Thursday, July 24, 2008

My Search for Organic Coffee in Guatemala

Salam alaikom! I am covered in mosquito bites but loving life. I arrived in Guatemala last week to visit my family and do a feasibility study on whether I could export organic, regenerative coffee and cardamom from here to the Middle East. I use the term regenerative in place of sustainability based on what I have learned from my study on coffee in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. I will elaborate on these terms more later. At any rate, since arriving in the Middle East, I noticed that coffee is a big part of Arab culture. It is also served in small cups as it is in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Coffee is always offered as it is an element of hospitability in the Middle East. There are two main ways it is prepared; Turkish style which is similar to espresso, and then prepared almost like tea and served in little glasses without handles. The beans are mostly from India or Brazil, although some is still coming from Yemen, which seems to be the favorite among the Arabs. When the coffee is purchased, it is ground together with almost equal parts of cardamom pods. Cardamom, like the coffee, is a big part of the staple food selection in the Middle East. It is used in drinks, desserts, foods every day. I felt that coffee could serve as a bridge between the Middle East and Latin America, so I decided I would begin exporting some regenerative coffee from Guatemala and Costa Rica to Kuwait since it is still not readily available. I also learned that the number one exporter of cardamom to the Middle East is Guatemala, but that most if not all of it is not organic. So I decided since cardamom is also a big part of Guatemalan infustry and a big part of the Arab diet that I would also export it.

After the coffee study program in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, I came to Guatemala to visit my family and show some of my closest friends around the country while I search for some good, organically grown cardamom and coffee. I found one farm that was established with the German coffee planters early on, that grows both cardamom and coffee. The only catch was that it would take a 5 hour hike and a 4 hour bus ride to get to, according to a book I had. We took a 1030 bus from Guatemala City toward Coban to a place called San Rafael Chilasco. The Bus dropped us off on the main road and then we waited for a van to take us into the 12 km dirt road. We caught one just before it began to pour, however, the van was already packed. There were about 31 people in that little van. It was definitely an uunforgettable moment. When we arrived in Chilasco, the lady in the tourist information center sent us down into the town with a little boy on a bicycle. I use the term for town loosely as it is a very rural area with little of the typical resources we are used to finding in a town. We got there to meet our guide who would be leading us on the 5 hour hike. unfortunately, the guide was no longer available as he had just left with another group, and not only that, they explained that the hike takes 3 days, not 5 hours!! We spent a couple of hours there trying to arrange for a guide, but finally we found out we could just drive there.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Standards and Sustainability

Most if not all coffee farms I visited seemed to be striving for some form of sustainable business practices, but definitely not in the same ways or at the same levels. However, there do exist regulations and standards, both through legislation and through private certifications that help contribute to ensuring that coffee producers are approaching some form of sustainability. As I mentioned before, there are many different types and definitions of sustainability.

Some farms are more concerned with economic sustainability so they focus on seeking the most economically-efficient practices, which in turn save energy, which in turn helps the environment. However, they might not care to avoid chemicals to fertilize or fumigate their trees because it maximizes production, at least on the short-term. It all depends on what the interests of the farm are. Some farms are motivated by producing simply organic coffee, while others care about nature, while others worry about production, while others want the best quality coffee, and that is just a tenth of a percent of the different interests among coffee producers. That is why it is important to have standards and regulations in order to ensure that these producers have concern for the environment, society, quality, and the economy, among other important issues.

Some of these standards include the ISO 9000 which is for protection of the environment, another is ISO 14000 which is for quality. Some farms exceed the minimum standards and go beyond obeying regulations by incorporating more responsible business practices, such as offering scholarships and other educational opportunities to the communities surrounding their farms or even to the workers on the farms themselves and their families. Some non-governmental agencies contribute to promoting higher standards, such as Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, and C.A.F.E. Practices.

ISO 9000 specifically addresses waste water on coffee farms and how it is disposed of. This is in response to the past common practice of dumping the waste water from the coffee processing directly into the rivers, which contributed greatly to polluting the water. Now, many more coffee farms have purification plants of different types in order to comply with ISO 9000.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Sustainable Coffee Cultivation

As I mentioned before, I came to Central America to do a coffee study for credit through my university with a group of 21 students and our instructor and we visited many places connected with the coffee industry and met with many people in the coffee business to learn more about it. One of the first coffee plantations I visited in Costa Rica was in the Naranjo region, which is known as one of the best regions in the country for growing coffee. The coffee farm is called Espiritu Santo. Carlos, the farm´s agronomist led us on a tour where he showed us the beautiful landscape of the plantation and explained to us some of the intricacies of cultivating coffee and marketing it.

As we were approaching the property we saw literally an ocean of glossy Arabica coffee trees growing in orderly rows like ripples of waves throughout the green mountain region. When we arrived at the farm, we all gathered under a big mango tree just next to the coffee plants. Unfortunately, the tree had been neglected so the earth below the tree was heavily littered with rotting mangoes. The stench of the mangoes was unbearable, but thankfully my scarf served as a face mask which helped mask the smell. The ground was also infested with every kind of insect you can imagine from beetles and ants to ticks and wasps and even jumping spiders and we could feel the mangoes squishing under our feet like a wet shag carpet. It seemed that this did not bug the facilitators of the group so we had to stay there among the bugs and stink for what seemed like forever while he gave us the introduction about their farm. It was hard to concentrate on what the speaker was saying but fortunately I filmed it so I could watch the talk again from the comfort of home.

Each student in the group is focusing his study on a different aspect of coffee. I am using coffee to study the concept of holistic sustainability and sustainable business practices. After the first few farms we visited however I soon realized that it would be very hard to make one blanket definition for holistic sustainability as each farm has many different factors affecting the coffee and so different levels of practices work for different farms. Holistic sustainability includes environmental, social, and economic factors.

