In Peru, grounds for optimism for future of sustainable coffee

Roasted coffee beans in a burlap sack. (© F. Schussler/PhotoLink)

International Coffee Day: A wake-up call for the future of one of the world’s favorite pleasures — and one of the most important cash crops for 25 million small-scale farmers. (© F. Schussler/PhotoLink)

If we do nothing, sometime later this century the world just may run out of coffee.

As temperatures rise and rainfall patterns change due to climate variability, coffee farms will have to move to new areas just to maintain the same level of production — which is already happening in some parts of the world. At this rate, experts predict that the quality of coffee will drop, prices will rise, coffee-farming communities will suffer and deforestation will increase as more upland tropical forests are cleared to make way for new plantations.

Scared yet?

Today (October 1) — International Coffee Day — is a day to celebrate our global affinity for coffee and the 600 billion cups we collectively drink every year. But it’s also a wake-up call for the future of one of the world’s favorite pleasures — and one of the most important cash crops for rural communities throughout the tropics.

In Peru, a new effort is showing promise in improving coffee production while protecting the country’s lush forests — an increasingly important matter amid a changing climate.


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Wake up: You need sustainable coffee

All coffee started from a tree in a tropical country — and those trees are under threat. Check out our infographic and find out why you should think globally about your morning cup.


For forests, a destructive grind

When Elí Vargas began farming coffee in the Amazonas Region of Peru near the border with Ecuador, he cut down forest to plant coffee. After a few years, coffee trees produce less, so he moved on to a new area, cutting down more forest and repeating the same destructive cycle.

Eventually, after years of moving in search of new land to farm, Vargas ended up in the Alto Mayo Protected Forest in the San Martín Region. Despite its protected status, Alto Mayo had some of Peru’s highest deforestation rates, in large part due to local coffee farmers’ unsustainable farming practices.

In 2005, the Alto Mayo Protected Forest experienced Peru’s second highest deforestation rate, mainly due to the conversion of forest to coffee farms. (© Conservation International/photo by Agustin Silvani)

To stop this cycle, the Peruvian government teamed up with Conservation International Peru (CI Peru) to create incentive programs known as conservation agreements.

As part of the agreement Vargas signed, he was provided with education and training on better farming techniques. In return, he promised to not cut down any additional forest.

“I used to cut down trees and think about it — if at all — later,” he said. “Now I think first, can it be avoided if at all possible?”

It’s a stark change of mindset, but Braulio Andrade of CI Peru is not surprised, having seen firsthand how crucial the conservation agreements have been in building trust between CI and the coffee farmers — because they provide results.

“We may be delivering coffee benefits,” Andrade said, “but we’re really changing lives.”


Further reading


New methods bear fruit

The knowledge of better growing practices (such as growing coffee under the shade of the natural forest canopy) is key, especially when the farmers can see the results, sometimes very quickly.

CI is providing benefits such as new facilities to treat wastewater, which reduces the environmental impact on the Mayo River, and simple improvements to the drying of coffee beans.

They don’t start as beans, though. The fruit of a coffee tree — which has a surprisingly sweet, clean taste — is called a cherry. The flesh of the cherry is usually just thrown out as waste when harvesting the seed or “bean.”

The flesh of a coffee cherry is removed to reveal the bean inside. (© Conservation International/photo by Sara Barbour)

One of the innovative ways CI is helping the coffee farmers here is by introducing the Bokashi method of composting. This method, which comes from Japan, relies on the fermentation of organic materials; in this case, the fruit of the cherry itself. The technique turns organic waste into fertilizer in just 30 days, reducing the need for environmentally unfriendly chemical fertilizers.

According to Vargas, some of the farmers said these methods wouldn’t work and they wanted to do things the old way.

“But I followed all of the instructions to the letter, which is very important. And what evidence do they have that it’s not working?”

Indeed, the evidence is notable: Vargas’ farm has rows and rows of lush green coffee trees, some heavy with bright red coffee cherries. A few feet away is the farm of his neighbor, who doesn’t participate in the program. The neighbor’s farm is brown and covered with more weeds than coffee trees, and what trees were there appeared short and shrubby.

Eli Vargas (© Conservation International/photo by Andrea Wolfson)

Elí Vargas stands among his healthy coffee trees. (© Conservation International/photo by Andrea Wolfson)

‘High expectations’

Vargas doesn’t just follow sustainable coffee practices — he leads them, as president of the 230-member Cooperative of Producers of the Alto Mayo Forest (COOPBAM).

Vargas says that he recognizes that the real impact of the project will be to preserve the land for future generations. And he speaks of COOPBAM like one of his children: “I feel like a father again. I have many hopes and high expectations.”

He has every right to be proud: COOPBAM recently earned its organic certification, expanding the marketability of its coffee. Vargas and the other subscribing farmers can now sell their coffee to international specialty coffee markets, demonstrating how we can balance environmental protection with economic benefits.

In COOPBAM’s office in Aguas Verdes, Peru, a sign is posted on the wall: “Sin bosque y sin café, no hay mañana.”

Without forests and without coffee, there’s no tomorrow.

Andrea Wolfson is CI’s senior manager of partner marketing. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.

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