Coffee’s bitter side: addressing labor conditions


A farmer in Colombia’s Nariño Department checks his coffee bushes. (© Neil Palmer, CIAT)

Editor’s note: September 29 marks National Coffee Day in the U.S. Throughout the month of September, Human Nature is publishing a special series of reports on the Sustainable Coffee Challenge, a coalition working to make coffee the world’s first sustainable agricultural product. This post is the third in the series.

The coffee sector has a labor problem – or maybe multiple labor problems.

Pruning and weeding of coffee trees, and picking the ripe cherries, is all done by hand on the vast majority of farms, and this labor accounts for up to 60 percent of production costs. Meanwhile, climate change, disease outbreaks and price fluctuations can disrupt traditional labor patterns and lead to labor shortages and create conditions for poor labor practices.

So we have to ask the question: Who is picking our coffee?

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What on Earth is the ‘carbon budget’?

Fossil fuels

If we keep burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests, we will have put enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that we will reach a point of no return. (© manfredxy)

Editor’s note: From “climate adaptation” 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, we explore the “carbon budget” — what it is, why it’s important, and how a new study about it is making waves.

What is the ‘carbon budget’?

It’s generally defined as the maximum amount of carbon that humans could emit into the atmosphere and still keep global average temperatures below an increase of 2 degrees Celsius.

What does that mean, in layman’s terms?

In other words: If we keep burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests, at some point we will have put enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to assure that global warming will reach a catastrophic point of no return.

Renowned climate policy expert — and Conservation International Distinguished Fellow — Christiana Figueres likens the carbon budget to a bathtub that’s already 60 percent full. If you keep adding water, at some point in the near future the tub will overflow.

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Figueres to European leaders: Climate action requires protecting forests

Christiana Figueres

Speaking before an audience of EU officials in Brussels, Christiana Figueres addressed the environmental footprint of products consumed by Europeans but produced elsewhere. (© Ivo Popov Photography)

Renowned climate policy expert Christiana Figueres called on European leaders Tuesday to regulate agriculture imports to the European Union (EU) that cause deforestation.

Speaking before an audience of EU officials in Brussels, Figueres, former head of the UN’s climate change body and a Lui-Walton Distinguished Fellow at Conservation International, addressed Europe’s import-driven deforestation — the environmental footprint of products consumed by Europeans but produced elsewhere.

According to Figueres, “deforestation represents a significant threat for the climate, and Europe ought to focus on the impact of its consumption abroad.”

The role of deforestation in climate change is clear, but it is often overlooked in international deliberations.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 11 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are caused by deforestation, half of which are the result of internationally traded agriculture products. According to Conservation International experts, stopping deforestation and restoring degraded lands can deliver at least 30 percent of the required emissions reductions needed to reach the targets of the Paris Agreement, while at the same time improving food security and the well-being of the developing countries.

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UPDATE: U.S. recommends reductions to 10 national monuments

Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, pictured, is one of the four protected areas Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has recommended that President Trump shrink. (© Bob Wick, BLM/Flickr Creative Commons)

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has recommended reductions in 10 U.S. national monuments and parks, The Washington Post reported.

The recommendation, attributed to a leaked memo, calls for shrinking at least four sites and changing management at all 10 sites to permit previously restricted activities such as grazing and mining.

The news comes several weeks after the conclusion of an unusual, months-long review of national monuments established by previous U.S. presidents under the Antiquities Act recommended cuts to an unspecified handful of monuments. In the weeks before the recommendation, over 3 million public comments flooded in to the Interior Department in overwhelming support of these areas, and multiple groups vowed legal opposition.

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In case you missed it: 3 big stories from our world, Climate Week edition

The atmosphere is literally changing the food we eat — and no one is paying attention. (© Benjamin Drummond)

Editor’s note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In a new series, Human Nature shares three sobering stories from the past week that you should know about as we go in to Climate Week.

Asia’s glaciers to shrink by a third by 2100, threatening water supply of millions

Himalayan glaciers — a crucial source of fresh water for millions of people in South Asia and China — will lose up to a third of their mass, a study found.

The story: The Asian high mountains, the new study said, were already warming more rapidly than the global average, Agence France Presse reported Wednesday in The Guardian. The bad news: This is a best-case scenario, as it assumes that global average temperature rise can be capped at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Read more here.

The big picture: While much of the conservation world’s attention is focused on protecting forests, wetlands and coral reefs, mountains are sometimes taken for granted — yet climate change could crumble their ability to support life as we know it. Mountains’ contributions to fresh water, energy and biodiversity are at risk in a changing climate.

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Massive reforestation effort puts down roots in Brazilian Amazon


Aerial view of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. (© filipefrazao)

A new project seeks to kickstart a revival for the world’s largest rainforest by planting new trees — tens of millions of them.

The project, announced Friday at the “Rock in Rio” music fest in Brazil, aims to restore 73 million trees in the Brazilian Amazon by 2023. Spanning 30,000 hectares of land (about 74,000 acres), the project is the largest tropical forest restoration in the world and helps Brazil move towards its Paris Agreement target of reforesting 12 million hectares of land by 2030.

