and environmental certification. In one program, the certifiers are jointly studying the techniques used to evaluate labor conditions on farms, including those conditions that are notoriously difficult to assess, such as fair wages, living conditions and freedom of association.
All three certification programs vouch for the conditions and practices at La Trinidad, a far-flung cooperative in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico. Sustainable Harvest imports La Trinidad’s “triple certified” coffee which is snapped up by buyers such as Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and Caribou Coffee Company. Coffee Enterprises, a company known for its progressive practices and support of such programs as Coffee Kids, squeezes the essence of some La Trinidad coffee for use in specialized flavorings. The new Ben & Jerry’s “Coffee for a Change” ice cream is flavored with La Trinidad’s best beans.
“Every farm has its strengths and weaknesses,” says Guillermo Belloso, who coordinates the certification program for SalvaNATURA. “Some have excellent conditions for workers, but have soil erosion or deforestation. Some have eliminated pesticide use but have workers living in slums. We require that all serious faults be corrected before the farm can be certified, and work with the farmers to develop management plans to correct chronic problems over time. Of course, we monitor progress against the plan during every audit.”
Major capital expenses such as upgrading worker housing or improving treatment lagoons for the process waters at the mill can be phased in on pre-approved schedules. For example, two large estates in Costa Rica, Finca Aquiares and Finca Rio Negro, are implementing long-term reforestation plans in order to meet the standards. Aquiares farm manager Fabio Zamora says, “We’re planting 6,000 trees a year and allowing all volunteer seedlings to grow untouched. We plan to do that for at least 20 years until the farm once again looks like it did when I was a boy, climbing trees while my father worked below.”
In the mist-wrapped mountains of western Panama, where the republic shares a binational “friendship park” with Costa Rica and nature is experimenting with a thousand shades of green, Price Peterson manages Hacienda La Esmeralda, mixing progressive coffee farming with a dairy operation. Peterson, a former college professor, was one of the early movers in sustainable coffee and invited an audit of La Esmeralda when the certification program was still developing. He was already experimenting with new worker-housing designs, training programs for workers, schools for their children and other innovations.
Peterson recalls, “When we were first inspected by the RA, we aced the social criteria, since my wife and I had been working on these issues for years, with guidance from Pete Rogers (vice president and green-coffee buyer at JBR Gourmet Foods) and others. We had to make a few changes in environmental protection, and then we were certified.”
Over the years, the certification standards and procedures evolved with continual input from scientists, conservationists, farmworkers, coffee associations, roasters, consumers and avant-garde farmers such as Peterson.
“We let our shade trees grow to meet the biodiversity standards, and that affected our coffee production, Peterson says. “Also, we found the certification program to be unnecessarily complicated, with a burdensome legal contract and rigid rules. We essentially told the Rainforest Alliance to come back when they had streamlined the program and made it more flexible. They did, and we renewed our certification.”
Like most of the pioneers in the program, Peterson was not looking for premium prices, but for guidance and recognition of his investments in social responsibility and environmental protection.
“Our coffee is sold to Starbucks and others,” he says. “The certification gives us another marketing tool, but does not guarantee a higher price. We didn’t get certified expecting a premium price; we wanted our social and environmental activities to be evaluated and validated by a credible, independent, conservation organization using internationally accepted guidelines for responsible farm management.”
The certification program embraces farms of all sizes. In Brazil, the Rainforest Alliance and its nonprofit partner group, the Forestry and Agriculture Management and Certification Institute (IMAFLORA), have certified the extensive farms of Daterra Atividades Rurais, a well-known producer of top quality Arabica. This famous fazenda, in southeastern Minas Gerais, is in an area where the natural vegetation is grass, shrubs and low trees. According to studies done by IMAFLORA ecologists, it would not be appropriate to require shade trees in this region; instead the certification should promote conservation of the natural ecosystem called “cerrado.” Daterra does that, like everything else, in a big way.
“The fazenda is 7,000 hectares in total,” says general manager Leopoldo Alberto Ribeiro, “and nearly 4,000 of that is natural area preserved and protected.” The farm has outstanding social programs as well as sparkling rivers, a couple of spectacular waterfalls and a massive tree-planting campaign. IMAFLORA biologists have found rare macaws, owls, jaguar tracks and a giant anteater in the reserve areas.
“Because of the questions about appropriate forest cover and other social and environmental issues on a farm this size and in this area, it took us six years to certify Daterra,” notes Laura de Santis Prada, sustainable agriculture program manager for IMAFLORA. “The seal of approval is recognition of Daterra’s efforts over the years.”
Sustainability is catching on, both on the farm and in the markets as not just responsible but smart business. Everardo Bernstorff, of certified Finca Santa Elena in Chiapas, Mexico, concludes, “I believe that the future of the coffee industry, not just here but around the world, lies in producing a quality product rather than a basic commodity. Only traditional, sustainable methods, like those we have adopted at Santa Elena, will sustain this in the long run. Our vision, our beliefs, our whole way of life depends on it.”
For more information, please check www.rainforestalliance.org.