What on Earth is ‘sustainable’ coffee?

Man holding coffee berries.

Farmer holding coffee berries in Peru. (© Thomas Muller)

Editor’s note: From “climate adaptation” to “blue carbon,” from “landscape approach” to “ecosystem services,” environmental jargon is everywhere these days. Conservation International’s Human Nature blog looks to make sense of it in an occasional explainer series we’re calling “What on Earth?

In this installment, on National Coffee Day, we break down “sustainable coffee,” a term you may have heard before, but might not be able to explain. We’re here to tell you what it means and why it’s important.

UPDATE: This blog post has been updated given the October 5 announcement of McDonald’s  joining the Sustainable Coffee Challenge.

So, what is ‘sustainable coffee’?

Defined generally, it’s coffee that is grown in a way that conserves nature and provides better livelihoods for the people who grow and process it.

Wait: Can coffee be grown in a way that doesn’t conserve nature?

It can. Coffee is grown only in the tropics, in places that are home to most of the world’s remaining tropical forests. When farmers want to expand their coffee plantations, the easiest thing for them to do is to cut down some of the surrounding forest. Moreover, coffee is often grown on steep slopes; if care is not taken, it can lead to erosion and sedimentation of waterways. Processing coffee is also water-intensive, and the wastewater can contaminate rivers and streams. Taken together, these practices quickly become unsustainable.

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The trees protecting your coffee — and the farmers who grow it

coffee tree nursery, Chiapas, Mexico

Workers tend to coffee trees at ECOM’s Jaltenango, Chiapas, Mexico coffee tree nursery. Nearly 3.5 million coffee trees are growing at the nursery for distribution to coffee farmers in the area. (© Joshua Trujillo, Starbucks)

Editor’s note: In celebration of National Coffee Day on September 29, Starbucks and Conservation International (CI) are continuing their “One Tree for Every Bag Commitment” for the second year. Starbucks will contribute 70 cents the cost of a new coffee tree to CI for every bag of coffee sold at participating stores in the U.S., and CI will make grants to seedling nurseries that will provide coffee trees directly to farmers in Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala. To date, over 18 million trees have been purchased for the program. The disease-resistant trees support farmers whose coffee farms are struggling with the impacts of changing weather patterns, pests and disease outbreaks, and aging trees that have declining yields. CI’s director of sustainable coffee markets, Raina Lang, recently took a trip with Starbucks’ head of agronomy, Carlos Mario Rodriguez, to one of the coffee tree nurseries servicing the program in Chiapas, Mexico. Continue reading

Growing cleaner, better coffee in the ‘land of a thousand hills’

Agricultural fields in Ruhengeri, Rwanda

Agricultural fields in Ruhengeri, Rwanda. Conservation agreements are helping farmers grow more sustainable coffee that can fetch a higher price. (© Rod Mast)

Editor’s note: Tall, grande, venti; light roast or dark roast; Costa Rican, Kenyan, blended — you can make a dozen decisions about your morning cup of coffee. Some of those choices, like whether the coffee is shade grown or sun grown, have critical impacts on the environment. In Rwanda, the coffee sector once known for producing a high-quality product has recently suffered declining volume and quality. Amos Thiongo, Conservation International (CI)’s Conservation Stewards Program manager for Africa, discusses the factors behind this shift in Rwanda’s coffee industry and what CI is doing to help coffee farmers rebound sustainably.    

Rwanda is famously known as the land of a thousand hills — hills that for many decades have produced some of the world’s highest-quality coffee.

In this tiny but densely populated East African country of 12 million people, coffee is grown by about 400,000 smallholder farmers on an average of less than one hectare (about 2.47 acres) per farmer. But rapid population growth and increased market demand have led to unsustainable production practices such as cultivation on river banks and steep slopes — which leads to soil degradation and erosion — in addition to dumping waste water from coffee processing in waterways. These practices have been cited as major environmental hazards in Rwanda. Many rivers in coffee-growing areas are clogged and colored with soils washed from the farmlands. As a result of these practices, coffee productivity has suffered declining volumes and quality in recent years.

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How you can help fight wildfires — from your couch

Brush fire in Arnhem Land, Australia

The Firecast Onsight app gets near real-time global data on fires in any geography, such as this brush fire in Arnhem Land, Australia. (© Art Wolfe/ www.artwolfe.com)

Editor’s note: The Amazon is facing one of the worst fire seasons on record — which has the potential to kill hundreds of thousands of trees that store carbon, cycle water and generate rainfall. The severity of this fire season owes to a recent El Niño event that reduced rain in the region, creating dry conditions even more severe than 2005 and 2010, the last years when the Amazon experienced drought and significant fires. Climate change may be increasing the frequency and intensity of El Niños, and deforestation and land degradation may be making the forest less resilient to drought and fire. Combined, these conditions are threatening to make wildfires more likely in parts of the tropics.

