“It’s a story with several lumps of conflict and uncertainty stirred in”, reported Kristian Beadle this week, after visiting the coffee farms of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. The story includes a lesson that sun-grown coffee farming is more risky than shade-grown and fails to provide more income to the farmer as previously thought. Chiapas coffee farmers have experienced the ups and downs of coffee farming and are now finally farming coffee the most advantageous way due to the cooperative approach.
The co-op buys from 928 farmers and pays fair-trade prices. The co-op then sells the coffee locally, nationally and overseas, with the highest quality beans going to the farthest destinations. A few years ago, USAID came in and turned coffee farms to sun crops, without a shade canopy. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides were needed. Eventually rains washed away much of the soil because there were no tree roots to prevent erosion, and farmers went into debt to purchase the chemicals. Now the farmers are farming according to their cultural needs, which means they are diversifying. For example, they may divide their acreage into half corn and beans and half coffee. That way they feed their family with the corn and beans, or other crops, and coffee provides the cash. (USAID is now supporting the shade-grown option.) T
he forest around the coffee plants provides many advantages. It protects the soil, provides natural fertilizer, provides habitat for pest predators, provides fruit crops if fruit trees are included, provides firewood and medicinal plants, and stores carbon. Carbon storage is seen as a way to minimize climate change as it keeps the temperatures lower and cleans the air. With all of these benefits, chemicals are not needed and the farmers end up with basically organic crops. Beadle in his title calls such Chiapas farmers “accidental environmentalists” since their natural practices are environmentally friendly. As an added bonus, the farmers might eventually be compensated for the carbon storage. Though it sounds as if the farmers now have it “made in the shade” so to speak, there are still challenges in the form of politics, price and precipitation. Rain in season and in the right quantity is always one of any farmer’s main concerns. On the up side, Beadle says Chiapas coffees are some of the world’s tastiest. Brew on, environmentally friendly.