Chad Trewick is senior director of coffee and tea at Caribou Coffee – the first major coffee company in the US to source 100 percent of its coffee from Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farms. Here, he writes about a recent trip to Brazil to explore sustainable coffee production.
Brazil is a generation (maybe even two or three) ahead of the rest of the coffee-producing world in terms of technology, efficiency, sustainability and productivity per area. In fact, practices in the world’s most important coffee-producing country could pave the way for sustainable coffee production globally, securing a steady supply in the face of climate change, volatility and land-use pressures. The country is not, however, impervious to those changes; this year, folks in Brazil experienced the first June rainfall in collective memory, causing quality compromises and headaches for everyone involved in coffee production.
As part of an ongoing project with the Rainforest Alliance designed to determine the measurable benefits and value of certification, I embarked on a trip with the organization’s Sustainable Agriculture Network partner in Brazil, Imaflora. The goal was to see and understand innovations and best practices in sustainability, and to share these with producers and exporters in other countries.
On our way to our first stop, Rodrigo Cascalles of Imaflora and I discussed how we can determine the objective “value” of certification. It should come as no surprise that typically the top motivation for certification is the price premium a producer can receive. But while the financial benefit is huge incentive, other reasons weigh heavily, too.
Leaders in Environmental Law
Brazilian social and environmental laws are nearly unparalleled in agriculture. Twenty percent of a producer’s land must be set aside as a forest reserve; waterways are strictly protected; and rigid social laws governing labor conditions and services abound.
According Imaflora, complying with Brazilian regulations will bring any law-abiding producer as much as 90 percent of the way to certification! (For comparison, picture the agricultural landscape in the US — we plant crops right up to just about any body of water, roadway or abode.) A few months ago, however, laws changed and the waterway protection rules became dependent on the size of the river or lake. In some cases, less protection is now required. New laws also reward producers who exceed their requirements for natural reserves, permitting them to receive payment from other producers who need to comply with the reserve area requirements.
Protectors of People
Farmers also speak of the rigorous social requirements imposed by the government. Any worker who steps onto a farm to work must first receive a baseline medical exam. The government also mandates worker housing, setting minimum standards for the exact space each worker is allotted, the size and thickness of his mattresses (including its distance from the ceiling and the space between mattresses), and the layout of bathroom facilities and eating areas. Conditions in the field are also carefully defined: sunscreen must be available for use; arms and necks must be covered by clothing; drinking water must be available; a shade tent must be provided; portable toilets must be on site, and ankles need to be covered to protect from snakes. Compared to conditions I see regularly on farms in other countries, these mandates are absolutely amazing — but, as I was reminded several times, it is also a lot for a producer to be held accountable for.
Rainforest Alliance Certification in Brazil
Producers pointed out that the government is much less likely to inspect and enforce national regulations on a Rainforest Alliance Certified farm because they know that the farm must be in compliance in order to be certified. However, because Rainforest Alliance certification requires compliance with all local mandates, the cost of production for law-abiding and certified producers is actually significantly higher than the national average. We need to continuously highlight the benefits of certification — and not only the incremental costs – in conversations with all members of the supply chain. The cost of certification shouldn’t overshadow the very real on-the-ground benefits. The fact that Rainforest Alliance Certified farms are considered the best places to work for a laborer highlights the better conditions on these farms.
Farmers also receive a sought-after premium for their Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee. And, when they implement production efficiencies, they can maximize these premiums.
The record-keeping and continuous improvement requirements mandated by the Rainforest Alliance provide tangible productivity benefits. A producer’s logged activities are studied and evaluated annually so that they can improve their conditions and reduce their resource usage.
Certification also results in improvements in flora and fauna. Most farmers I spoke with truly celebrated (in an unsolicited way) all of the species and the natural elements that are returning to their farms and, in some cases, even benefiting their operations. They told me about native bird species, increased wild boar sightings, and diversified native species planted in forest reserves. This appreciation of nature is being passed to future generations and the broader community, and helping to create a culture with a deeper respect for nature.
Certified farms are also required to be responsible members of their communities. Many are involved in school improvement projects and clean-up efforts, and place a great emphasis on educating students about the importance of caring for the environment. This can be a particularly effective tool for educating adults. Children of farm workers can take messages home and begin the process of educating their parents. Students also learn to be better guardians of their limited resources. At one school, for example, students were asked to turn trash into usable items to demonstrate that most things can (and should) be more than single-use.
Cooperatives in Brazil
As in many other countries, cooperatives in Brazil can provide an opportunity for increased efficiency because producers are working with greater crop volume. And through their technical assistance programs, many cooperatives are actively encouraging certification.
I visited one coop on a multi-year plan toward 100 percent certification among its members by 2014. Another coop was working toward 70 to 80 percent certification by the end of next year. This widespread certification support among coops is a great endorsement and empowers producers to make the decision to pursue certification.
Check back to read part II of Chad’s blog from Brazil.