Human Nature sat down with Andrés Cano, manager of monitoring and modeling systems for Conservation International’s Moore Center for Science, to discuss a new app that uses satellite data to monitor forest fires in near real-time.

Question: Can you describe the new app and what its purpose is?

Answer: It’s called Firecast Onsight, a free application for Android devices. It was co-developed by Firecast, Conservation International’s forest monitoring system, and GeoVisual Analytics. Anyone with the app can get near real-time global data on fires in any geography in four languages directly to their phone. Crucially, if they see a fire near them, they can use the app to alert authorities on the ground who can then take care of the fire. By taking advantage of mobile internet, the app provides NGO and local government staff direct access to the location of new fires anywhere in the world, so they can inform rapid responders on the ground and local decision-makers as patterns emerge. This is key in remote areas where lack of equipment or technical capacity makes forest monitoring difficult.

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What’s in a (gorilla’s) name? Rwanda’s arrival as conservation leader

Tunganirwa, the baby mountain gorilla Sandy named.

Tunganirwa, the baby mountain gorilla CI’s Sandy Andelman named during the Kwita Izina ceremony. The name means “to be fortunate” in the Kinyarwanda language. (© Keiko Mori/Kwita Izina)

Amid a seemingly endless news cycle of wildlife losses and land degradation coming out of Africa, Rwanda is a conservation bright spot. As a member of the Gaborone Declaration for Sustainability in Africa, the country is already a leader on the continent when it comes to valuing natural resources and prioritizing sustainable development. But it was the Kwita Izina — or national gorilla naming ceremony — held earlier this month at Volcanoes National Park that revealed most clearly to me how Rwanda is putting conservation at the forefront.

I was in Rwanda to serve as a “gorilla namer,” chosen for my contributions to conservation in Rwanda and, on a larger scale, in Africa. Serving as a gorilla namer is an incredible honor with a long and rich history. Kwita Izina is recognized as the most important annual conservation event in Rwanda — essentially it’s a national conservation holiday. It was launched in 2005 as an adaptation of a traditional Rwandan baby naming ceremony, where people gather and rejoice. Not only does Kwita Izina play an important role in recognizing how critical it is to monitor baby gorillas in the context of their families, their population and their habitat, but it’s a yearly celebration of conservation success in Rwanda.

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Coffee drinkers: Wake up and smell the climate change

Roasted coffee beans in a burlap sack

Climate change is causing some coffee-producing areas to become less suitable for the crop. (© F. Schussler/PhotoLink)

Your coffee is not immune to a changing climate.

Quite the contrary: Rising temperatures, drought and changing weather patterns are causing some major coffee-producing areas of the world to become less suitable for the crop. A new report by the Climate Institute shows that these effects of a changing climate have the potential to cut the world’s suitable coffee-growing area in half. How this will affect coffee production and coffee growers — including the more than 120 million who depend on the coffee economy for their livelihoods will vary by region. Here are some of the climate change impacts we could see by 2050.

1. Coffee-growing regions are changing.

Coffee growing area map, courtesy of Conservation international.


(Maps by Conservation International)

Coffee, like all agricultural products, depends on nature to thrive. It needs water — in fact, it is estimated the average cup of coffee takes 140 liters of water to grow. It needs soil that hasn’t been flooded, eroded or otherwise degraded. It also relies on steady temperatures — coffee is particularly sensitive to temperature increases, which reduce its growth, flowering and fruiting and make it more susceptible to coffee pests and diseases. But just as important, coffee relies on farmers —millions of people throughout the tropics. But since most coffee growers are smallholder farmers, their ability to adapt to climate change without outside help is limited.

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Capital idea: Groundbreaking efforts look to finance ocean protection

Raja Ampat, Indonesia

In the waters of the Bird’s Head Seascape, soft coral grows close to the coastal mangroves. A new fund seeks to protect these waters — and the incredible diversity of life they contain — in perpetuity. ( © Conservation International/photo by Sterling Zumbrunn)

A pair of new funds announced at the third annual Our Ocean conference in Washington, D.C., aim to advance ocean conservation — by helping to pay for it.

The two funds — created with the support of Conservation International and multiple partner organizations — target specific regions in Asia that are significant for marine habitat and local livelihoods.

The Blue Abadi Fund, announced Friday, seeks to protect the world’s greatest reservoir of marine biodiversity — the Bird’s Head Seascape in West Papua, Indonesia, home to more than 70 species of reef fishes, corals and crustaceans found nowhere else.

For more than a decade, the Bird’s Head Seascape has seen one of the world’s most ambitious community-based conservation programs, comprising 12 marine protected areas covering more than 3.6 million hectares (8.89 million acres) that empower local communities to sustainably manage the area. Since 2004, fish populations have rebounded and ecotourism has flourished.

