Bean There: Tracking the Impacts of Coffee Growing
One of the unique perks of working for Patagonia is the chance to leave, to participate in an environmental internship on work time. I chose to go to Guatemala to see how coffee is grown before it is exported for roasting.
I divided my time with two organizations involved with coffee farming in Latin America, Coffee Kids and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. I documented their work through photography.
My hope is that my work will serve as a tool to reinforce and foster positive change in the coffee industry.
Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC)
To increase coffee production, coffee farms use synthetic fertilizers and convert from “shade grown” plantations, where shrubs are planted in the shade of trees, to “sun grown,” where coffee plants grow quickly, fully exposed to heat in fields.
[My work lead me to Finca Nueva Armenia, nestled in the Sierra Madre valley of Huehuetenango, one of only eight farms designated as bird friendly by the SMBC in Guatemala. All photos: Mark Shimahara]
To prime a sun grown farm, trees and natural forests are destroyed. Scientists believe that these practices lead to the sharp decline of bird migration in Latin America and a loss of habitat of other animals, insects and plants of the tropical forest. To preserve biodiversity in coffee farms and to encourage sustainable farming practices, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center established a Bird Friendly certification. To be certified as “Bird Friendly,” a farm must practice organic farming in a diverse and native forest—in other words, provide a bird friendly habitat.
After a dusty five hour drive from Guatemala City we arrived at their farm, which is a forest. Birds tweeted, insects buzzed, and pollen floated in the air.
[A flycatcher perched on a high shade tree, one of many birds found on the farm.]
But the tranquility was broken by the violent buzzing of chainsaws from neighboring farms that were tearing down trees to make way for sun grown coffee.
The Recinos bothers, who own Finca Nueva Armenia, grow bird friendly coffee because they know they are investing in a habitat that will sustain itself in the long term. Their farm will be spared the long term consequences of monoculture which can lead to disease, land/soil overuse, and the destruction of animals and beneficial insect habitats.
[One of the Recinos brothers hike up the plantation with coffee buyer Kim Bullock and roaster Jeff McArthur.]
The US-based coffee buyers I met, from Counter Culture Coffee, buy from this farm because it's committed to sourcing from organic, sustainable land. This farm is also willing to take on special requests such as harvesting and drying their crops in micro-lots, or selective picking by micro climate or varietal.
Coffee Kids develops programs in education, health awareness, micro-credit loans and food security for coffee-farming communities. I visited the hosts of two projects with Jose Louis Zarate, the program director at Coffee Kids.
The first was Finca Santa Felica, in Acatenengo which is managed by the farm's owner Anabella Meneses, whose goal is to empower workers to become advocates of their own professional development. Coffee Kids’ sponsored ADESPA (Association for Sustainable Development of Paraxaj) achieves this though education and training in practical business skills. Two of her projects (textile and shoe workshops) focus on literacy in economic diversification. ADESPA also provides childcare so that parents do not have to arrange for it themselves.
[I accompanied the kids from the ADESPA child care program on a parade to celebrate environmental awareness.]
My trip made me keenly aware of the harsh socio-economic conditions that coffee farmers in this region face. Worker’s wages are used up in providing basic necessities—food, clothing, shelter for their families. As a result, there are few resources left to invest in projects that might eventually yield greater financially stability or environmental sustainability, in the long run.
The second project I visited was in Chajul, a remote place seven hours north of Guatemala City—including two hours driving on unpaved roads—where Ixil, an indigenous Mayan language is spoken. The women uniformly dress in traditional cranberry-colored skirts signifying the Chajul region.
[This community too is heavily reliant on coffee as an income. ]
[After the last coffee crisis, women workers were the first to be dismissed.]
To address gender inequities, the Coffee Kids program here offers microcredits to women and their families to start businesses. This provides them with alternative means to earn their living, besides coffee.
[Loans are used to start local shops and textile manufacturing.]
I was flattered my blog entry about milk in coffee got the attention of Coffee Common, a collaborative experiment at the TED conference to serve and educate the audience about this wonderful drink. Similarly, it's my hope this work will encourage more businesses in the industry to examine and improve the land and communities where coffee comes from.
If you are interested in trying Counter Culture's selection of fresh, seasonal coffees, Counter Culture is graciously offering free shipping in the continental US to Cleanest Line readers through May 27. The new crop of Finca Nueva Armenia is scheduled to be released later this month (use Promo Code: THECLEANEST).