Shade of GreenThe 2012 Sustainability Award winner explains how strategic plantings can help farmers survive warmer temps
By Dan Leif
In the April issue of Fresh Cup, former editor Steven Krolak takes a look at the stunning degree to which climate change is beginning to alter conditions in coffee-producing areas and the ways some at-origin groups are responding. It just so happens that as that article was being finished, a forward-thinking initiative to help producers cope with warming temperatures at a co-op in Rwanda was named the winner of the 2012 SCAA Sustainability Award.
The honored project is a collaboration between roaster Thanksgiving Coffee (of Fort Bragg, Calif.) and the 1,800-member Dukunde Kawa cooperative in Rwanda’s Musasa region. The roaster has been buying from Dukunde Kawa since 2005, and after co-op farmers expressed their concerns about altered weather patterns and the droughts and flooding that have resulted, Thanksgiving enlisted several NGOs to help the producers add strategically placed shade trees to their land. The idea is that the plantings will cool farms, protect fragile coffee plants and stabilize topsoil.
Thanksgiving’s president and director of coffee, Ben Corey-Moran, took some time to discuss more details of a project that exemplifies how the effects of climate change are already being felt in many coffee areas, as well as how immediate action to adapt to the new world climate order is a necessity for survival.
Q: How can planting shade trees help the Dukunde Kawa co-op protect its coffee livelihood?
A: The farmers have been really clear about the ways their farms are being impacted [by new weather patterns]. Topsoil loss and erosion pose a significant threat—the cause is runoff from heavy rains. Drought and the loss of groundwater is the other side of the coin. It rains too much when it rains, and then it doesn't rain for far too long. Both challenges can be addressed by planting trees in strategic ways. Root systems hold topsoil together, and hedges or swales reduce flooding. When rainfall is absorbed by the earth, rather than running off in floods, aquifers are charged, and they serve as a natural water storage system for drier periods. These same tree plantings help reduce temperature on farms, which slows fruit ripening, protects blossoms from damage during heavy rains, and provides opportunities for diversification and production of other cash and food crops.
Q: On your Web page, you cite some alarming statistics. For example: In roughly 20 years, average rainfall during the co-op’s wet season will increase 12 percent. Where did you get these numbers?
A: These statistics come from the regional predictions (highlands of East Africa) made in the IPCC A1B scenario, which is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's scenario for climate change assuming normal economic growth and in the absence of technological innovation that dramatically reduces the economy's production of greenhouse gas. These scenarios are predictions and are subject to a margin of variability, especially as we drill down to site-specific analysis, but they give us a sense of the urgency of this work and the challenge ahead.
Q: Who came up with the idea for the project—Thanksgiving or the co-op? And where have you turned for logistical expertise?
A: This project was truly collaborative, beginning with the definition of the problem, which the farmers articulated quite clearly. Thanksgiving played a facilitating role by converting our conversations into a project proposal, and bringing in outside counsel, an NGO called Trees for the Future, to validate and fine-tune strategy. Trees for the Future has decades of experience in East Africa, and they helped identify the tree species for their suitability to the region and for the ecosystem services they provide. The project strategy itself, including its really innovative methodology, was developed entirely by the cooperative. Once we’d converted these ideas into a paper, Thanksgiving played a critical role in bringing in Progreso, a fantastic NGO based in Amsterdam, who stepped up to fund the project.
Q: Is part of your aim to teach farmers in other regions about the practices you implement and the results you see? How do you plan to do so?
A: Farmers around the world have remarkable farmer-to-farmer networks. Strategies that work find their way into these horizontal networks quite quickly. Our goal was not so much to teach farmers in other regions, but to address the specific needs of the Dukunde Kawa cooperative through a project structured in such a way that it could be easily replicated by other cooperatives because it is relatively low cost and relies on local knowledge and creativity, as well as the established leadership and infrastructure. The strategies we’ve developed can be easily re-created by farmers around the world based on their specific challenges.
Q: Do you think the specialty coffee industry is devoting enough attention to climate change?
A: It’s only been in the past five to 10 years that climate change has become an issue front-and-center for our industry. And it’s only more recently that we’ve looked beyond our carbon footprint to adaptation on the ground. It’s critical that our industry look forward to the front line, where farmers are struggling to survive climate change day in and day out. Their ability to adapt to climate change and remain productive will determine the future availability of great coffee and the sustainability of our industry. That said, this is a both/and situation: If our industry is going to survive, it will be because, one, great coffee is protected through these types of projects, and, two, because we reduce the impact our operations have on climate. Ultimately, we need to invest heavily in adaptation on the ground and also be much more outspoken at a national and international policy level in support of clean energy, efficiency and the next round of international climate negotiations. If our world continues to accelerate down the path of fossil-fuel driven growth, even the most dynamic projects on the ground won’t be able to buffer against a 4 or 6 degree Celsius global increase in temperatures. We need to support farmers at the front line, and we need to fight to stop the root cause that’s driving climate change. Our industry’s survival is at stake.