One factor that I learned about at the Naranjo farm was about the social sustainability, such as how they made a road through the coffee trees so as to allow for trucks to pass through carrying the bags of coffee so that the workers no longer had to carry them for long distances on their backs. Another factor related to holistic sustainability is diversification which contributes to social, economic and environmental factors. For example, this farm is planning a hotel on the property. They also created a botanical garden.

Before beginning this coffee program, I had no idea how complex coffee would be. It seemed the more questions I asked, the deeper and more complicated it would become. As it was my first time on a coffee plantation since I was a child, I was curious about how shade relates to coffee cultivation. All I knew was that shade helped promote biodiversity and protected bird life in the region. I also wondered what other effects it had as well as how it worked. I noticed that this coffee plantation in particular did not have as much ¨shade¨as I would have expected. There were some trees sporadically growing among the coffee plants but in my opinion that did not constitute what I would call shade. I asked the staff member of the farm about it and he said that they preserved enough trees so as to keep the birds coming which in turn provide fertilizer to the coffee plants. He also pointed out that they have conserved a large portion of their outlying land to primary forest instead of using it to plant more coffee trees. I asked him what kind of trees they choose and he told me eucalyptus and some other varieties.

I found it strange later when I went to another farm and they were explaining that eucalyptus trees are so bad for the coffee plants because of many factors including the fact that they are not a native species of plant to Costa Rica (well coffee is not either actually), they have a pH level that is not right for the soil near the coffee trees and they are a very aggressive plant that compete with the coffee trees for nutrients and water.

I soon realized that shade is not a black and white topic, and that the type of shade and how it is applied can vary from farm to farm depending on location, climate, and many more elements. At another farm, one farmer explained that they cannot use a lot of shade on their plantation because the climate in their region is so humid and if they have too much shade then the coffee trees will develop a fungus and die.

It would be hard to label one coffee farm as sustainable and then another not based on one set standard for shade or other factors because as you can see that the shade that works for one farm may not work for another, so it is hard to judge if one farm is more sustainable than another simply on the amount of type of shade available. The photo in this post for example is of a traditional coffee plantation in a mountainous region of Costa Rica called Monte Verde. As you can see there are some trees there among the coffee plants but not too many.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Costa Rica, Coffee, and Sustainability

From the time I arrived in the airport in San Jose, I knew Costa Rica would be special in comparison to other Latin countries regarding ecological concerns. The airport was also very modern and clean, including in it recycling bins and posters throughout promoting their beautiful ecological diversity. I bought two newspapers at the airport to read in my taxi on the way to Heredia, the city where I would be staying for the next couple of weeks or so. The first thing I noticed about the papers, is that both front pages contained articles addressing environmental issues. One of the papers for example was commending Costa Rican civil society for bringing down energy consumption by switching to more energy efficient light bulbs in their homes. While many environmental issues still have not been addressed here similar to the rest of Latin America, there are many measures being taken here that I have not seen anywhere else in the region. There are posters even in the most rural regions promoting care for the environment and for conservation. Some of the hostels we stayed in even offered tips on how to conserve water and offered environmentally friendly toiletries. I noticed that most coffee farms we visited have recycling bins as well. I was also surprised to learn that most farms we visited have switched over to more sustainable methods for producing coffee. For example, in the past, coffee plantations used to process the coffee cherries using enourmous, inefficient mills and little or no shade, and great amounts of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. However, now, many farms are not only cutting out chemical fertilizers, but they are also learning through bioligical studies which trees are best to plant in coffee plantations to provide shade without being competition for the coffee trees. Additionally, many farms use organic fertilizers from the waste of the coffee cherries and they re-use their waste water. That is just some of the many examples of the sustainability I have found in Costa Rica and the coffee industry here. I have four days left in Costa Rica and then it´s off to Nicaragua. I better get going, I am smelling fresh fish being served in the little cafe next door and it's making me so hungry. Pura vida!

How Can Sustainability and Social Responsibility Contribute to the Future of the Middle East?

With their potential for economic growth and their financial wealth, Kuwait and the rest of the Gulf countries have the potential to become front runners in the Middle East in considering the environment and social responsibility, and I hope to help them to start that foundation.
The Middle East is a fascinating place with so much cultural richness and financial prosperity. People of the region are increasingly growing aware of the changing climate of business and of the world as a result of globalization and as such there is growing potential for development here. We can see already a substantial amount of growth and innovation in a very short period of time through the example of Dubai. Unfortunately, one area that still lacks a greater awareness is the environment and how it is being impacted by the current practices of companies and individuals. This problem affects all aspects of life from physical health to the natural beauty of the region. This problem however can also be viewed as a treasure box of opportunity for those who have vision and initiative and wish to consider sustainable concepts and how they can adopt them in their businesses.

I chose this cause because I love the Middle East. I am originally from Latin America and study in the University of Washington and I am studying abroad in Kuwait. I had so much success here and fell in love with the region so much that I was looking for a way I could give back to a place that had given me so much. I realized quickly that the region overall had great issues with regards to the environment. The beautiful beaches of the gulf were littered with garbage, there were little if any recycling programs, no awareness campaigns and lesson plans for the schools with regards to the environment, all of the landfills were unplanned and unlined and the waste seeping into the soil and polluting the storm water drains. Yet I could not understand how such a wealthy country with the financial means to take care of this issue and with a government committee assigned to the environment was allowing this to be this way. I decided I would try to see how I can help make a change for the better just as many countries have also done with regards to such issues as waste management such as the UK.