After a five-hour drive through beautiful landscapes from Guatemala City, we reached Huehuetenango, in northern Guatemala. On the steep slopes of the region’s mountains, farmers grow the country’s most coveted coffee, which some say is among the best in the world.
Our final destination was Vista Hermosa, 2½ hours north of the capital of Huehuetenango along narrow dirt roads. That remote coffee farming hamlet is the seat of the Los Chujes Sustainable, Social and Economic Development Association (ADESC, for its name in Spanish) which represents 68 small farmers who this year became the first group in the world to be verified for compliance with the Rainforest Alliance’s Climate Module. This means that each of those farmers is implementing a series of agricultural practices aimed at reducing greenhouse gases, increasing carbon stocks, and strengthening their capacity for climate change mitigation and adaptation.
We had come to learn how the group became a model of sustainable agriculture. Five members of the board welcomed us with a cup of coffee they proudly called “hard, hard coffee,” the local term for strictly hard bean, or strictly high grown coffee, which must be grown at least 4,500 feet (approx. 1,400 meters) above sea level. The ADESC farms are 5,900 feet (approx. 1,800 meters) above sea level.
As we savoured the strictly-hard-bean flavour, they told us about their association. The collaboration began in 1994, when several local farmers began meeting to learn ways to improve their farm management, with support from the National Coffee Association. However, it wasn’t until 2006 that approximately 40 producers founded ADESC. They have since worked not only to market their coffee together, but to improve its quality, increase farm production, and reduce their impact on the environment.
One of the first goals of the newly formed association was to implement sustainable agriculture and earn the Rainforest Alliance Certified™ seal. Thanks to plenty of hard work, and support from the Nespresso AAA program – ADESC sells all its coffee to Nespresso – ADESC earned the seal in 2008.
“Before, we did many things without knowing they were wrong, or could be done better,” confessed Servando del Valle, the association’s president. In order to get their farms certified, ADESC members improved their waste management, reduced agrochemical use, began using safety gear when applying chemicals, banned hunting and deforestation, created terraces by planting living barriers to prevent soil erosion, and began treating wastewater to protect the aquifer.
ADESC member Leticia Monzón invited us to her 8.6-acre (3.5-hectare) farm, Finca El Jardín (The Garden), to show us the changes she had made. The first thing she pointed out was the clear stream that flows through her farm, which used to be polluted with the wastewater from her coffee mill. She then showed us the terraces she created by planting living barriers amidst the rows of sturdy coffee bushes, and pointed out the spider webs in the branches, which reflect the fact that she has reduced agrochemicals, so the good bugs are back. She explained that before getting her farm certified, she never thought about its importance for conserving biodiversity, but now she is happy to see how many birds live in, and eat the fruit from the farm’s shade trees.
In addition to environmental benefits, the farmers have improved their organisation, which now has a board of directors, and holds regular meetings. They’ve worked together to develop their community and ensure the safety and welfare of workers, who are primarily family members. At the same time, certification has brought economic benefits. Nespresso pays the organisation a premium of US $8 per sack of coffee, of which they invest 44% in ensuring their farms stay certified, and the remaining 56% is divided among members. Last year alone, ADESC sold 8,000 sacks of Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee to Nespresso.
On our tour of the farms, we also learned about the work done to comply with the Climate Module. Mario Lopez, Rainforest Alliance project coordinator in Guatemala, told us that he proposed to ADESC members that they participate in the initiative in 2011, while noting that they shouldn’t expect to get a better price for their coffee for being verified, since it was a new initiative. They accepted the challenge at once, and attained verification in early 2012, after completing evaluations and training workshops, developing improvement plans, compiling forest inventories, quantifying the biomass of their farms, and other efforts.
At El Rivetío, a 3-acre (approx 1.2-ha) that belongs to Mario Dionisio Valle, we saw some of the practices he implemented for the climate module. Valle happily explained that his farm has four trees for every 64 square metres, which in addition to providing shade for the coffee, capture carbon and produce oxygen, as do the hedges and other living barriers he has planted to prevent erosion. Measurements made during Climate Module implementation showed that ADESC farms capture 75 tons of carbon per hectare, and that amount could be increased by five—10 tons by planting trees and living fences along farm boundaries and ravines.
Valle also explained that he took steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to make his farm more climate-friendly. Through the training, he learned that fertilizer is a major source of greenhouse gases emissions in agriculture, so he and the other ADESC farmers use annual soil analyses to determine the ideal amount and mix of fertilisers (chemical and organic) to apply. They place fertiliser it in holes around each plant, and cover it with a layer of soil and leaf litter to reduce volatilisation. ADESC farmers produce organic fertiliser by composting coffee pulp, kitchen waste and horse manure, and they are now more careful to keep it covered. As a pilot project, the Rainforest Alliance will help ADESC to install a biodigester to harness the methane gas from composting for household use.
At the association’s coffee collection centre, which serves as its headquarters, members meet regularly for training and to discuss climate change mitigation and adaptation, as well as other sustainable agriculture issues. During our visit, we saw some of the records they’ve compiled of changes in temperature, rainfall and water availability in recent years, as well as maps of areas where the risk of natural disasters is the greatest.
“We had always noticed these changes, but only now do we understand that they are due to climate change, and that we can help to reduce its impact” said ADESC manager Arnoldo Cifuentes.
Our last stop was Leticia Monzón’s home. Her coffee-drying patio was empty, because it wasn’t harvest time, but she showed us her mini coffee mill (each ADESC farmer has one), with its pulper and cement tanks used to wash and ferment coffee beans. She explained some of the sustainable practices she has implemented in the milling process, such as reducing water consumption by recycling water used for washing and fermentation. The mill’s wastewater, which she used to dump into a stream, now flows into a sedimentation pool, where it filters into the ground.
With help from the National Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives (NRECA, for its name in Spanish) and the Rainforest Alliance, Leticia is a participating in an electricity saving project that will later be expanded to include other ADESC members. She showed us where she produces organic fertiliser, a small nursery, and a tiny plot where her eight-year-old son has planted his own garden and is using the same good agricultural practices that his parents apply on their coffee farm.
“We are visionaries,” Leticia said, when asked what motivated her and other ADESC members to make so many changes. “We aren’t doing this for money, but because human beings need to have air to breathe, the birds need trees to live in and food for migrating, and because we have to think about future generations, and leave them a place where they can live.