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What the Coffee Means

By Matt Bright, Earth Sangha’s Tree Bank Coordinator

Earth Sangha Tree Bank / Hispaniola is a partnership with a group of small-holder farmers who live along a section of the Dominican Republic-Haiti border. Our goal is to create a system in which tropical small-holder farming is more compatible with native forest. Such a system, we hope, could one day benefit small-holders in the many parts of the rural tropics. This guest post is an excerpt from First Hand, a series of essays and videos intended to show you what it’s like to do small-scale “green development” in a rural, developing-country context.

Our Rising Forests Coffee is, to our friends in the DC area, the most visible and tangible achievement from our work in the Dominican Republic. Drinking our coffee is not just a delicious way to start your morning (now available in dark roast: order here!); it’s also an important way to support our conservation efforts. Our coffee supports our Tree Bank, provides much-needed income to our farmers, and encourages conservation.

Our coffee program begins by guaranteeing the farmers a much higher price for their beans than they could receive elsewhere. Before our program, farmers only produced coffee for the local market where prices are low and local coffee traders use their leverage over farmers to buy coffee at dirt-cheap prices. By providing our farmers access to an export market, their coffee can fetch prices that would be unheard of if sold locally. This provides a better-than-Fair-Trade model because we ensure above market-rates and there is no middle man to take a cut.

We only buy the farmers’ highest quality, “Gold Selection” beans, but we make sure all the farmers receive some profit from their coffee crop and we work with them to develop the quality of their coffee. To track improvement in coffee production, Gaspar, our Project Director, sends coffee samples from each farm to a lab for analysis. Each farmer gets a percentage of the total payment from the coffee based proportionally on the weight of coffee he or she put into the combined shipment. From there the coffee is graded, sorted, and shipped to us.

All our coffee is grown, without fertilizers or pesticides, under native forest canopy. That’s a distinguishing feature of our approach. Some other shade-grown coffees are simply a pair of artificial monocultures: a canopy monoculture and an understory monoculture of coffee. While this is ecologically superior to sun-grown coffee, we go several steps further. Our farmers integrate their coffee groves into existing native forest with minimal disturbance to native habitat. This practice provides an economic incentive to keep native forest intact instead of cutting it down for other crops.

Many of our coffee beans come from trees that are graduates of our Tree Bank nursery. In some ways, this nursery is similar to our Wild Plant Nursery in Franconia Park, in Fairfax County, Virginia. At the nursery, farmers can obtain tree crops for their farms, or native species for restoration — all free of charge. The Tree Bank Nursery is the cornerstone of our work in this region. Farmers use this communal nursery to propagate rare and valuable species like the native mahogany or staple tree crops like oranges or coffee. Most of our farmers take advantage of both types of production. When I visited various coffee farms, many farmers, such as Modesto Aquino (see picture), were most eager to show me the forests they were restoring with trees from the nursery.

When you buy a bag of our coffee, all profits go towards funding the Tree Bank and associated programs in the Dominican Republic — none of the profit remains in the United States. Our farmers depend on the Tree Bank, not just for trees, but also for our Forest Credit program, which provides low-cost loans in exchange for conservation easements on some of their lands. Largely on the strength of this program, eight more farmers (six of them women) have recently joined our local partner association. “The loans — they help women, they help children, they help everyone,” one of the women in the association told me at a recent meeting.

When people here speak about their coffee exports, it’s obvious that this program means a great deal to them. People are eager not just to show me their coffee groves, but also to tell me what they hope to achieve with their profits — and in some cases, what they have already achieved with Tree Bank support. The increased prosperity in our village, though modest, is evident to me since my first visit in 2006. Several people now live in new houses, with concrete floors instead of dirt ones. Others have enlarged cattle herds, or bought a pig; some are now using gas instead of wood for cooking. These are solid changes for the better — and every bag of coffee takes those improvements a little farther.

Republished with permission from Earth Sangha

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