This post was contributed by my colleague Robyn Fieser, the Regional Information Officer for CRS in Latin America and the Caribbean.
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Running a 500-acre, organic coffee farm deep in western El Salvador’s mountains has posed plenty of challenges over the years for the 89 members of Las Colinas coffee cooperative. Acquiring the land in 1980 as part of the government’s agrarian reform saddled the group with tremendous debt it still struggles to repay. In 2005, Hurricane Stan and the eruption of Ilamatepec, the country’s highest volcano, conspired to wipe out Las Colinas’ entire harvest. And every year, the rains wash out the dirt road that winds its way through steep hills to the farm, adding more pressure to the annual rush to ready the coffee for export. But all of that wasn’t keeping Pedro Ascencio up at night. What was weighing on Pedro, a cooperative member and the group’s marketing coordinator, was the water.
Las Colinas’ organic farm includes a natural spring that provides water to thousands of neighbors in the nearby town of Tacuba and surrounding communities. In the past, Las Colinas processed the coffee it harvests each season using a traditional depulper, fermentation tanks, and channels to transport the coffee to drying terraces. Processing the coffee left them with an average of about 4,000 cubic meters of wastewater, which was sent to ponds, some of them as deep as 30 meters, to decompose. The awful smell that wafted from the ponds alarmed neighbors. When the pond’s retaining walls occasionally broke, neighbors feared contamination, despite timely repairs the cooperative made.
Health and environment ministries became involved. At their behest, in 2000 Las Colinas hired a consultant who developed a water treatment plan that would cost about $100,000. Despite the cost, Las Colinas committed to implement the plan within 10 years. Even under normal circumstances, coming up with that amount of money would be difficult. Mother Nature made it nearly impossible. Natural disasters, including Hurricane Stan and the 2005 volcanic eruption, decimated the crop for three years. Periodic dips in the price of coffee cut into earnings. Meanwhile, the government continued to fine them for noncompliance. At one point, the cumulative bill was as high as $80,000. Las Colinas could not keep up.
By the time CAFE Livelihoods started working with Las Colinas in 2009, the cooperative was just weeks away from being forcibly shut down.
“Some of us [in leadership positions] felt that fear down to our bones,” said Pedro. “Some people thought [the plan] wasn’t getting done because the people in leadership were just not paying attention and following through. But in reality, it was a question of economics.”
It was the collaboration with CAFE Livelihoods that gave Las Colinas the “boost,” said Pedro, to carry out a plan.
The group designed a wastewater treatment system and bought an eco-pulper, which mechanically removes the mucilage from the coffee cherries and eliminates the need for fermentation tanks. The machines can process 220 pounds of cherries per hour, almost two-thirds more than before, while using only a fraction of the water. Meanwhile, the amount of beans lost during the process has been reduced, saving the cooperative nearly $10,000. The waste is then pumped to new tanks and treated. The solids are separated, dried and then mixed with other materials, including coffee pulp, to make compost. Once the PH is regulated in the water, it is used to irrigate citrus trees that line the steep hills around the farm, shading the coffee and protecting the stream.
Things are far from perfect in Las Colinas. The price of coffee could always dip. Natural disasters won’t stop. And just this past October, torrential rains destroyed crops and again washed out that problematic road. The cooperative’s members still have plenty to keep them up at night. Water isn’t one of them.
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