Environmental History of Coffee in Latin America

I have recently published a new overview of the environmental history of coffee in Latin America, for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia in Latin American History. The Encyclopedia has, for the time being, kindly made the article open access. You can read the full article here

Here’s the abstract:

Coffee has played complex and diverse roles in shaping livelihoods and landscapes in Latin America. This tropical understory tree has been profitably cultivated on large estates, on peasant smallholdings, and at many scales in between. Coffee exports have fueled the economies of many parts of Latin America. At first, coffee farmers cleared and burned tropical forests to make way for their farms and increase production. Early farms benefited from the humus accumulated over centuries. In Brazil, farmers treated these tropical soils as nonrenewable resources and abandoned their farms once the soils were exhausted. In smaller coffee farms along the Cordillera—from Peru up to Mexico—coffee farming was not quite as wasteful of forests and soils. In the mid-20th century, scientific innovation in coffee farming became more widespread, especially in established coffee zones that were struggling with decreasing soil fertility, increasing soil erosion, and new diseases and pests. In the 1970s, national and international organizations promoted large-scale programs to “renovate” coffee production. These programs sought to dramatically increase productivity on coffee farms by eliminating shade, cultivating high-yielding coffee cultivars, and using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Renovation brought tremendous gains in productivity over the short term, but at the cost of added economic and environmental vulnerability over the longer term. Since the end of the International Coffee Agreement in 1989, the global coffee market has become much more volatile. New coffee pioneer fronts are opening up in Brazil, Peru, and Honduras, while elsewhere coffee production is shrinking. NGOs and coffee farmers have promoted new forms of coffee production, especially Fair Trade and certified organic coffee. Still, most coffee farms in Latin America remain “conventional” farms, using a hybrid of modern and traditional tools. Economic and environmental sustainability remain elusive goals for many coffee farmers, and the threat is likely to increase as they grapple with the effects of climate change.

On ugliness and beauty in the coffee industry: thoughts from East Coast Coffee Madness 2017

 

 

This week’s East Coast Coffee Madness in Montreal was energizing. The speakers spoke engagingly about the current state the industry, from plantation to cup. I’m still processing some of the things I heard there, but there is one theme that really stood out — the intertwined issues of beauty and ugliness.

One of the speakers, Adam Pesce from Reunion Island Coffee, discussed beautiful images that we often see in cafés; the lavish photos of farms nestled in beautiful landscapes, or portraits of happy farmers cupping ripe red beans in their hands. The coffeelands of Latin America are indeed beautiful beyond belief. But as Pesce pointed out, this beauty is deceptive. He reminded the audience “we have made coffee look beautiful, but there are also ugly parts.” And these days, this is more true than ever. Farmers — even those who produce specialty coffee — are often struggling to break even, much less earn a good livelihood. And on top of “stubbornly low prices” that plague the industry, farmers are also grappling with climate change, which has disrupted coffee farming in many different ways. Other speakers at the conference described these and other forms of ugliness in all steps of the coffee industry.

On the other hand, if unquestioned beauty is a problem, unremitting ugliness can be toxic. This is something that I’m sure will resonate with almost everyone. At times, the news is almost unremittingly and uniformly grim. I am often dispirited by the volume of stories about catastrophe that come across my Facebook and Twitter feeds. This ugliness is, of course real. But one of the other speakers, Hanna Neuschwander from World Coffee Research, offered a more constructive vision of beauty. Not one that masks the ugliness, but which motivates and mobilizes people to deal with the ugliness and make the world a better place.

Neuschwander reminded us that “beauty holds our attention.” She spoke about the work that World Coffee Research — is doing to develop new varieties of coffee that are resistant to major diseases and pests; breeders are also making efforts to develop varieties that are adaptable to climate change.” Without minimizing the ugliness of the current situation, she told a beautiful story (illustrated also by a lovely video that offered a measure of hope — something more than unremitting despair. And Pesce, too, spoke not just of ugliness, but also of concrete things that people in the coffee industry could do to improve sustainability in the coffee change. We heard beautiful stories from Janice Nadworny on beekeeping as a way to help impoverished farmers diversify their incomes, and from Laila Ghambari on how to address discrimination in the coffee industry.

The challenge we have to grapple with is how to speak about and confront the ugliness in various parts of the coffee industry. Too much ugliness — even if true — produces nothing but despair. Beauty, in the form of compelling stories like the ones presented at the meeting, offer us a measure of hope.

Warning: Your Morning Cup of Coffee is in Danger

Warning – Your Morning Cup of Coffee is in Danger

Here’s a story on coffee rust and climate change from the University of Guelph’s Food Institute, based on an interview with me. My research on the rust epdemic has opened up much larger questions about coffee and environmental change over the past two centuries.