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304. The water interviews: Blue Harvest

2012 September 17

My first job with CRS back in 2002 was a one-year fellowship.  I was one of 15 fellows who were assigned to different countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.  I didn’t know it at the time, but my assignment to the Philippines was a lucky break: there I worked with Paul Hicks, who has become one of the foremost water experts at CRS.

We collaborated closely that year, but afterward our careers took us different directions.  I am now in Ecuador, after four-year stints in our headquarters in Baltimore and our regional office in Guatemala.  Paul stayed on for a number of years in the Philippines then spent four long years in Afghanistan before moving to El Salvador to run the Global Water Initiative — a 10-year, multi-agency, four-country water project.  When Paul relocated to Central America, I happened to be in Guatemala managing a four-country coffee project called CAFE Livelihoods.  Our projects overlapped and were funded by the same donor, so we had a pretext to begin collaborating again.

Over time, the team Paul was managing began to understand that sustainable coffee farming is central to water resource management in the region.  And the team I was leading began to appreciate just how important the issue of water resource management is to sustainable coffee farming.  Here Paul talks about his engagement with coffee and introduces the idea we developed in Central America to link water resource management and technical support for coffee farmers — Blue Harvest.

  • You are a water specialist with no background in coffee.  Yet you found yourself making a presentation to coffee industry leaders at the 2012 SCAA Expo.  How did that happen?

For the past four years, I have been leading a water development program in Central America that involves building rural water systems and protecting water sources through watershed management. The more we surveyed watersheds – or recharge areas — the more time we spent on coffee farms! So naturally, as we worked with communities and local governments to develop watershed management plans, the more we had to consider coffee management.  Our team eventually concluded that good coffee management is good water resource management.

At the same time, other colleagues were working on a parallel coffee program in Central America and seeing contamination of streams and rivers from coffee processing. So, the more we got together and analyzed the state of water resources, the more we realized how closely related water quality and flows are related to coffee production and processing. About two years ago, our water teams and coffee teams began collaborating directly.

  • What are the most urgent water-related issues you are seeing in your work in the coffeelands?

The recent coffee boom in Central America has presented both opportunities and threats as far as water resources are concerned. We have seen farmers convert cropland or even pastures into coffee agroforestry systems. From a water resource management perspective, this reforestation is great: a well-managed coffee agroforestry system is great for improving water infiltration and reducing erosion, almost always better than pasture or crops. But there is also pressure to convert forest to coffee, at high elevation areas. Many of these highland areas are either declared “protected areas” or critical to the health of the watershed – so the pressure to thin forests to make room for coffee is an unhealthy step.

Another urgent issue is the contamination of streams and rivers by coffee processing during the harvest season. The volumes of water that are used for the traditional wet-milling process are staggering. Usually water is cycled back into streams after the milling process, loading the river with pulp and “honey water”, as it’s called in Spanish, which is highly acidic. This directly affects water quality for downstream water users for months during the year. Also the biological and chemical processes that occur naturally to breakdown the pulp in water demand a lot of oxygen – as this oxygen gets locked up in this process, too little is available for aquatic life, so parts of streams and rivers downstream of mills are virtually “dead” during the milling season.

  • What are communities doing right now to address these issues effectively?

Unfortunately, not enough. Environmental degradation is a major problem in Central America, and in most other coffee-growing countries. More than 90 percent of surface water is contaminated in Central America. Governments tend to lack the resources — and often the will — to contain encroachment of agriculture into forests, including coffee expansion.  And the vast majority of coffee mills still use traditional water-intensive methods.

But there have been some shifts to more ecological practices in recent years. The premiums paid for certified specialty coffee has been a major driver for improving practices – at least for the small percentage of farms that are part of the specialty coffee sector. The technologies and practices pioneered on these farms have carried over to other farms and have been taken up by national coffee agencies in the region.  But there is still plenty of room for improvement.

  • What will it take to expand the adoption of these new practices and technologies?

Collaboration.  Our experience is that new approaches are most likely to be scalable and sustainable when a full range of stakeholders are involved: farmers, cooperatives, NGOs, local governments, national agencies, and the coffee industry (buyers).

  • Where is collaboration deficient right now?  Where specifically might external actors contribute to sustainable solutions to these issues?

There are many important gaps, but I will highlight just two: (1) Coffee growers struggle with the costs to upgrade their farms and mills; and (2) the role of coffee roads and trails in degrading watersheds.

  • Economic constraints.
    There are obviously cash and labor costs involved in changing production practices and upgrading the infrastructure in coffee mills. The problem with promoting best practices through standards or laws is that the burden of costs are often borne solely by coffee growers. So, we need to explore and promote ways for the public sector and the private sector (buyers) to co-invest with coffee growers to upgrade practices and infrastructure.
  • Roads.
    In almost all cases, the biggest threat to watersheds (and streams) is poorly built roads and trails. Secondary and tertiary roads and trails built for coffee farms are often poorly designed and constructed. They often get washed out in the wet season, and then repaired in the dry season, just before harvest. Road and trail failure cause a lot of erosion, landslides, and gullying. There is a role here for governments to support communities to design and build better roads – and to enforce the policies related to rural road construction. Road construction and maintenance could potentially be funded through coffee export taxes/fees levied by governments. For specialty coffee, coffee buyers need to also consider erosion and watershed degradation in the certification of farms.
  • During the SCAA event, you presented an idea you called “Blue Harvest.”  Can you explain “Blue Harvest” a little more?

The idea of a “blue” harvest plays off the idea of “green” technologies. In this case, “blue” refers to practices and technologies that lead to better water resource management.  Since coffee is king in so many of the watersheds in Central America, and since there is already a big market for coffee that is environmentally sustainable, the “Blue Harvest” concept would begin to explicitly promote improved water resource management in the coffee process.  On the production side, Blue Harvest goals include better water infiltration, reduced storm run-off, reduced soil erosion — goals met by improved agroforestry practices. On the processing side, Blue Harvest technologies would focus on improving downstream water quality by reducing the overall volume of water used in the wet-milling process and treating coffee wastewater.  We have discussed internally the idea of promoting a “Blue Harvest” certification that would complement Rainforest, Bird Friendly, and other leading certifications, or strengthening existing standards and monitoring for “blue harvest” goals.

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