Thriving economies vs environmental damage – it’s a common debate. We’ve seen it multiple times in agriculture: palm oil, soybeans, avocados… but can coffee be the exception?
At the heart of these issues is the deforestation caused by growing demand for the crops. And this deforestation is no small matter: it leads to the potential extinction of rare wildlife, adds to the impact of global warming, causes soil erosion, and more. In the long term, it damages the producing countries. Yet at the same time, the increased production means these often poorer countries see their economies boosted and their farmers better paid.
It’s a difficult conundrum. One that has no easy answers.
Yet as an environmentalist and a coffee farmer, I believe we need to build local economies that can thrive by restoring forests, not cutting them down. Here’s how coffee can, and is, doing that in Ecuador.
Spanish Version: ¿Pueden las Fincas de Café Contribuir a la Reforestación en Ecuador?
Coffee farming in the forest.
Deforestation in Ecuador Reaches a Frightening Level
Deforestation has a long, sad history in Latin America and the Caribbean. The World Resources Institute estimates that an area the size of Mexico has been deforested over the past century. And according to El Universo, one of Ecuador’s biggest daily newspapers, Ecuador has one of the highest rates. The FAO used satellite data to estimate that nearly 200,000 hectares are lost annually.
One major factor behind deforestation is misguided agrarian reform initiatives adopted in the 1960s and 1970s in the hopes of improving equality. The government offered title to plots, typically 50 hectares (125 acres) in size, to anyone who would clear the forest from at least half of it and establish a farm.
Large areas of more or less flat land were cleared and converted to cattle ranches by enthusiastic homesteaders. To provide pasture for their cattle, the new landowners brought in African grasses, chosen for their aggressiveness – they easily outcompeted native species and any trees that tried to re-establish themselves.
Soil Depletion Becomes Evident
Things went well for a while. The homesteaders earned some initial income by selling the hardwood trees they cleared. They built houses, continued clearing the land, planted grass and bought cattle.
Yet Ecuador’s volcanic soil is soft and shallow. When a 1,500 lb dairy cow walks over it, she creates erosion wherever she goes. And so relatively quickly, the land’s unsuitability for ranching became apparent.
As the topsoil depleted quickly, many ranchers abandoned the business, leaving the land for sale. But would any buyer see use out of the degraded land?
An eroded cattle pasture, with trees starting to return.
Restoring Ecuador’s Cloud Forests
Friends of mine and I created the Mindo Cloudforest Foundation (MCF) in 2001 to both preserve the forest and buy land for reforestation. MCF currently owns six plots of land, four of which we have done restoration work on and two that have always been forest. In 15 years, we have planted over 600 hectares, or 1500 acres, of damaged land.
We have four goals: preserving land, restoring and reforesting land, promoting eco-tourism, and supporting scientific study of Western Ecuador’s forests.
Cloud forests are rainforests with a low cloud cover. They typically grow above 3,000 feet/900 m.a.s.l. (although they can be as low as 1600 feet/500 m) – and as we know, coffee grows best at altitude.
Reforestation of Ecuador’s cloud forests goes hand in hand with coffee farming.
Is Reforestation Possible?
I’ve been working in conservation and land restoration here in Ecuador for 20 years. We’ve learned a lot – some of which has been by trial and error, some by consulting on-the-ground experts who know the local climate.
And we’ve observed how the forest restores itself. Any time there’s a landslide on the mountain slopes here, we see baby alder trees popping up six months later. So that’s what we started with: alders.
The alder is a fast-growing, nitrogen-fixing tree, great for soil restoration and well suited to eradicating the African grass. Planted densely enough, alders will shade out the grass within a year – although it takes five or six years to be completely free of grass seeds that are either retained in the soil or distributed naturally. We also use other nitrogen-fixing species, such as inga.
Once the alders are established – which takes a couple of years – we then add varieties of indigenous hardwoods like cedrelas and carapas. We let the forest and the birds take care of the understory plantings.
Of course, each case is slightly different. And reforestation always takes time and patience. Yet these steps have consistently proven to be successful.
Reforestation work at a Mindo Cloudforest Foundation site.
Where Does Coffee Come In?
So many uninformed, bad decisions have been made in the name of economic growth. Yet since most varieties of coffee grow best under a forest canopy, coffee farming is one way to work the land without causing further deforestation.
What’s more, it can build a sustainable local economy. Let’s not fool ourselves, we do need a thriving and growing economy – and here in Ecuador, we need it now more than ever.
I’ve been involved in the coffee business for many years, ever since I helped export organic and Fairtrade coffee from southern Ecuador in 2000-2001. Then I started a roasting and coffee branding business in 2002.
And in 2010, I started planting a new coffee farm called Tambo Quinde in the Tandayapa Valley of northwestern Ecuador.
I have a great advantage in that my brother is a managing partner at Tiny Footprint Coffee in Minnesota, USA. We have a symbiotic relationship: his coffee sales fund some of my reforestation work (their motto is “You drink coffee. We plant trees.”), and our relationship gives me access to a premium organic roaster and his distribution network.
Good coffee, good environment.
Agroforesty in Microclimates
The Tandayapa Valley lies about 40 miles west of Quito, at an altitude of 6,000 feet. The equator runs right through it, and the valley runs north-south. All of this adds up to a unique microclimate – one that requires unique coffee farming practices, and unique agroforestry.
Most valleys in this region run east-west, but a north-south mountain ridge forms what’s called a rain shadow: it shelters our valley from rain coming in from the Pacific coast. Tambo Quinde gets only half of the rain that land does on the other side of the ridge. Since too much rain is a problem for farms at lower altitudes – they tend to have leaf rust and other fungus problems – this microclimate interested me very much.
Every valley here has its own microclimate, and interestingly Tandayapa’s may have been improved by climate change. As recently as ten years ago, it was probably too cool and rainy for a successful coffee farm. However, it’s been getting warmer and drier over the last decade. If our average temperature gets one degree warmer, it’ll be perfect.
The view over the Tandayapa Valley.
We’ve planted new trees every year, and we’re still learning how to get reforestation and coffee farming to work together. My neighbor emphasizes more forest and fewer coffee trees – something of a wilder approach – and we’re learning from each other. Last year, we brought in our first crop and we were very happy with it. We’re still harvesting and drying this year, and look forward to tasting the fruits of our experiment soon.
We’re hoping it will signal the success of an agricultural industry where reforestation, not deforestation, can go hand-in-hand with successful expansion. One where we don’t have to choose between damaging the earth and damaging the farmer’s livelihood.
All photo credit: B. Krohnke
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