A coffee farmer has a lot to fear: declining prices, coffee leaf rust, climate change, bad weather, low yields, coffee theft… and then there’s the coffee borer beetle, aka la broca.
A resilient pest that burrows into coffee cherries to lay its eggs, its presence has grown tremendously in the last thirty or so years. It’s less than two millimeters long, but according to The Journal of Insect Science it costs the coffee industry over $500 million every year – and when we say the industry, what we really mean is the producers and their governments.
But there’s one small farm in Nicaragua that has found a sustainable way to fight the coffee borer beetle – a way that costs only about $150 to kill up to two million broca per season. That farm is Selva Negra.
Spanish Version: La Broca del Café: Una Trampa Casera que Cuesta Centavos
The coffee borer beetle: small but deadly. Credit: L. Shyamal via Wikipedia
Selva Negra’s Recycled Broca Traps
I passed through the Selva Negra Estate on a research trip in 2013. While there, my tour guide Manuel showed me what looked like a bizarre piece of trash hanging in a coffee tree.
“These are our broca traps,” he said. “Now, what they do is trap the broca, which is the coffee borer beetle. On average, our traps catch between six thousand and two million broca a year”.
The trap is made by taking a large plastic bottle, cutting a rectangular hole in the side, and painting it red like a ripe coffee cherry. Inside the bottle, a little dropper (like an eyedropper) full of alcohol and used coffee grounds is suspended with wire. The workers at Selva Negra fill the bottom of the bottle with water. Tricked by the trap’s scent and color, the beetles believe it to be a delicious caffeine-rich cherry, go inside, and drown.
One of Selva Negra’s recycled broca traps. Credit: S. Campbell
Eco-Friendly, Wallet-Friendly, & Effective
“We have five thousand traps out right now, catching about two million per season. We’re expanding our efforts to nine thousand,” says Mausi Kühl, owner and founder of Selva Negra. “We had the option to buy traps in El Salvador at $12 a piece. But it costs us maybe a few pennies to buy the droppers, and everything else is recycled on the farm.”
Innovations like these come from Selva Negra’s organic lab, where their staff also develop organic pesticides and fungicides. They want to find ways to reuse waste from all parts of the farm, from livestock to coffee byproducts. Supplies come from their sorting center, where they recycle over 80% of the 1,500-acre estate’s trash: feathers from chickens, blood and bones from cows and pigs, coffee husks from the dry mill, various herbs and medicinal plants, and more.
In the end, they produce only one can of trash per month for over 500 people. It’s no surprise that the Selva Negra Estate has won a slew of sustainability awards, including the SCAA Sustainability Award in 2007 (and Honorable Mentions in 2008 and 2010).
View of the Selva Negra Estate’s Workers’ Village. Credit: A. Jellett
Moving Beyond Selva Negra
On that trip in 2013, I couldn’t help but think the US government could learn a thing or two from Selva Negra’s resourcefulness. That’s why, a few years later, I joined Selva Negra’s team as the Director of their newfound NGO, the Selva Negra Community Foundation, with the goal to teach sustainable solutions like the broca trap to other farmers in the Matagalpa region.
But Selva Negra’s innovations have a far greater potential than tiny Nicaragua: we want as many farmers as possible to learn about these traps and other solutions. The problem is especially challenging for organic farmers, who don’t want to resort to chemical pesticides to fight the beetle. But now that the Nicaraguan government, along with many others, have outlawed endosulfan, neem, and the few other pesticides effective against the berry borer beetle, it affects all farmers. Finding an alternative method is a make-or-break moment for over 125 million families worldwide.
While smallholder farmers toss their plastic bottles and other waste into the ecosystem every day, their livelihoods are suffering. They don’t yet realize the potential, both economic and environmental, waiting in their trash heap.
An effective, sustainable solution for the berry borer beetle could be just one less thing for a farmer to worry about.
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