“This is a breathtakingly audacious project,” said M. Sanjayan, CEO of Conservation International (CI), one of the partners behind the effort. “The fate of the Amazon depends on getting this right — as do the region’s 25 million residents, its countless species and the climate of our planet.”

The Amazon forest is home to the richest biodiversity of any ecosystem on the planet — a recent report described some 400 new species discovered in the Amazon between 2014 and 2015 alone — yet is rapidly vanishing with increasing global demand for resources. The economy, essentially focused on the exploitation of natural resources, minerals and agribusiness, has already led to about 20 percent of original forest cover to be replaced by pastures and agricultural crops, without securing the well-being of the local population. The reforestation project fills an urgent need to develop the region’s economy without destroying its forests and ensuring the well-being of its people.

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Starbucks makes special delivery to ensure the future of coffee

Coffee tree planting

Monitoring visits of the Starbucks “One Tree for Every Bag” program in Guatemala. The trip included visits to the tree nurseries to witness the marsellesa distribution process and to understand the tracking of plants leaving nurseries, as well as to several farms who received seedlings in 2016 or 2017. (© Starbucks)

Editor’s note: September 29 marks National Coffee Day in the U.S. Throughout September, Human Nature is publishing a series of reports on the Sustainable Coffee Challenge, a coalition working to make coffee the world’s first sustainable agricultural product. This post is the second in the series.

This story follows Conservation International’s (CI) director of sustainable coffee markets, Raina Lang, to Guatemala, with Mattea Fleischner, manager on Starbucks’ global social impact team. They were in the country to see how coffee trees are grown and delivered to farmers as part of the “One Tree for Every Bag” commitment, which has raised enough funds to plant more than 30 million new coffee treesThe commitment is part of a nearly 20-year partnership between CI and Starbucks. 

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In South Africa, the future of sustainable ranching looks bright

Herders, South Africa

A herder brings his cattle to auction in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. Conservation South Africa is using auctions to improve grazing practices and support sustainable livelihoods. (© Trond Larsen)

Editor’s note: The article below is excerpted from a Special Report on South Africa exploring two South African landscapes where doing right by nature and doing right by people are the same. In this excerpt, originally published on August 17, 2017, we highlight the work of Tori Linder, a Conservation International (CI) staff member and fifth-generation rancher. Scroll to the end to watch a video about her efforts to restore South Africa’s rangelands. 

The Eastern Cape of South Africa is home to Africa’s most biodiverse grassland.

Looking out across a native grassland, one could be excused for imagining an overgrown lawn. But a healthy and productive rangeland means more than just tall grass; it means a self-regenerative system that can support animals over the long term. A field full of waist-high grass, if invasive or inedible, can be useless. But a patch of barren soil with the right seed bank and fertilizer can be healthy range, if given time enough to regrow.

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To weather a changing climate, coffee needs bees, trees: study

Coffee tree blossom

Coffee needs bees. Bees— such as the one pollinating this coffee tree blossom in Colombia — are expected to suffer as temperatures rise due to climate change. For example, bee diversity is projected to decline up to 18 percent in coffee-growing regions. (© Matyas Rehak)

Editor’s note: The world is slowly waking up to a bitter reality: that climate change could squeeze coffee supplies just as global demand for it is surging. With a major initiative under way to help make coffee completely sustainable, new research published today highlights just what is at stake for one of the world’s most widely traded commodities.

For coffee lovers, a new research paper is grounds for worry.

Rising average temperatures caused by climate change could reduce the suitability of lands for growing coffee in Latin America — the world’s largest coffee-producing region — by as much as 88 percent by 2050, the study found.

But your morning cup does not depend on suitable climes alone — it also relies on bees to pollinate coffee trees. How will those bees fare as the climate changes? Not that well, according to the study, which found that average bee diversity will decline between 8 percent and 18 percent in coffee-suitable areas — but not enough of a drop on its own, the researchers found, to imperil the viability of coffee crops in places where it will still grow.

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In case you missed it: 3 big stories from our world

Top stories in nature news: new hope for sustainable fisheries, key funding for U.N. climate efforts and deforestation’s growing carbon footprint. (© Polsin Junpangpen)

Editor’s note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In a new feature, Human Nature shares three stories from the past week that you should know about.

Tuna-fishing nations agree on plan to replenish severely depleted Pacific bluefin stocks

The Washington Post’s Anna Fifield (@annafifield) reports on an agreement struck last week aims to save the world’s fast-dwindling stocks of prized bluefin tuna.

The story: The pact includes several large tuna-consuming countries as well as the two main bodies that manage tuna fisheries in the Pacific. It aims to rebuild bluefin stocks — currently at less than 3 percent of their historic size — to 20 percent of historic levels by 2034. And it allows countries such as Japan — which consumes some 80 percent of the world’s bluefin — to continue to catch the delicacy.

The big picture: For tuna, 2017 could well turn out to be an auspicious year. In June, the Tuna Traceability Initiative was announced, billed as the first step toward total sustainability in the global commercial fishing industry. “Once you have traceability, everything else falls into place,” Greg Stone, executive vice president at Conservation International, told Human Nature in June: “You can determine whether there’s a sustainable stock or not; you can determine whether there’s human rights abuses going on in the supply chain; you can determine product freshness.”

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