Environmentally Friendly Coffee Reaps Benefits for Mesoamerican Communities

In Focus, June 2004

by Abigail Rome

Coffee production is a major source of income for countless agricultural workers or campesinos in Costa Rica. As part of a carefully choreographed collaboration of coffee farmers, cooperative agro-associations, coffee retailers and conservation organizations such as Centro Científico Tropical, it is also beginning to make a critical contribution to conservation.

The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) considers coffee cultivation to be a core part of efforts to safeguard La Amistad Biosphere Reserve, a binational protected area on the border of Costa Rica and Panama containing one of the most biologically diverse forests in the world.

Through its strategic approach of integrating connectivity among key critical areas in Southern Mesoamerica via economic alternatives, CEPF is supporting Centro Científico Tropical (CCT, or the Tropical Science Center) to help small farmers living alongside the park generate more income through environmentally friendly coffee production while protecting the rich variety of life in the surrounding ecosystem.

CCT is building on the 10 years of experience it gained through the Amistad, Conservación y Desarrollo (Friendship, Conservation and Development) project organizing and training farmers in selected villages in the buffer zone of La Amistad Biosphere Reserve to produce environmentally friendly crops.

As part of the three-year project, CCT will help farmers in 23 communities to protect their soils, reduce the use of pesticides on their crops, increase species diversity and create biological corridors for a wide range of species in need of natural habitat.

These small-scale farmers are not being asked to pay fees to receive a third-party stamp of approval. Instead, they become actively engaged in CCT’s environmental education programs, receiving training in conservation-friendly agriculture, reforestation and biodiversity monitoring.

Livelihoods prosper through increased crop yields and better prices on the market through partners in Conservation International’s Conservation CoffeeSM program.

Donald Diaz, a third-generation coffee grower living on the slopes of La Amistad International Park, talks of the past and his experience with CCT’s conservation and development program.

"In my father’s time, farmers here cut down the forest in order to plant coffee," he says. "They paid no attention to conserving sources of drinking water, nor to protecting habitat for wildlife. Now, we know that we need the forest to survive, and we’re planting more trees.

"My 1.5-hectare coffee field already has nine different useful plants in it, and it looks great. My children are learning to plant trees and are very concerned about nature."

CCT’s work with coffee producers, their families and institutions is multi-faceted. It includes conducting surveys and monitoring of biodiversity on coffee farms; reforestation with native trees; environmental education in schools and communities; organizational and technical support for community-based, nongovernmental groups; and a focus on ensuring social and institutional sustainability of partner organizations.

In this spirit of collaboration, CCT contracts with existing agricultural and environmental organizations and governmental institutions, such as the Ministry of Environment and Mining, to implement many of these activities.

"We work with the national ministries of the environment and agriculture, local farmers' support associations, regional producers’ cooperatives; the national coffee institute and international funders such as the U.N. Development Programme," CCT Project Director Cinthia Granda Barrantes explains.

“It is important to demonstrate connectivity between projects and institutions,” she says. “With CEPF, we are able to expand upon our 10-year history of conservation and education success in the region to bring in more communities and organizations.”

In early 2004, CCT identified seven coffee growers in each of seven areas around the reserve to receive training in agricultural practices and monitoring of mammals, birds and butterflies in their farms.

The farmers will sign voluntary agreements to apply best practices such as reforesting their farms with fruit, timber and ornamental trees, maintaining vegetation in stream valleys and water sources, using live fences, refraining from hunting and applying agrochemicals minimally and responsibly. Eventually, these 49 farmers will share their knowledge and experience with their neighbors, creating a multiplier effect.

As part of the project, school children in the region will also learn about biodiversity, protected areas and other environmental issues. Youngsters will receive classroom-based environmental education, developing their own multi-media presentations and participating in one of three environmental festivals to be held during the year. Field trips to local nature reserves such as Los Cusingos, the home of renowned ornithologist and nature writer Alexander Skutch, will also be offered.

Teachers will attend environmental education workshops, with full support from the national Ministry of Education, so that they will be able to develop their own environmental programming independent of the project in the future.

While CCT’s work focuses on environmental education and training with coffee producers, its long-term goal to conserve natural resources in and around La Amistad requires additional partnerships.

In order to ensure the entire process of coffee growing, processing and marketing is sustainable, CEPF’s Southern Mesoamerica team is working with the Conservation CoffeeSM program, Starbucks Coffee Company and the United States Agency for International Development in operational aspects of agronomy and commercialization of Conservation CoffeeTM.

“Through coordinated programming, larger-scale change can take place,” Barrantes says.

Luis Murillo, regional coordinator for CEPF in the Talamanca-Bocas del Toro and Talamanca-Osa biodiversity conservation corridors of Southern Mesoamerica, explains that CCT’s coffee project is a part of an even larger strategy to work with coffee growers and others throughout La Amistad Biosphere Reserve’s buffer zone.

He illustrates by describing how CEPF is also supporting an alliance of the Fundación Agro Ecológica Cotobrusena (FAC, or the Agroecological Foundation of Coto Brus) in southeastern Costa Rica and a small, informal ecological defense group just over the border in Panama. The project is expected to benefit more than 50 local families.

For the past 10 years, FAC has voluntarily and determinedly pursued opportunities for technical training and organizational strengthening from Conservation International, CCT and other agricultural communities. After many years of hard work with no outside sources of income and unsuccessful fund-raising attempts, its members were on the brink of giving up their quest to engage in environmentally friendly agriculture.

However, late last year several key funders, including CEPF, demonstrated their confidence in the democratically run organization, allowing FAC to continue and expand its work by establishing working partnerships with other environmentally minded coffee producers and processors.

In the meanwhile, Donald Diaz and his neighbors are busy on their farms and in the eight nurseries being established in the project area. When the plants are big enough to transplant, Diaz will head up the mountain with his five-year-old son and his seedlings.

Together they will carefully insert miniature fruit trees, timber species and wildlife-attracting shrubs in between the rows of coffee. "Little Jose has his own tree which he planted by himself and which he is learning to care for," Diaz says. "He says that it will provide food for the butterflies."

Soon his son will realize that its value extends beyond providing nectar for small winged creatures. Positive long-term impacts will be experienced by the many unique species sheltered by the park and the communities that surround it.