Worldwide we consume a staggering ten million tons of coffee a year with the thirsty Kirsty’s of Finland steaming into first place with an impressive average of eight or nine cups per person per day. With global coffee consumption likely to triple by 2050, tea has become just so last century. According to the UN, up to 90% of logging in tropical rainforests is illegal, it seems the temptation to slash and burn is stronger than a double espresso. Hell, if the South Downs had a favourable coffee climate, I’m sure we’d all be at it too. So how exactly can a leading cause of deforestation be turned into a solution? We traveled to the Alto Mayo Conservation International project on the outskirts of the Peruvian Amazon to find out.
“We’re not investing in high-quality coffee… we’re investing in high-quality lives” explained Braulio Andrade, director of the Conservation International team in Alto Mayo as we met him over a cup of the good stuff.
In the simplest of terms, farmers who live within the bounds of the Alto Mayo protected area are offered a conservation agreement in which they commit to stop felling trees in exchange for technical support to increase the productivity and sustainability of their coffee crop. The reality is a multifaceted social enterprise with a scope not incomparable to an international Mars mission.
The project, a collaboration between Conservation International and the local government, began eleven years ago. Its costs, which run into the millions of dollars are largely funded by carbon credits purchased by Disney, BHP and a handful of smaller investors. I have to admit that this fact did not sit comfortably with me. Surely a scheme funded by an extractive corporate wanting to wipe its smutty carbon conscience clean with an expensive round of Hail Mary’s would amount to nothing more than greenwashing? I worried that the trees would be ring-fenced and the local population expelled with no compensation or support, yet witnessing this project on the ground has shown me otherwise.
Ana Yi from CI invited us to tag along on a visit to one of the conservation agreement participants; a coffee farmer named Gricerio, who lives along a winding, cratered track in the south of the protected area. Eight years ago it would have been inconceivable to make this visit, Ana explained as the tiny car we were in bravely inched its way into a swollen river.
It should perhaps come as no surprise that conserving a great swathe of Peruvian forest that’s home to its fair share of baddies including land traffickers and illegal loggers has it’s “challenges”. In recent times there have been eight kidnappings of public officials, meaning that some 13 villages are currently inaccessible to the CI team.
The track became too rutted even for our hardy little hatchback so we clambered out and reached the farm by foot where Gricerio met us and kindly agreed to show us around.
In exchange for his commitment not to deforest, Gricerio had been provided with a coffee bean washing tub, grinder and drying house. On top of support and structures related to coffee, the Conservation Agreement, promoted by CI, provides other benefits to increase both quality of life and the health of the environment. Organic toilets, Bokashi composting systems and the creation of small vegetable patches have done much to reduce disease and malnutrition.
The drying house, a simple covered wooden structure on stilts, enables Gricerio to improve the quality of his beans, which previously would have been sun-dried on groundsheets amongst chickens, dogs and the constant threat of rain.
Beyond the technical, there is a clear psychological shift in participants as evidenced by Gricerio who tells us that he once saw the forest as a provider of resources to be exploited. Now he sees how the health of the ecosystem is linked to the health of his own community. It’s unlikely that all subscribers are engaged to the same degree as Gricerio, whose passion for conservation is clear as he tends to his garden of rescued orchids, yet the project has seen deforestation reduced at the site by 75% from baseline levels — a first for Peru.
It’s been a long road, the team has worked incredibly hard to gain the trust of farmers who were fatigued and angry about numerous past promises made and broken by NGO’s and government alike. Today over one thousand families in the area have signed agreements. The resulting decrease in deforestation has generated over 6.2 million tons of emissions reductions — the equivalent of taking nearly 150,000 cars off the road each year.
But CI involvement doesn’t end at the farm gate. With no way to ensure the quality of the beans and get them out to international markets, the project could not succeed. “We knew nothing about coffee when we started” laughs Braulio “it’s been a long process but the cooperative that CI helped to create is now selling around ten containers of specialty Alto Mayo coffee a year and growing”. All profits go to the cooperative of subscribed coffee farmers with the intention of breaking down the toxic debt trap which previously saw them taking out loans in exchange for their entire crop.
CI coffee connoisseurJorge Guerrero grades the quality of the coffee in an impressive process of wafting, sniffing, slurping and spitting. He is joined by a new recruit from the reserve’s buffer zone who, through her olfactory aptitude, was selected from a group of other young hopefuls.
FUTURE OF CONSERVATION
Regretfully there are some farmers who don’t follow through on their commitments to stop deforesting and others who simply won’t sign up. How does CI deal with this reality? We put the question to Braulio, who, after our volley of questions looked like he needed another coffee. With an area of forest twice the size of New York City and few government rangers on the ground, the answer is with difficulty, but there are some innovative solutions on the horizon.
In 2015 Topher White, founder of tech start-up Rainforest Connection contacted Conservation International with a bright idea. To convert old cell phones into solar-powered acoustic receivers which can be rigged to trees around the world. When a phone picks up the frequency of a chainsaw it pings a message to the ranger team on the ground. The rangers use a drone to check out if the source of the sound is indeed deforestation before moving in to confront the illegal loggers. Conservation International has been trialling the system and over the past two years has trained 10 park rangers and members of the local Indigenous community to fly drones. There have been setbacks including stolen equitpment but once up and running CI have hopes to use the up-cycled acoustic receivers not only for surveillance but also to measure biodiversity.
There are of course fines but throwing the offenders in jail serves only to destroy the trust that the team have built explains Braulio, instead they ask the loggers why they are felling trees “if it’s to grow coffee we can help them to do it sustainably, if it’s for timber we can show them how it’s not economically viable and if it is to plant coca we can talk to them about better options. We need to work with them to gain their trust.”
Coffee was once the devil, the main cause of deforestation in Alto Mayo. Through the incredible efforts of the CI team and the leap of faith taken by the farmers it now seems there are not only grounds for change but grounds for hope: the project now benefits around 240,000 people in the Alto Mayo basin. And while our favourite corner café with its flawless flat whites may seem a long way from the woolly monkey’s and Paddington bears of the Alto Mayo, our power as a consumer is huge. By buying sustainably sourced beans or asking for them in your local café, be it in Heathrow or Helsinki, you can help protect the great green lungs of the world.
WHAT CAN WE DO
- Support the project by donating to Conservation International via our Just Giving page.
- Buy sustainable coffee and ask your local barista if they serve it.
- Spread the word using #SustainCoffee or the old-fashioned way over a creamy cappuccino.
This article is part of a series on sustainability in South America by Emily and Sam of Two By Bamboo. Cycling 10,000km from Patagonia to Colombia on worryingly wonky homemade bamboo bikes, their mission is to share the stories of the movers, shakers, recyclers and makers of the continent.
Biologist turned producer Emily worked on a number of documentaries for BBC and Discovery Channel in the UK before moving down under where she joined SBS as an impact producer. By sharing the stories of amazing humans and animals she meets, Emily hopes to inspire herself and others to make more positive choices for our planet.
Read more at twobybamboo.com