Good Things Come in Small PackagesAugust 28, 2012
Yessenia Soto — our Costa Rica-based communications associate — shares inspiring stories from a recent trip to meet with climate-friendly coffee farmers in Northern Guatemala.
After a five-hour drive that started in Guatemala City and took us through gorgeous pastoral landscapes, we reached Huehuetenango in Northern Guatemala. On the steep slopes of its mountains, farmers grow the country’s most coveted coffee, which some say is among the best in the world.
Our final destination was Vista Hermosa, a two-and-a-half hour drive north of the capital of Huehuetenango. That remote coffee farming hamlet is the seat of the Los Chujes Sustainable, Social and Economic Development Association (ADESC, for its name in Spanish) which represents 68 small farmers. This year, those farmers became the first group in the world to earn Rainforest Alliance verification for climate-friendly practices, a voluntary add-on to Rainforest Alliance certification. In order to earn verification, these farmers implemented a series of agricultural practices aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing carbon stocks and strengthening their capacity for climate change mitigation and adaption.
We had come to the region to learn how the group became a model of sustainable agriculture. Five members of the board welcomed us with a brew they proudly called “hard, hard coffee,” the local term for strictly hard bean — or strictly high grown — coffee which must be produced at least 4,500 feet above sea level. The ADESC farms are 5,900 feet above sea level.
As we savored the unique flavor, they told us about their association. The farmers began meeting in 1994 to discuss strategies to improve their farm management. However, it wasn’t until 2006 that approximately 40 producers founded ADESC — since then, they’ve worked together to market their coffee, improve its quality, increase farm production and reduce their impact on the environment.
One of the first goals of the newly formed association was to implement sustainable agriculture practices and earn the Rainforest Alliance Certified™ seal. With plenty of hard work and support from the Nespresso AAA program — a sustainable quality program run by Nespresso, which buys all of ADESC’s coffee — the group earned the green frog seal in 2008.
“Before, we did many things without knowing they were wrong or could be done better,” confessed Servando del Valle, the association’s president. In order to get their farms certified, ADESC members improved their waste management, reduced agrochemical use, began using safety gear when applying chemicals, banned hunting and deforestation, created terraces by planting living barriers to prevent soil erosion and began treating wastewater to protect the aquifer.
ADESC member Leticia Monzóninvited us to her 8.6-acre (3.5-hectare) farm, Finca El Jardín (in English, “The Garden”), to show us the
changes she had made. First, she pointed out the clear stream that flows through her farm — a stream that used be polluted with wastewater from her coffee mill. She then showed us the terraces she created by planting living barriers amidst the rows of sturdy coffee bushes and pointed out spider webs in the branches, a reflection of her reduced agrochemical use which has brought the good bugs back. She explained that before getting her farm certified, she never thought about its importance for conserving biodiversity. Now, she is happy to see how many birds live on her farm and eat the fruit from its shade trees.
In addition to environmental benefits, farmers have improved their organization. ADESC now has a board of directors and holds regular meetings. The group has worked together to develop their community and ensure the safety and welfare of their workers, who are primarily family members.
At the same time, certification has brought economic benefits. Nespresso pays the organization a premium of US $8 per sack of coffee. ADESC uses 44 percent of that premium to ensure that its farms stay certified, and divides the remaining 56 percent among its members. Last year alone, ADESC sold 8,000 sacks of Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee to Nespresso.
On our tour of the farms, we learned about the work done to earn Rainforest Alliance verification for compliance with additional climate criteria. Mario Lopez, a Guatemala-based project coordinator at the Rainforest Alliance, told us that he suggested that ADESC members participate in the initiative in 2011. He was quick to note, however, that they shouldn’t expect to get a better price for their coffee since it was a new initiative. They accepted the challenge at once and attained verification in early 2012, after completing evaluations and training workshops, developing improvement plans, compiling forest inventories, quantifying the biomass of their farms and other efforts.
At El Rivetío, a 3-acre farm (approx 1.2-ha) that belongs to Mario Dionisio Valle, we saw some of the practices that he implemented to earn climate verification. Valle happily explained that his farm has four trees for every 213 square feet (64 square meters), which provide shade for the coffee, capture carbon and produce oxygen. The same can be said for the hedges and other living barriers he has planted to prevent erosion. Measurements have shown that ADESC farms capture 75 tons of carbon per hectare and that amount could be increased by five to ten tons by planting trees and living fences along farm boundaries and ravines.
Valle also explained that he took steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to make his farm more climate-friendly. Through the training, he learned that fertilizer is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, so he and the other ADESC farmers use annual soil analyses to determine the ideal amount and mix of chemical and organic fertilizers to apply. They place fertilizer in holes around each plant, and cover it with a layer of soil and leaf litter to reduce volatilization. ADESC farmers also make organic fertilizer by composting coffee pulp, kitchen waste and horse manure, which they are careful to keep covered.
Members meet regularly at the association’s coffee collection center—which serves as its headquarters for training–to discuss climate change mitigation and adaptation and other sustainable agriculture issues. During our visit, we saw some of the records they’ve compiled of changes in temperature, rainfall and water availability, as well as maps of areas where the risk of natural disasters is the greatest.
“We had always noticed these changes, but only now do we understand that they are due to climate change and that we can help to reduce its impact,” said ADESC manager Arnoldo Cifuentes.
Our last stop was Leticia Monzón’s home. Her coffee-drying patio was empty because it wasn’t harvest time, but she showed us her mini
coffee mill (each ADESC farmer has one), with its pulper and cement tanks used to wash and ferment coffee beans. She explained some of the sustainable practices she has implemented in the milling process, such as reducing water consumption by recycling water used for washing and fermentation. The mill’s wastewater, which she used to dump into a stream, now flows into a sedimentation pool, where it filters into the ground.
With help from the Rainforest Alliance and the National Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives (NRECA, for its name in Spanish), Leticia is also participating in an electricity saving project that will later be expanded to include other ADESC members. She showed us where she produces organic fertilizer, invited us into her small nursery, and brought us to a tiny plot where her 8-year-old son has planted his own garden using the same good agricultural practices that his parents apply on their coffee farm.
“We are visionaries,” Leticia said, when asked what motivated her and other ADESC members to make so many changes. “We aren’t doing this for money, but because human beings need to have air to breathe, the birds need trees to live in and food for migrating, and because we have to think about future generations and leave them a place where they can live.”