Coffee sustainability initiatives are often designed as linear strategies applied in the context of a static market system. The starting point, more often than not, is the outside perspective of a retailer, roaster, NGO or donor (or a combination of these stakeholders) not located in coffee producing countries. This leads to a situation whereby origins are targeted by multiple thematic intervention strategies, often disconnected from the local context and priorities. Depending on our role and position in the coffee value chain we all have different views on what is required or what sustainability even means. Simply due to cultural differences we all focus on other elements of the sustainability puzzle – which may be the reason why our pieces sometimes do not fit together.
Over the past years, we have made progress in aligning sustainable coffee indicators with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. But here’s the thing; it’s not about productivity, quality, price, agricultural practices, gender, youth or trees, it’s about how they all relate. Simply targeting coffee production as the main variable, has led to scaling partial solutions as proxies for sustainability. We need to be more mindful of the bigger canvas we are operating in, linked to culture, traditions and values. These factors have a direct impact on the coffee landscapes we are sourcing from and play a critical role in the adoption of sustainability practices prescribed by certifiers, buyers, researchers and NGOs.
An interesting example of how these different elements can be taken into account is demonstrated by the work of Rainforest Alliance (RA) in Peru, specifically in the region of San Martín. Based on an integrated approach Rainforest Alliance addresses different issues impacting the livelihoods of (coffee) farming families, indigenous forest communities and the environment in the region. Interventions include facilitating connections with responsible buyers, providing training to advance farming methods that improve yields and the health of the land, building alliances with local governments, increasing access to finance and business training and piloting methods to respond to climate change.
While all relevant topics, possibly the most important component of the strategy relates to how RA connects the interventions with local values and dynamics. The scope of work directly relates and builds on the drive of a new generation of producers in Peru that are very aware of the threats posed by climate change. By combining traditional ecological knowledge with climate-smart agriculture methods they are taking the lead in transforming their communities. This recognition of local priorities and perspectives is essential to contribute to a better future while honoring the precious forests and land of the region. To learn more about the work of Rainforest Alliance in Peru see: https://www.rainforest-alliance.org/articles/the-rainforest-alliances-work-in-peru
Reimagining and promoting coffee landscapes as rural innovation centers can help to align supply chains with the wider environment and unite resources towards a shared long term regional development plan. A heterogeneous landscape with mixed land uses can serve as a buffer to cope with environmental and economical challenge. Deforestation and biodiversity loss in agroecosystems are generally the result of rational choices, not of a lack of awareness or knowledge. An important pre-requisite to manage agriculture, forestry and the environment effectively is a good understanding of who is doing what in a coffee landscape. Organizations that understand how to align their sustainability initiatives with partners create a “Collaborative Advantage”, enhancing the holistic impact of their activities and providing opportunities to leverage investments. Data plays a critical role in this process, but as most interventions are designed vertically, data is mostly trapped in certifications, training and trading transactions. Taking data out of these silos, consolidating this into a shared platform and translating the data into information for local stakeholder decision making processes is a great way to begin the alignment process.
Of course, this is not easy in practice, and we need to continuously explore the multi-stakeholder complexity and decision making processes. A good illustration is the gamification work of CIRAD and ICRAF in the Indian coffee sector, which provides us with interesting examples how to address conflicts in conservation. The district of Kodagu in the Western Ghats (India) is located in a major biodiversity hotspot. Farmers in Kodagu produce one third of Indian coffee in addition to rice and other cash crops such as cardamom. These coffee farms produce mostly Robusta coffee under complex, multi-storeyed agroforestry systems. The resulting landscape is a dynamic mosaic of terraced rice fields, forests and coffee farms. The modelling and use of games illustrates a way for a better representation of human agency in coffee landscape change. The article “Coffee, farmers and trees” presents a participatory modelling study to (1) understand the drivers of landscape transition and (2) explore the livelihood and environmental impacts of tenure changes in the coffee agroforestry systems of Kodagu.
We realize such endeavors, building partnerships at landscape level, based on local priorities and perspectives, are more complex and time-consuming than implementing individual supply chain interventions. However, sustainability is complex and requires long term thinking and action. Alignment is thereby an important first step. It allows for sharing of investments and recognizes the unique characteristics and values of regions in origin as foundation to meet the Sustainable Development Goals.
At Ethos Agriculture it is our ambition to rethink coffee sustainability from the perspective of coffee origins. We therefore facilitate discussion and interaction between initiatives and organizations to generate innovative approaches to old problems. If you feel inspired to think (and drink) different, feel free to reach out and we are happy to align!