Climate change is actively affecting coffee farms around the world. Because coffee trees, and their cherry production, are negatively impacted by changes in temperatures and weather patterns, it is crucial that the process of growing coffee does not further contribute to the problem. To be truly sustainable, the activity of cultivating coffee must work to reverse climate change, a process known as mitigation.
Fair Trade Organic coffee from the JUMARP Cooperative in Uctucamba, Amazonas, Peru, produced as part of the Café Selva Norte project with Ecotierra, is a best-case scenario, one where coffee farming as part of an agroforestry system captures more carbon than it emits. Net carbon capture is a step towards stopping and reversing changes in climate.
In Peru, climate stability is especially critical. The country’s rainforests are part of the Amazon, and Amazonian deforestation is a major contributor to land degradation and climate change in South America. Reforesting the Amazon and integrating agriculture with that reforestation is the single most sustainable action a Peruvian farmer can take.
Because coffee is itself a tree and can be grown under the shade of other trees, there is a ripe opportunity for coffee farming to be a net carbon capture activity. But the soil in many areas of the Amazonas province has seen generations of depletion; soil infertility prompts farmers to employ slash and burn techniques to add a quick dose of nutrients to the ground prior to planting. Not only does this deforest the land, the smoke from burning constitutes major carbon emissions, not to mention a public health hazard.
Ronal Carranza Montenegro is the co-op manager for JUMARP and also a coffee producer. He cites “la quema,” as slash-and-burn practices are called in Spanish, as destroying land to the point where nothing grows. “La quema” is a one-time quick fix, and after cash crops produce a single harvest, land is abandoned and the practice moves elsewhere. The mountains in Amazonas are covered with areas that were planted aggressively — leaving soil depleted — then further degraded through burning. Coffee producers consider these areas as worthless; to convert them back to the rich soil that coffee needs is a tall order, one that is too steep for individual producing families to undertake on their own.
Here’s where Ecotierra comes in. Ecotierra is a project developer based in Canada whose business is designing sustainable agriculture systems. That last word is important; isolated activities might be sustainable in their small bubble, but for agriculture — a process that involves land, transportation, currency, health, and lots of people — to be sustainable, it must be approached as a system.
Ecotierra examined the entire coffee supply chain, the whole system which coffee agriculture makes possible, and designed a version of the supply chain where carbon capturing coffee agroforestry could be financially and environmentally sustainable, meaning that once all parts are set in motion, the system runs itself and does not require constant donations or philanthropy to keep it going.
JUMARP is one of four cooperatives in the Amazonas and Cajamarca provinces participating in the Café Selva Norte project. The initial funds for project implementation come in the form of a giant investment from two asset management groups, one in Paris and one in Quebec. This is a huge deal because large capital investments are typically not made in agriculture; farming is seen by banks and funds as too risky to receive the biggest bucks.
However, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and recent global summits on reversing the desertification occurring across the world’s arable land have established the necessity of investing in responsible maintenance of natural resources.
Agriculture, and the systems for delivering agricultural goods to global markets, are finally receiving the investments they deserve and require to operate in ways that are fair to people working the land and maintain the health of the land itself. Café Selva Norte, as a holistic supply chain overhaul, received investment not just in farming, but in all the related activities of managing sustainable coffee agriculture.
The components of the project include building tree nurseries, planting trees, fertilizing land, agronomic training and support to accomplish these tasks, microloans to pay workers to carry out the labor, dry mill infrastructure, brokerage services to sell coffee to the international specialty market, and measuring carbon offset to generate carbon credits saleable on global carbon market.
This last component, measuring carbon credits, is perhaps the most unique to the Café Selva Norte model. To calculate the carbon capture from producing coffee in an agroforestry system, Ecotierra worked with Verified Carbon Standard to measure the base activity per hectare. Given each hectare of land’s current use, the net carbon emissions or capture are recorded. For example, a hectare of primary forest is a net capturer whereas a hectare with wet mill is a net emitter.
A buffer radius is also evaluated surrounding the measured coffee production area to make sure emissions activities like deforestation are not merely pushed outside the border of the area under evaluation. Using geotagging and a web platform called MINKA built by Ecotierra, the tons of carbon captured or emitted are recorded and compared with the baseline. The difference in captured carbon, the total heat-trapping greenhouse gas removed from the atmosphere, then becomes the carbon credit that can be sold on the open market.
Companies that are heavy net emitters, like manufacturing facilities, industrial monoculture farms, or livestock lots can purchase carbon credits to offset the environmental harm done by the waste products their activities generate. Currently, the carbon market is voluntary. But with global trends like extreme weather events necessitating expensive responses, all industries are learning that mitigating climate change is necessary to keeping businesses, in all sectors, viable. Purchasing carbon credits is a proactive investment in reversing climate change and preventing future disasters.
As Café Selva Norte demonstrates, it is the smallholders, especially those in the remote mountains, who do the work of planting and maintaining the forests that capture carbon and regulate global temperatures. When large organizations buy carbon credits they are paying smallholders for the service of taking the carbon those organizations produced back out of the air.
When roasters buy coffee from JUMARP they are purchasing coffee, plus the added values of Fairtrade and Organic certification, traceability, and sustainable agroforestry designed for carbon capture. We coffee people love to get lost in the details of the cup, the nuances of tasting notes and roast profiles. We savor the focused rituals of dialing in the perfect shot or perfecting a pourover.
Learning about the coffee from JUMARP in Amazonas is a challenge because it requires thinking big — really big — and considering coffee agriculture and reforestation on a global scale. Expertise from Quebec, money from Paris, agronomy studies from Lima, carbon technology from Washington DC, farmers in El Palto, and the confidence of Ally Coffee specialty importers in Greenville, South Carolina all converge to make this coffee exist as a manifestation of smart systems for environmentally astute farming and financially fair global trade.
As co-op manager Ronal expressed, “we are so excited to have trees planted. We never thought damaged land would produce again. We have had pilot plots since 2003 and now we are able to bring the coffee to the specialty market. We never could have done this alone.”
It takes the coffee village to transform degradation into thriving forest. It is difficult, but it is possible. I have been following Ecotierra’s vision in Peru since three members of their team tracked me down at SCAA in Seattle in 2014 to pitch a story to Tea & Coffee Trade Journal. I wrote a short blurb about the benefits of agroforestry and never expected that following the evolution of shade coffee in Peru would lead all the way to revolutionary supply chain designs championed at UN conferences. Now the final product, the coffee itself, is in store in New Jersey and Oakland. It is humbling when coffee defies expectations and accomplishes the seemingly impossible. Nothing tastes more delicious.
Photo credits: ECOTIERRA