Coffee farmers’ daily work is like a sensor for changes. Every harvest they had experienced what others have doubt: our planet’s temperature has risen.
The inclement weather speaks for itself, recently Costa Rica got hit by it! Producers are concerned about new “roya” (rust) outbreaks in their coffee plantations, this plague literally is pushing them up to higher soils and making them research for more effective solutions in order to protect their coffee plants from a disease that doesn’t give up.
One of the causes of the global warming is the excessive emanation of greenhouse effect gases such as the carbon dioxide (so famous), but also the methane, the nitrous oxide, and the chlorofluorocarbons.
Every time we think about this topic, we imagine those big factories, those millions of cars or the large garbage dumps. But actually agricultural processes have their share. Did you know that coffee industry of Costa Rica produces 9% of gases emissions? I’ll explain how later on.
We are small
Of course, if you compare us with those big industrial countries we aren’t too big. Or if we compare ourselves with the largest world coffee producers, we barely provide 1% of the coffee to the world, according to the International Coffee Organization (ICO). What difference could we make with gas emissions?
But when talking about environmental conservation and reduction of emissions they always say that every little action counts. That is why, Costa Rica, a tiny country, has set the goal to become a Carbon Neutral country by 2021. And for that, our Ministry of Agriculture decided to activate a NAMA program in coffee.
To mitigate in coffee
NAMA (Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Action) is a United Nations initiative, the program consists of giving appropriate tools to the farmers, so they are able to know their carbon footprint (how much emissions), how to reduce this footprint and how to mitigate the effects of this irreversible warming change of our planet.
The Ministry of Agriculture of Costa Rica, as I said, proposed the country and proposed coffee because it’s an essential part of our history; coffee developed our economy and it was our only exportation product for a long time. So, we have a strong structure, we have our Coffee Institute (ICAFE), and a law that regulates all the components of the coffee chain. That’s how, NAMA Coffee was born as the only agriculture NAMA in the world.
Casually, I have met with this NAMA talk frequently during my visits to coffee farms. So I decided to figure out what is this all about.
To learn again
Between the coffee rows there are white tents, chairs and a flipchart. They took their places, men and women, young and old; the facilitator was preparing to give his speech about the family of coffee plant varieties. All of them were coffee producers from the Central Valley, they were receiving a training session from NAMA Coffee, in the middle of the experimental farm of ICAFE.
The lecture was about the different varieties of coffee, its origin, the most cultivated in Costa Rica and the most appropriated for climate change resilience. This was only a little part of what NAMA has to offer. “The program is based on 10 good agriculture practices, all of them focused on the reduction of greenhouse effect gases,” explains Emilia Umaña, coffee production adviser of NAMA Support Project (this is the way German Cooperation Agency (GIZ) contributes with financial and logistic support, in order to execute the first edition of NAMA Coffee Costa Rica).
At the end of the lecture, the coffee farmers walked to another module, where they were taught about soil management. “They learn about pruning, soil analysis, irrigation, introduction to climate change, what´s NAMA, fertilization and nutrition, integrated plague management, shadow and scrub management, plant varieties, soil preserving, farm administration, farm diversification,” lists Emilia. The producers will be trained during 3 days in the morning.
Of course, every producer knows how to grow their coffee, and many of the lecture topics and concepts are well known by them through their everyday work. But NAMA’s focus helps them see “leaks” where it appeared to be none. “Although many of them take special care of their farms, because in Costa Rica, coffee farms have a more developed sense of conservation compare to other sectors, they have to learn what are carbon emissions, what it takes to reduce them, what is nitrous oxide and where all this comes from.”
Emission and reduction sources
Since I worked for conservation organizations I knew about this good practices: to plant coffee with some percent of shadow is better that planting without it. Shadow is like a lung, it helps to reduce carbon dioxide emission, it also prevents soil erosion by creating a weed layer that contributes with soil protection and even nutrition.