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Off Hawai‘i’s coast, an unexplored undersea mountain reveals its secrets

A dumbo octopus (Grimpoteuthis sp.) swims on the Cook Seamount. Filmed on September 6, 2016, from the submersible Pisces V on a Conservation International and Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory (HURL) expedition to explore Hawaiian seamounts. 

Editor’s note: A recent deep-sea expedition off the coast of Hawai‘i is shedding new insights into the diversity of life on “seamounts,” undersea mountains that remain largely unexplored. Seamounts, formed by volcanic activity, are believed to cover some 18 million square miles of the planet — yet little is known about them.

A week after President Obama announced the creation of the world’s largest marine protected area in far northwestern Hawai‘i, the expedition — led by two senior scientists at Conservation International — became the first to survey the Cook Seamount, a mere 70 miles off the coast of the main island. The submersible captured photos and video of species rarely seen — including a species of coral that may be new to science. Read more about the expedition here. 

In this interview recorded during the expedition, CI scientists M. Sanjayan and Greg Stone discuss their discoveries, the challenges of deep-sea exploration, and the critical importance of seamounts to ocean health. 

Sanjayan (S): I’m here with CI’s chief ocean scientist, Greg Stone, just off the Big Island of Hawaii, and we’re about to do another dive on a seamount. Greg, why are seamounts so fascinating to you?

Greg Stone (G): They first captured my attention when I realized they were mountain ranges under the ocean that rivaled — exceeded in some ways — those on land. Think about it: You would never dream that there were these structures in the ocean depths that rise 10,000 feet (4,000 meters) from the sea floor. I get this feeling when I am down there in the sub — from the exploration and discovery, the companionship — and I think, “I am underneath a mile of ocean water, I am surrounded by ocean and I am in a place no one has ever been.” That is one of the sweetest feelings I ever get.

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Last week, a ‘sweeping’ win for the oceans that you didn’t hear about

Fernandina, the westernmost Galápagos island.

The Galápagos Marine Reserve is just one of three marine protected areas that will expand significantly thanks to sweeping new commitments. (© Will Turner)

Editor’s note: Today is the first day of the Our Ocean conference, an annual event hosted by the United States to seek commitments for protecting the ocean. The conference comes on the heels of historic commitments made last week from the presidents of Colombia, Costa Rica and Ecuador, who declared their intention to expand their countries’ pledges to ocean protection. Human Nature sat down with Scott Henderson, vice president of Conservation International (CI)’s Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape program, to discuss the significance of these commitments, which have largely avoided widespread attention so far.

Question: What did the presidents of Colombia, Ecuador and Costa Rica announce?

Answer: Ecuador reiterated its commitment to rezoning the Galápagos Marine Reserve, beginning with the creation of a 36,000-square-kilometer (13,900-square-mile) fully protected sanctuary in the northwest of the reserve. Colombia stated their intention to quadruple the size (to more than 27,000 square kilometers, or 10,425 square miles) of the fully protected Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary. Costa Rica announced their intention to create a 10,000-square-kilometer (3,861-square-mile) fully protected area around Cocos National Park.

Here’s why it matters: These three presidents made sweeping commitments that could transform the way their ocean resources are managed, generating incredible benefits for their people. These commitments were made during a ceremony to celebrate the culmination of nearly 30 years of negotiations to agree on the definitive maritime borders between the three countries. Sitting behind these commitments is the growing recognition that creating marine reserves is not a wasted economic opportunity, but just the opposite: President Rafael Correa of Ecuador emphasized that industrial fishermen have told him they are one of the main beneficiaries of the Galápagos Marine Reserve. Effectively, the reserve has served as a massive fish “bank” that pays out “interest” to those that scoop up the abundant spillover on the reserve boundaries.

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Field notes from the ‘Kingdom of Fishes’

Limestone karst formations in Triton Bay

The regency of Kaimana boasts spectacular limestone karst formations like this one, in Triton Bay. (© Conservation International/photo by Matt Fox)

In Kaimana, fishing is life. Located in the province of West Papua in eastern Indonesia, Kaimana’s vast coral reef systems, mangrove-lined estuaries and spectacular limestone karst bays support 1,050 species of reef fishes. More than 200 species are regularly fished for food or sold to regional markets.

How have the fish stocks stayed so healthy? Kaimana has experienced less fishing pressure and ecosystem degradation than neighboring regions due to its remoteness, but that is changing. As global fishing pressure increases to feed the more than 3 billion people who get vital nourishment from seafood, can this remote district in eastern Indonesia continue to balance the needs of fishers, consumers and the environment?

Indonesia’s waters have been open access for far too long, sparking a “tragedy of the commons” in which many fishers have no incentive to limit their catches. Now, the locals who refer to Kaimana as the “Kingdom of Fishes” are taking action to secure their fish populations before it’s too late.

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