Why we should pay more for coffee

Coffee cherries freshly picked. The coffee beans are inside the cherries.

Most days, I drink at least four cups of coffee – one when I wake up, two for breakfast and one mid-morning. I use different types: green instant first thing, ground coffee from a specific source for breakfast, de-caffeinated if I have coffee in the evening.

Coffee is a habit, part of daily routine, but a habit that visits to coffee growers and co-operatives in Costa Rica and neighbouring Nicaragua have made me rethink.

  • Forests are cut down to make way for coffee bushes because yields from coffee bushes grown in sunlight are higher than from coffee grown under shade.
  • Soils under sun-grown coffee are washed away by tropical rains, which are likely to become more prevalent as the climate warms.
  • The environment becomes impoverished as plant and animal species decline.

Farmers want higher yields because the prices they receive for their coffee beans are not sufficient for them to make a decent living. If they grow coffee under shade and thus their output per hectare is lower than for coffee open to the sun, they protect the environment but their own income suffers.

Victor Torres (right) lost about a third of his 2010-11 coffee crop to the fungus Rooster Eye.

Victor Torres grows four hectares of coffee near Santa Elena in the Cordillera de Tilaran, Costa Rica. His 36-hectare family farm, which also supports his four sons, includes shady green fields where his dairy herd grazes. The 2010-11 coffee harvest has been poor: unusually heavy rains created an ideal environment for a damaging fungal disease called Rooster Eye, and Victor reckons he lost one third of his crop.

The dairy herd of 32 cows brings an additional income stream, and the farm grows the family’s fruit and vegetables, but not even membership of the Santa Elena coffee co-operative, which sells Fairtrade-label coffee, can compensate substantially for such a severe crop loss.

The outcomes of environmental changes are often unpredictable and unexpected, indeed cannot be predicted because interacting variables can create new, unexpected variables. We do know that forests have a critical role in making the Earth’s atmosphere suitable for life, but we collectively carry on chopping the trees down. Costa Rica had lost 88% of its forest cover by the end of the 1970s, guide Javier told us when we visited the Rincon de la Vieja volcano. Realising the dangers of this drastic tree loss, the government started a reforestation programme and by 2011 32% of the land was forested and protected from unsustainable logging. This was a promising recovery, said Javier, but the protected area included citrus and teak plantations which lacked the biodiversity of natural tropical forests.

You have to look only as far as neighbouring Nicaragua to see the difference that severe deforestation makes. The dusty tree-scarce grasslands of Nicaragua in the dry season suffer soil erosion, and in the rainy season soil is washed away. A worry in the commodity-scarce 2010s is the temptation to cut down more trees in the highlands to grow coffee, a crop that is best suited to tropical hills at altitudes between 2,500 and 5,000 feet, and which thrives in rich volcanic soils.

Moving 11-stone coffee sacks is exhausting work -- but these jobs are highly sought after in rural Nicaragua.

We saw at Matagalpa, the heart of the coffee-growing region in the Cordillera Dariense (named for Nicaragua’s national poet, Ruben Dario) that coffee provides jobs, more jobs per hectare than forest. Even when the jobs are exhausting, as in the coffee warehouses where sacks are moved and stacked manually, they bring vital income into local communities. If coffee growers eat into the remaining forests to plant coffee bushes, because they desperately need the income to support their families, who could blame them? Yet by encroaching into forest they risk accelerating the adverse climate change that is already affecting Nicaragua, indeed the whole of Central America.

If only we would all pay more for coffee, I thought, it would support efforts in Nicaragua and in customer countries to avoid further forest destruction. Of course, if we pay more for coffee most of us have to cut our expenditure elsewhere – but trees are so important to the survival of life on Earth that I reckon we should make forest protection and reforestation central factors in our purchasing decisions.

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