But all coffee plantations need extra nutrition, and most of part of producers use fertilizers that contain nitrogen, mainly. The nitrogen on its way down to the roots releases nitrous oxide, a greenhouse effect gas. During NAMA talks, producers evaluate the amount, type and moment they are applying these fertilizers. They learn how to optimize their use in order to reduce emission (and to cut down waste! ).
There are emissions coming from the coffee mills too. Even though Costa Rica is pioneer in efficient wet mill management,- did you know that?- We were used to a kind of wet mill famous for its water pollution with residues from de-pulping the coffee cherries: the flesh and the honeys that cover the bean. But these sub products have been reduced by an environmental law. Today, mills use 92 percent less of water during the process and they must have a water treatment plant and pulp must be turned into compost.
But when we talk about emissions, we could be better. For example, mills use oxidation ponds but they emanate methane. This can be exchanged for irrigation fields for grass. Pulp also produces gases during its compost process, but some mills are working and researching in how to use pulp as a low emissions combustible, useful to bring energy to the mill´s facility.
Emilia told me that producers have received NAMA Coffee with great interest. “They know they can put their part to stop the increase of climate change effects,” she says. To the date NAMA has trained three thousand producers from the different coffee regions of the country. The goal is to reach six thousand producers and to cover 25 thousand hectares of coffee farms.
Reduction to 0 in Turrialba
Do you remember my article about Aquiares Estate in Turrialba? They have been part of NAMA Coffee and a few weeks ago Aquiares Estate was certified as a Carbon Neutral coffee farm. Aquiares Estate not only reduced its emissions but now it also absorbs greenhouse effect gases.
Diego Robelo, Aquiares Estate Deputy General Manager, told me that Aquiares has always have environmental conservancy in its philosophy and the idea of being Carbon Neutral was a goal they were working on for years. So when they found NAMA Coffee, they got in without any doubts.
“NAMA Coffee is a comprehensive order; we made inventory of different issues like our fertilizer kilos, our diesel and electrical consumption… it has helped us a lot,” says. “We also started to discover the value of waste reduction projects at the mill, for example. We started to explore a trend of a market that wants a more differentiated coffee.”
The whole farm involved
A few weeks ago I visited Zalmari Coffee Estate in Cachí, Cartago. It has a particular topography of angled slopes and a lot of rain over the year. The head of Zalmari Estate is Cecilia Genis, a pioneer woman who is also working with the NAMA Coffee program.
“My mom and I always believed in a eco friendly approach, so we found NAMA as a very good path for all coffee farmers in order to make the effort to get to know our carbon footprint, to reduce it and so then collaborate as a sector to support Costa Rica’s goal to become a Carbon Neutral country by 2021”. This way Cecilia explained to me the reason why they got into NAMA Coffee.
For her, entering the NAMA Coffee program has been a deep learning process. “We involved all our staff: the farm and administration. We participated on lectures to know the do’s and don’ts. We included the farm and also the micromill. We found out our carbon footprint and now we hope to also find out our water and toxic substances footprints,” says Cecilia, because this is not just a matter of attending a training program but it also means to put it to practice at the farms and to continue to improve.
“It´s important to know why you are entering the NAMA program, so that you can dedicate the time and effort from the whole team. But it’s worth it”, says Diego. “This will make Costa Rica’s coffee stand out in the international markets.”
Spreading the word
Precisely that is the idea: adding that distinction to Costa Rica’s coffee, a coffee produced with low emissions. NAMA wants to involve more national producers and train them to apply good practices; the results will be only benefits for their farms, their production, their coffee quality and for the rest of the coffee chain.
So, if you are reading this post and you are a producer, I’m inviting you. Participating in NAMA Coffee program is for free; all it requires is motivation and commitment. If you are really interested you can get in contact with your ICAFE regional office and get started!
And if you are a consumer like me, our main contribution is to look for and to value coffee produced with all this care for our planet. The echo of our actions and choices may reach even outside our borders and so that little bit of help (coffee) turns into a big change.