Coffee and soil erosion in Jamaica

A Coffee Plantation, Jamaica. ca. 1900-1920

A postcard depicting a coffee plantation in Jamaica. The photograph is undated, but the photographer, E. Wells Elliott, was active mainly between 1900 and 1920, so it is safe to assume that the photograph is from around this period. The photograph is taken from a high vantage point, and shows the mill and the drying patios at the bottom of the hill. But the most striking aspect of the card — and the reason I bought it — is the view across the valley.

It depicts landscape in decline, one badly degraded by soil erosion. The trees were planted in a grid, with (seemingly) no attempt to plant in a way that would conserve the soil and nutrients. Only a patchwork of trees, most near the bottom of the hill, survive. There is a stark contrast between the degraded coffee farm and the lush, rich vegetation immediately to the right. Many farms, apparently, were like this — “most plantations,” wrote Antonio di Fulvio in 1938, “are found on the sides of mountains and high plains, on steep landscapes exposed to erosion.”

Early view of wet processing, 1875

Eadweard Muybridge, Machinery for Pulping Coffee–Las Nubes, 1875, published 1877, albumen silver print, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mitchell and Nancy Steir, 2004.29.4

In 1875, the pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge, better known for his experiments in photographing motion, traveled through Central America. His photographs offer an early photographic record of Gutaemala’s coffee industry, just as it entered its first boom period.

This photograph captures a critical time in the evolution of the global coffee industry — the development of the wet mill. Writing about a decade after this photograph was taken, the American coffee expert Francis Thurber described this as a ‘new method’ of processing coffee, which was sometimes known as the “West India preparation.” According to Thurber, this method was already in wide use (to a greater or lesser degree) in Ceylon, India, Java, Venezuela, and Brazil. Clearly, as Muybridge’s photograph shows, it had also arrived in Guatemala. Of Guatemalan coffee, Thurber wrote that the finer grades “are regarded as equal in flavour, and by some judges, superior to any other coffee grown.” The industrial revolution was quickly making its way to the coffeelands, although setting up this machinery must have required a considerable amount of capital and expertise. Presumably, the people who did this hoped that the improved quality (and therefore higher prices) would make the expense worthwhile. Thurber comments while the wet method “is rapidly growing in favor… there are many coffee-drinkers who maintain that coffee produced by the old [dry] method is superior in flavour,” a conversation that continues to the present day.