Last week I shared with you some photos from Azotea coffee farm in Guatemala. It wasn’t the only coffee farm I visited with the Rainforest Alliance. Our group of journalists also visited ADESC (Asociación de desarrollo Social Los Chujes), an association of 52 small Rainforest Alliance Certified farms in Huehuetenango.
To get to these coffee farms, our group took a five-hour ride, the last two of them up the bumpy side of a mountain, passing small, impoverished villages. I saw, for the first time in my life, true third-world poverty. When we finally arrived at the association, we met some amazing people who are beating the odds of that poverty with hard work and sustainable practices.
The association has been in existence for five years. Before that, each small farm did its own thing. Since banding together and gaining Rainforest Alliance Certification two years ago (and more recently an additional Climate Verification that the Rainforest Alliance offers), the group's achievements have been impressive.
Arnoldo Cifuentes, one of the farmers, is also the manager of the association. Before we went out to visit some of the farms, he and several others involved with the organization sat down for a Q&A with our group. Cifuentes told us that when the group formed and started working with the Rainforest Alliance, their initial motivation was to produce more coffee to get more money. But, as they became educated, they learned how the practices they put in place for certification benefited them, the environment and future generations.
Some of the changes that Cifuentes spoke of proudly were practical like better waste management, the prohibition of deforestation and hunting, protecting the rivers, treating black water, and planting crops in a specific pattern to stop erosion. He also spoke of the reduction in the amount of chemicals used for fertilization and how the farmers now use safety equipment when applying what chemicals are necessary. (We learned later that some of the farms have experimented with going completely organic, but they have not been successful with it.)
One of the signs that the sustainable practices on the coffee farms are paying off: biodiversity is returning to the farms. The farmers were quick to point out that spiders, caterpillars and a variety of birds that have returned since better farming practices were put in place.
The association is proud of its environmental improvements. The farmers are also proud of the knowledge they have gained. Because they live in an impoverished remote area, the farmers' education was limited. Up until about five years ago, the farmers could see that the environment was changing (particularly in terms of rainfall), but they did not know there was anything they could do compensate for the changes or to help improve the environment.
Through their education by the Rainforest Alliance and other organizations like the Guatemalan National Coffee Association Anacafe, they now understand that with their daily labor they can help a little. They know they aren’t making a big change in the world, but they are doing something. Because they now understand this, they feel more of a commitment to do things right. They know they have options, and by changing their farming practices they can try to help mitigate the damage being done to the environment.
The farmers are especially proud to know that they can make things better for their children who will inherit the coffee farms. Their children benefit in the short term when they are no longer exposed to some of the harmful practices used in the past. They’ll benefit over time as their environment improves.
The farmers are also building a better financial future for their children. Because of the Rainforest Alliance Certification, the association receives about $8 more per sack of coffee than if the group did not have the certification. Five years ago, the group started with 500 sacks produced in one year. Last year, they produced 8,000 sacks of coffee, largely due to the sustainable practices they now employ to increase production.
With our trip to ADESC, I was convinced that the benefits of certification are far-reaching in a country like Guatemala; the environment, the community, the health of the farmers and the farmers' financial stability are all impacted positively. Future generations will inherit farms that are both environmentally sustainable and profitable.
I’m glad I had the opportunity to travel to Guatemala and learn about the good that the Rainforest Alliance is doing there on the coffee farms. There’s more, though. Next week, I’ll tell you about the verification program for hotels and introduce you to some of the places we stayed.