DDeep in the Peruvian cloud forests, a six-hour drive from the city of Satipo, the remote community of Mayni is busy growing organic coffee under the native forest canopy to preserve the rich mosaic of life there.
Most of the forest remains intact, with only a little brush cleared for planting Coffea arabica trees. Dahlia Casancho, who leads the Mayni in their organic coffee growing efforts, sees shade coffee growing as a positive development for the community, which traditionally believes in a forest god and a river god. “Nature is our home. Nature gives us water, feeds us and also allows us to grow our coffee, ”he says. “That is why we take great care of our forest and we want it to be sustainable so that our children can also enjoy it.
“As a community, this is our only hope,” says Casancho. “That is why we teach our children that they must take care of the forest and we also ask other communities to follow the natural path.”
Peru is the second producer of organic coffee by area and the Europe’s largest organic coffee supplier. Shade-grown coffee around the world is providing a viable alternative to the sun-tolerant coffee plants that have been developed since the 1970s, which require land clearing for vast plantations that deplete the soil over time.
Casancho and his tribe hand-pick the coffee cherry fruits and carry them in large hand-woven baskets to the mountaintop washing station, where most of the beans are pulped, soaked, and then dried beforehand. to be packaged to transport them to Satipo for final processing.
Separately, Casancho uses a slower and more laborious “honey” process on a fraction of the harvest to make a micro batch. Named after the stickiness of the sweet, sugary pulp left on the coffee beans, this method involves removing the pulp and placing the sticky beans on the beds and turning them every few hours while they naturally dry in the sun.
Thanks to Mayni’s agroforestry methods, the transition from the “montane” ecosystem, or cloud forest, to the coffee plantation is difficult to distinguish, even for Oliver Whaley, a rainforest biodiversity scientist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew .
“When shade-grown coffee is well managed, it is the most amazing crop for biodiversity and you will hardly know that you have entered a coffee growing area,” he says. “There won’t be much change in birdsong because the canopy remains full of life, with everything from huge morpho butterflies and moths to monkeys, toucans and anacondas.”
This continuity of the canopy is crucial for birds and monkeys that will not travel through the spaces due to the risk of predation. “Coffee offers this possibility of nice, smooth movement,” adds Whaley, who explains that this fragile ecosystem is built on some very intricate relationships. “There may be only one type of bee that pollinates a specific orchid that provides the vital nectar food for a particular hummingbird. If you lose that bee, all those relationships collapse. “
Peru’s coffee growing regions have some of the most biodiverse forests in the world, with around 300 species of trees in just one hectare, according to Whaley. “If you took 20 insects out of the canopy, half could be new species,” he says. “It has not been recorded that much yet.”
Fundamentally, coffee agroforestry systems also store carbon in fertile soil and support the cultivation of nitrogen-fixing trees as pacay, better known as the frozen bean tree, and the threatened Spanish cedar.
In addition to the environmental benefits, shade coffee production has economic and social value, says César Meza Cáceres, Community liaison for Serfor, the National Forest and Wildlife Service of Peru.
“Because the coffee is of such good quality, it can be sold for a higher price to customers like Easy José [the company working with the Mayni to produce coffee] and that allows the community to improve living conditions and offer opportunities for future generations ”, he says.
Although Serfor directly encourages this type of coffee production, the budget allocated by the central government in Lima is small, according to Cáceres. Easy José and its UK-based import partner, Freeman Trading, pay producers a premium to ensure that they are adequately reimbursed for their efforts and the additional time it takes to produce the coffee in this way.
“We want to make this method of growing coffee the norm,” says Greg Campher, coffee manager at Easy José, based in the UK, who is happy that five other communities have followed in the footsteps of the Mayni, including the White River tribe. and Mazaronkiari.
“Coffee trees take longer to mature and yields are 30% lower, but we believe that consumers would pay more for ethical and sustainable coffee from this source,” says Campher, who has asked the Peruvian government to make it illegal for the forests native people. to be cut to make coffee.
Organic shade coffee crops are very sensitive to changing weather and as temperatures rise, the “coffee belt” in which arabica coffee can be grown is moving further up the slopes towards cooler elevations at 1,700- 2200 meters. Just five years ago, it could be grown at 1,000 meters above sea level. The climate crisis is also putting pressure on Peru’s organic coffee production by increasing the spread of pathogens such as the destructive coffee borer beetle and coffee leaf rust.
In 2019, Peru lost 162,000 hectares (400,300 acres) of primary forest out of a total of 74m hectares, according to the World Resources Institute, so the estimated average annual deforestation is quite low, around 0.2%. But relatively little remains of Peru’s fragile montane forest, and because this important coffee region feeds the Amazon basin, any further destruction could affect the regulation of the planet’s carbon and water systems.
Coca production for cocaine is one of the main causes of deforestation, as is gold mining and illegal logging. Once surrounded by these other industries, indigenous communities find it difficult to migrate across the landscape in response to changing climates and seasons. “That is where the adaptability of these indigenous groups is limited. Communities are trapped, so what Easy José is doing is fantastic because it gives Mayni a choice, ”says Whaley.
The success of this sustainable coffee production ultimately depends on an increased demand for products grown in this way. Mayni coffee sells for £ 9.50 for 250g, but it seems like people are willing to pay more.
Debbie Wood, owner of the Summer Café in Wiltshire, has worked with Easy José since 2014. “Coffee sales have expanded tremendously over the years, our customers love where this coffee comes from,” she says. “It is a win-win situation, having excellent tasting coffee and at the same time supporting indigenous communities and protecting the environment.”
From June to December last year, Easy José’s monthly online sales increased by 1,472%, perhaps due to changes in shopping habits during the lockdown. But Campher also believes that public awareness of Amazon deforestation is increasing: “Our consumers are becoming more environmentally conscious and, by supporting these indigenous communities, they are making a positive impact.”
With approximately 2 billion cups of coffee drunk every day, there is enormous potential for a radical change in shopping habits. “It’s about consumers circumventing corruption and making changes quite significantly in this case,” says Whaley. “Consumer power can change and protect the ecosystem.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism